Leading by example

Have you ever wished you had a mentor? Someone to show you the ropes, to guide you? Someone to whom you could turn for information and advice, who made it safe to still be learning, whose wisdom you trusted?

Too often, we are thrust into roles where we are expected to be competent right off the bat. We may have been trained or educated in some fashion. We may hold certificates or degrees. But that’s not the same thing as having been mentored, benefiting from the gift of ongoing, patient guidance by someone more experienced. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t things we can learn through lectures and readings. But for some lessons, we need a trustworthy relationship in which we can watch and ask questions of someone who has mastered what we’re trying to learn.

This, I think, is the proper context for what Paul says next in Philippians. Without it, his words may sound self-serving or even vain:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. (Phil 3:17, NRSVUE)

Many of us, for example, may be reasonably confident in what we know. We wouldn’t hesitate to say that we know the truth. But would we be as quick to say that we live the truth? Personally, I know my faults and weaknesses too well. I’m also sure that I have blind spots, even if I don’t know what they are.

So…”imitate me”? I would never say such a thing in public.

But wait. I think of the 4th graders I once coached in a city basketball league. Among other things, I tried to teach them how to shoot free throws. Look at my feet. See how I line up my forearm and elbow, how I hold the ball. Watch the squat, the release, the follow through. See all the steps? Now you do it. One by one, they would try it themselves, and I would make corrections as they did.

I think too of the couples and families to whom I taught relationship skills. Sometimes, I would do role plays with them and coach them through a successful communication. Remember what I taught you. Now you try it. If things went sideways, I’d stop them, remind them of what they already knew, redirect them accordingly, and make them try again. Occasionally, there would be someone who just couldn’t get the hang of it, after years of bad habits and a complete lack of people who modeled good communication. Even in such cases, I would demonstrate specifically what to do and say, and have them replicate it as best they could. Anything to make a small step in the right direction. This is more than just feeding people ideas with our words; this is mentoring, showing, leading by example.

Some parents try to tell their children, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” Nice try, but that’s not how it works, at least for the important life lessons. Kids learn to imitate what they see long before they’re old enough to understand concepts. And if parents force their kids against their will to abide by certain rules of behavior, there’s a good chance they’ll ditch those behaviors as soon as they’re out from under their parents’ control. If parents want to shape their children’s character in positive ways, there’s no substitute for leading by example.

Thus, when Paul tells the Philippians to imitate him, it’s not because of his arrogance or outsized ego. He has given his all to patterning his life after Jesus and to living that way consistently in his relationship to the Philippians — and they know it. I doubt that following his example is a new idea to them. Indeed, I imagine that as they navigated the challenges of being faithful to Jesus, they sometimes asked themselves, “What would Paul do?”

Then why is he reminding them to follow his example? Because he’s not the only influence in their lives. Philippi was located along a well-traveled Roman thoroughfare; people of every background passed through the city. Some were good examples of a Christlike, cross-shaped life. That’s probably who Paul means when he says “observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” And, of course, there were bad examples, people whose lives may have been attractive in some way but who weren’t models for the Christian life. As we’ll see, Paul will warn them about such people in the next two verses.

What Paul does is to invite them to an intentional and communal practice. He calls them his brothers and sisters, reminding them of the familial relationship they share. And what he tells them, literally, is “become co-imitators of me.” This is something they do together, over time, and in relationship with Paul.

They still have a lot to learn, and they may get it wrong from time to time. But if they watch and imitate the right people, those who model a Christ-saturated life, they will grow.

That’s what a good mentor is for.