Episode 51: “Developing a Discipleship Pathway” featuring Kay Kotan

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 51: “Developing a Discipleship Pathway” featuring Kay Kotan

Do you have a discipleship pathway at your congregation? In this episode we discuss discipleship and developing disciples with Kay Kotan, founder of You Unlimited and a credentialed coach, church consultant, speaker, and author.

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Do you have a discipleship pathway at your congregation? In this episode we discuss discipleship and developing disciples with Kay Kotan.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Kay Kotan, the Director for the Center for Multiplying Disciples in the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our focus for this podcast is discipleship and multiplication. Kay is the author of many books, her latest is co-authored with Phil Schroeder and titled Launching Leaders. Kay, thank you for joining us today on the podcast and I’m looking forward to talking with you about discipleship.

Kay Kotan: It’s my pleasure.

Doug Powe: I want to begin our conversation, because there are many definitions of discipleship, so I would like to hear how would you define discipleship?

Kay Kotan: Yeah. You know, Doug, I think sometimes we make this maybe a little more complicated than it really needs to be. So, in its simplest form, I would define it as continuously and intentionally growing more Christ-like and introducing others to Christ.

Doug Powe: I like that. It is very simple! Before moving on, I just want to hear, can you speak a little bit more? Because you say continuously growing more Christ-like. So, do you feel for people that continuously growing more Christ-like requires a certain commitment in terms of formation? Because I think that’s the piece that is challenging for many individuals.

Kay Kotan: Oh, absolutely. You know, it is working the spiritual disciplines. It’s being in the Word. It’s being in prayer. It’s being in an accountability group. And Christ was the illustrator of all of those things. It’s what he did with his disciples. And if we were in relationship with Christ as he was with his disciples, I think we would be being discipled as well. We have just made it so darn complicated for whatever reason. And in that complication, we’ve gotten to the point that we’re not discipling at all, in many cases.

Doug Powe: Yeah, and I think that’s true and very unfortunate. And we’ll talk a little bit more about this in a few minutes. But it seems to me that we’re more focused on creating members, but not really disciples. And that’s a major challenge today for congregations. But I want to ask, why do you think it’s so challenging for congregations to develop a discipleship process?

Kay Kotan: That’s a great question. And I just find it so fascinating that we, as churches, that’s our business. We’re in the disciple-making business. But a great majority of the churches, or at least in my experience that I have worked with across our great nation, have no intentional process or system to do disciple making. And I think we relied on our church-centric world, and our curriculum-driven learning, for decades now. And we’re now in a place where we have generations of people who have been sitting in the pews with this kind of discipling, or lack thereof, for 20, 30, maybe even 50 years, who are not disciples. They’ve been attenders, but they haven’t moved in their discipleship. They haven’t been discipled by others. But they wouldn’t even realize this. And probably those around them may not even realize that they’re not disciples. So, when we moved away from the class meetings and bands that held us accountable for growing more Christ-like, for continuing on our journey, true discipling then began to suffer. And I just think we’ve gotten further and further away from the simplest form of, you know, “tell me, how goes it with your soul? And where are you following Christ and where are you falling off it? And how can I help you get back on?”

Doug Powe: Yeah. You’ve said a lot of things. I’m going to pick up on a few of the threads because I think that you’re right. And I want to begin in talking about individuals who have been attending for a long time but may not realize that they have never really been discipled. How do you help those individuals to understand that there really is something more that we should be doing as Christians and not simply showing up on Sunday to worship and maybe attending a Bible study or Sunday school? Because I think, like you say, we’ve gotten into a pattern where many people, that’s sort of what they’ve done all of their life. And they believe that’s what it means to be a part of a church. And we’re coming along saying to them “No. No. No. No. There’s more than that.” So how do we help them to understand there should be more to it?

