How did an awkward loner raise up a generation of passionate ministers who changed a nation?
"Proud, imperious, fiery-tempered; a solitary individual, eager for friendship, whom others avoided because of his conceits, eccentricities, and barbed words." This is how Charles Simeon's biographer describes the great minister and mentor. Yet during his lifetime (1759-1836), he did more than any other to awaken churches in England. Over some 54 years, 1,100 young ministers sat with him on Sunday evenings, absorbing his passion for Christ, taking it to cold pulpits, and igniting parishes across the country.
When we turn to the "secrets" of Simeon's effectiveness as a mentor, we collide with a vexing fact: his personality. How could such a man mentor others well? Let me suggest five characteristics that made him—and could make you—a great mentor.
1. His love for his students was genuine and sacrificial. Simeon called his meetings with the students he mentored "a foretaste of heaven." One student, Thomas Thomason, wrote to a friend, "Mr. Simeon watches over us as a shepherd over his sheep. He takes delight in instructing us, and has us continually at his rooms. His Christian love and zeal prompt him to notice us."
2. He exemplified a high—and realistic—view of the calling. Simeon believed that of all vocations, the ministry is most difficult, "because it requires such self-denying habits and spiritual affections. The responsibility that attaches to it is such that no man would dare to take it upon himself, if he had not a promise of peculiar assistance in the discharge of it."
He counseled divinity students that they must have an internal call, which would come not as a revelation, but "partly from a sense of obligation to him for his redeeming love, partly from a compassion for the ignorant and perishing multitudes around us, and partly from a desire to be an honored instrument in the Redeemer's hands." He knew that only such a call could carry students being mentored.
3. He offered practical help at great personal cost. Simeon did not limit his care to the weekly discussions. "As soon as he was convinced that a young [person] had true potential and was fully committed to Christ," said Hopkins, "there was nothing he would not do for him. He longed to provide in his own person what he himself had so grievously missed when he was in their position—a wise, experienced, and kindly person to turn to for advice and encouragement. So he made himself as accessible as he possibly could."
One of the most important helps Simeon gave protégés came after they left Cambridge. In that day, clerical positions were bought and sold, often given to unqualified and irreligious sons descended from medieval landlords. Many "Sims" got their divinity degrees but found themselves unable to secure a pulpit.
Simeon, wealthy from both family money and the sales of his sermon outlines, addressed their dilemma directly: he bought them coveted "clerical positions in the burgeoning urban areas. Soon many of his fervent pupils found themselves preaching in influential city parishes long accustomed to slumber under the ministry of untalented leaders."
4. He encouraged balance in ministry. Out of concern for their intellectual, spiritual, and physical health, Simeon imposed on his "Sims" a regimen of hard work, careful study, obedience to the university rules, and above all, exercise. Yet he counseled moderation even in these disciplines. He urged them, "Don't let Satan make you overwork—and thus put you out of action for a long period."
To an aged bishop he wrote this congratulation: "It requires more deeply-rooted zeal for God to keep within our strength for his sake, than to exceed it. Look at all the young ministers: they run themselves out of breath in a year or two and in many instances never recover it. Is this wise?"
5. He grew in his willingness to be corrected. Perhaps the most important aspect of Simeon's character as mentor—certainly one most noted by his gownsmen—was his willingness to acknowledge his own faults and accept correction. This humility did not come naturally, but he developed it as he matured.
Thomas Lloyd, though five years younger than Simeon, proved himself a good friend by pointing out honestly some of the pastor's failings. In response to one such observation, Simeon wrote a letter thanking him "most sincerely for your kind observations respecting misguided zeal" and expressing the hope that he might improve.
His biographer offers a thoughtful conclusion, "As he grew older, although eccentricity and punctiliousness remained, humility and love triumphed over pride and harshness, so that during the latter part of his life there can have been few men who had more friends."
—Chris Armstrong is associate professor of history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN; adapted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, © 2003 Christianity Today. For more articles like this, visit www.Leadershipjournal.net
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