Ten Traits of Spiritual Fathers
Tony Cooke

A few years ago when I was preparing to teach at an overseas ministers’ conference, the host missionary asked if I could teach not only on “How to be a Timothy,” but also along the lines of “How to be a Paul.” He explained that there was a significant rift in his country between spiritual fathers and spiritual sons. He said that some “sons” were getting trained by the pastors, and then undermining them and splitting their churches. In addition, some pastors were fearful of such uprisings, and were then running off any “sons” who seemed to have ministerial potential before such problems could arise. There were problems on both ends.

I’ve also heard of situations where so-called spiritual fathers have offered their services (for a price), but it seems questionable as to whether their efforts are really directed toward the development and progress of the sons, or if they are merely creating a self-promoting hierarchy and cultivating the sons’ loyalties to themselves. I can’t imagine Paul endorsing a “rent-a-dad” approach to ministry!

Still, legitimate and healthy father-son relationships are important. Dr. Howard Hendricks said, “Every disciple needs three types of relationships in his life. He needs a ‘Paul’ who can mentor him and challenge him. He needs a ‘Barnabas’ who can come along side and encourage him. And he needs a ‘Timothy,’ someone that he can pour his life into.”

Paul was a spiritual father not only to Timothy and Titus, but also to churches as well. Paul sometimes referred to himself in a fathering-type of role, and he articulated certain characteristics he exhibited toward those to whom he ministered. What do we see in these passages about the heart of a spiritual father?

  1. He did not flatter them (1 Thess. 2:5). He wasn’t buttering them up just so they’d like him or so that he could get something out of them.
  2. He was not covetous toward them (1 Thess. 2:5). He didn’t see having a relationship with them as a means of getting their goods.
  3. He did not seek glory of men—he wasn’t seeking to be exalted (1 Thess. 2:6). This wasn’t about Paul gathering sons around him to feed his own ego.
  4. He was not demanding of them. He wasn’t controlling, manipulative, or dictatorial (1Thess. 2:6).
  5. He exhibited a heart-felt, compassionate concern for their well-being.
    1. He was gentle toward them (1 Thess. 2:7).
    2. He cherished them (1 Thess. 2:7).
    3. He longed for them affectionately (1 Thess. 2:8)
    4. He not only gave them the gospel, but he gave his own life to them (1 Thess. 2:8).
    5. They were dear to him (1 Thess. 2:8).
    6. He exhorted, comforted, and charged every one of them, as a father does his children (1 Thess. 2:11).
  6. His energies and efforts went toward their spiritual development (Gal. 4:19).
  7. He was not interested in shaming them, but did feel obligated to warn them. He wasn’t putting them on a guilt trip or making them feel intimidated (1 Cor. 4:14).
  8. He was different than a mere teacher—he wasn’t just passing information on to them, but he had “begotten them” through the Gospel and was setting an example they could follow in their spiritual development (1 Cor 4:15-16).
  9. He wasn’t seeking what was theirs (their money), but he was seeking them (2 Cor. 12:14).
  10. He was willing to spend and be spent for them—in other words, he was willing to live and give sacrificially for them—for their advancement and their development (2 Cor. 12:15).

If you are a mature leader, I pray that these are the traits you will exhibit toward those you have the privilege of influencing. If you are in search of a father-figure, a mentor, or a role model in ministry, I trust you will keep these traits in mind as you look for someone who can be a good influence and example for you.

In closing, let me share one minister’s quest to glean from some mentors…

Many years ago, a friend of mine (Pastor Gerald Brooks) realized that he needed more development in his life and ministry, and he sought to get some mentoring from a more seasoned minister. His attempt was not warmly received, so he set out to get some fathering/mentoring in the best way he knew how. He identified three Christian leaders he admired, and noted the distinct strengths each of them had.

Even though he didn’t know any of these men personally, he got as many of their books and teaching tapes as he could. For years, he studied these men’s writings and teachings to glean as much as possible. From one, he focused on learning spiritual and biblical truth; from the second, he zeroed in on learning pastoring skills; and from the third he sought to learn effective leadership principles.

Eventually, he was able to meet and form relationships with these three men, but not until he had been studying them from a distance for years. Each of these played an important mentoring role for him and helped him develop in various areas of his life.

May God help us all to follow good examples and to be good examples.