Kay Kotan: Right. So, this is a common question or issue, Doug, that we have found in doing consulting with churches across the country. So, in my experience, it’s sometimes kind of difficult to get those folks on a discipleship pathway if they’ve been in church for a long time. In past decades, we led them to believe that they were disciples. We asked them to attend worship, throw a buck in the plate and take care of the building. And they faithfully have done so. So, when we “change the rules” now they feel that they have been mislead since they were faithful to what we had been asking them to do all along. We have led them to believe that that’s what discipleship was all about. Now we didn’t use those words, but we actually said, “If you do these things, then you’re a good Christian.” Pat you on the head and we’re pleased. So, once a church creates a discipleship pathway, we invite those people, encourage those people to come along that have been with us for quite some time. But certainly, requiring those folks to come along, in my experience, has not been helpful. Those that are hungry for it and those that are new to the faith, certainly are more eager to jump onto those discipleship pathways. Now, when you get some excitement growing in a church, then sometimes those that were reluctant earlier on, then choose to jump on later. But to begin with, at least in my experience, it’s sometimes difficult in the beginning to get those folks to come along. So, all we have found is encourage, invite, don’t push, but have them come alongside as much as possible.

Doug Powe: And you’ve mentioned a few times a discipleship pathway. And I like that wording. For every congregation, of course, it’s going to be different, but can you describe what you think would be some key characteristics, or elements that congregations should consider when developing a pathway?

Kay Kotan: Yeah. So, the definition overall when I’ve worked with congregations, how I would describe it to them is “how do you help a seeker, a new believer, move along in their spiritual journey, to become more Christ-like so that in their development, in their maturity, they become a disciple maker. So, what experiences, what knowledge, what differences in the way that they would go about life and experience life which you want them to have along the way, so that they become a disciple maker? And, Doug, too often we have been around what curriculum do we need to have people encounter? Versus, what are the learnings? What are the experiences? What are the lifestyle changes? And then we bring in contemporary learnings, curriculum, offerings, to help them. And so, we’ve kind of had it backwards for so long. So, the pathway is timeless. And the curriculum, the activities, then can changed as needed. I hope that makes sense.

Doug Powe: It does. And just to follow up, so one of the challenges and you’ve talked about this previously, is many of us were brought up in this world where education was primary. Intellect was primary. So you analyzed everything by studying it or finding some curriculum to help you to understand it. But what I hear you saying, for discipleship, we sort of need to reverse that and we need people to almost mentor other individuals initially. And then as they get on that pathway, then there may be learnings or curriculum that might be relevant. But starting with the curriculum isn’t going to be helpful in the long run. Is that sort of correct?

Kay Kotan: Well, at least that’s the way that I look at it. And I also think that we have spent so much time in our intellectual learning, that we kind of got stuck there so that we didn’t have experiential learning. And sometimes I believe that it’s the experiential learning that is the greater growth opportunity sometimes when you’re out encountering the world, in missions, you’re out encountering the world in serving, you’re out encountering the world in evangelizing. You know, the Holy Spirit shows up in some pretty profound ways. Not that the Holy Spirit can’t show up in Bible study. But I just find that when you’re doing life as a disciple out in the world, experiencing life, doing life with other people, and growing more Christ-like, it’s more profound. It’s real. It’s doing life with one another. And so, someone even said to me, the other day, I hesitate to say it because it sounds so strong, but there’s so much truth in it to say, “are we really a disciple?” I’m putting it into a question instead of a statement maybe that makes us feel better. “Are we a disciple until we’ve made a disciple?

Doug Powe: I like it. That’s a very interesting question.

Kay Kotan: And so, when you talk about the mentoring piece of that, Doug, it certainly goes alongside that to say, “how are we not only growing in our own Christ-likeness, but how do we have someone on our elbow, who’s either a step or two ahead of us, or a step or two behind us, that we’re taking this journey with them?” Because, I don’t know about you, but my pathway has not always been forward moving. It’s been ups and downs and sideways, and that kind of thing.

Doug Powe: That’s correct. That’s right.

Kay Kotan: And when you’re doing it with someone, that encouragement to keep going and picking each other up, is also a part of it. So, you know I said we’re in the disciple-making business. And I would also say we’re in the relationship business. We’re in relationship with one another so that we grow in our relationship with Christ. And so, can we really do discipleship in a silo? And I think that’s pretty difficult.

Doug Powe: And I think you’re right. And I think the relationships are key. And, I really like, again, this language of a pathway. So, for a congregation, sort of sticking with this theme of congregations that have people who have been around for a while, how do we find those people who can be mentors? Because, you know, the challenge of course, I’m assuming why more of our churches aren’t doing this is that, we have to find people who are actually willing to take this journey with other individuals and we have to develop those people who can be mentors to other individuals. So how do we go about finding these mentors who can take the journey with other people?

