Don’t let the title fool you. There are as many perfect discipleship relationships as there are perfect people. Admitting that there is no way to engineer perfection in anything involving people is an important milestone for any minister or disciple maker. Like my father used to tell me “where there are people, there are problems.”
But there are a few things that can make discipleship relationships better. Some of those things come from the leadership side and some come from the person being discipled. All of them require an open conversation about expectations. Let’s look at just a few.
My wife (one of the best disciplers I know) told me this was far and away the most important. She’s right. You have to be consistent in frequency (how often you meet up), duration (how long you meet for), and focus (the direction of your meet-up).
Frequency: Many a discipleship relationship involving people who genuinely want to meet together to grow has been sunk by the unending search for an available time to meet. If you have an every other week rhythm and you miss a meet-up, you’ll go a month between meeting. Life happens fast and discipleship relationships need to be consistent to keep up. If possible, have a set time and day. If you have to miss, don’t just wait till your next meet-up, but reschedule. Meeting consistently is critical early on.
Duration: You may start getting last minute cancellations if your time together goes for a few hours. Exams, fatigue, or errands can’t always be pushed aside for marathon sessions. Meeting too short can have the same affect as too long. If the commute or the time it takes to arrange for childcare lasts longer than your meet-up, it can start to feel “not worth it.” Consistently meeting for an amount of time like 90 minutes gives everyone involved a chance to budget enough time to meet.
Focus: Everybody likes surprises but the weekly direction of your discipleship relationship probably shouldn’t be one. If you’re constantly moving from Scripture to videos to activities with no clear direction, things may not go the way you hoped. Discipleship is “a long obedience in the same direction” to quote Eugene Peterson (quoting Nietzsche). Your time together should build towards a specific goal. Discipleship pathways are your best tool to accomplish this.
DEFINING THE RELATIONSHIP
So is a discipleship relationship mainly Bible study, accountability, or counseling? Yes.
Discipleship relationships involve all three of those things and more. Our problem is when we try to limit discipleship to just one of these things. If you primarily are thinking “Bible study” and the person you are working with is thinking “counseling session” you’ll both feel like the time could have been better used.
Have a conversation before you start meeting and maybe at the beginning of the first few sessions about what it’s going to be like. Use a guide that will help you use your time wisely and communicate expectations.
Make sure you also communicate what faithfulness looks like in your relationship. As a leader or participant, do what you say you were going to do in your last time together. If you committed to read, journal or memorize scripture, do it. As a discipler, don’t be afraid to say “I want you to do what you committed to do” when your disciple doesn’t. It’s not a power trip! It’s gentle accountability and teaching faithfulness.
A FUNCTIONAL ENVIRONMENT
Not everywhere that’s fun to hangout is functional for discipleship. If you know you’ll be discussing sensitive issues, a crowded coffee shop with shared tables may not work. If you know that you’ll be using worksheets, taking a walk together may make it tough. Adding a meal to your time together can shorten your time significantly if you’re not careful. The wrong location can hijack your meet-up despite your best intentions. Plan carefully. Find a regular place if possible just to add consistency.
A RELATIONSHIP OUTSIDE OF MEET-UPS
If the only time you see each other is every other week during your meet-up, you’re probably doing it wrong. You’ll need to spend some time together in ways that don’t just center around growing. It’s amazing how meaningful those times can be and how they can make the time you do meet together deeper. Go have a meal together on your off week or join them in a hobby they enjoy. Discipleship without a friendship is insincere.
Remember that even if you did all of these things, your discipleship relationship still won’t be perfect. It’s the price of being human. Don’t forget that even Jesus used to express frustration over the discipleship relationships he was involved in. Those relationships weren’t perfect even though he was. Take the pressure off yourself to hit a home run with every get together and just be faithful.
Discipleship Relationships don’t have to be perfect to be good, meaningful or life changing. But they’ll never be good, meaningful, or life changing if you let your need for perfection stop you from being in one.