Kay Kotan: Right. So, I think it starts with finding some of our most mature disciples and even, who was our spiritual leader? Maybe it’s a pastor, an associate pastor, a deacon. Maybe it’s a strong lay leader. And we say, “okay, choose six to ten people, and how can you walk alongside them for six months to a year and pour into them, as disciples, so that they become disciple makers, mentors as well?” Again, it was so modeled by Jesus to say “how do you then bring your group together, pour into them, send them out?” And then they do that again. And then they’re sent out and they do that again.” And I think it starts in that small group model where you pour into that first group.

Doug Powe: That, I think, is helpful. Let me shift a little bit but stick with the overall theme. How do we in this disciple-making process make it a habit and not a goal? Because I think what we’ve become good at in the church is we hear, now what we have to do is make disciples. So that becomes the goal. So we sort of put our focus on it. But what we don’t really do is make it a habit of how we live our lives. It just becomes sort of an end-game that we can say “Look, I did it! Now I move onto the next thing.”

Kay Kotan: Yeah. So, I think about a goal as being able to accomplish something in a certain amount of time, as in a few months or a year. Discipleship, again for me, is a way of doing and a way of being. We’re never finished developing as a disciple. So therefore, we’re never finished accomplishing the “goal” that we’ve been talking about. So, habits are often referred to as something that becomes routine, unchanging, or mundane. So, I might suggest that being a disciple is neither a habit nor a goal, but a way of life that is ever changing, growing, if we are really pursuing discipleship.

Doug Powe: How do we — and I hate to use the word measure — but how do we know if we are actually developing disciples? Because if it is a way of life, and you talked about, and I would agree with you, that sometimes we take a step forward and two steps backwards, so how do we know that we’re actually becoming more like Christ in developing as disciples? Or are we really missing the mark? So, what are some measures that we can use to say “yeah, you might be this up and down, but you are sort of moving in the right direction.”?

Kay Kotan: Yeah, I like that. Markers. Are we seeing transformation in people’s lives? And that could be that people are spending more time in small groups. People are spending more time in service. People show up with a heart more Christ-like, maybe the chip on their shoulder isn’t as big as, or maybe is completely removed because of being in a deeper discipleship. Maybe it is showing up more on Sunday and choosing to serve instead of being served on Sunday. So, it’s those markers of discipleship, you could even say the fruits of the Spirit begin to show up because their lives are being transformed through the Holy Spirit and they begin to walk alongside people, helping their lives being transformed through their relationship with Jesus Christ.

Doug Powe: Yeah. I think that’s helpful because the markers are important and the markers, in the way that you have just talked about them, are markers that people can sort of know they’re on the pathway. But it’s not necessarily, again, that you are reaching a particular goal when you do this. Because you could be all over the place on the pathway and at different markers at different times. And discipleship, of course, is not a linear process. You’re going to be all over the place as you take this journey through life.

Kay Kotan: Right. And it’s not a linear process nor is it a checklist. Because sometimes we treat it as a checklist. And you know, we have said, “Okay, do ‘Methodist 101.’”Or maybe you started with “Alpha” first, then you did “Methodist 101”. And then you did “Disciple 1” and “Disciple 2” and “Disciple 3.” And, in itself, all of those things are great things. But we’ve led people to believe that you check all of those things off, and therefore I’m a disciple. But we’ve created a whole lot of intellectual information, but have their lives been transformed? Are they showing up in the world differently because they’re now a more mature disciple because of those things? That’s what we’re looking for.

Doug Powe: As we think about this sort of pathway or process, how am I’m going to the position you have in terms of multiplying disciples? How can congregations think about multiplying disciples? And how does this multiplication not simply become a back doorway of talking about membership?

Kay Kotan: Right. Exactly. Because we know talking about membership is not the answer either. So, in order for a church to experience discipleship multiplication, we must first start with understanding the need for intentional discipleship process. Even understanding that and accepting that, I think, Doug, is our first step. Because not all churches are there yet. So we’ve got to start there. And then, once we are to the place of accepting that as our first step, and then we get a discipleship pathway in place, then we need to help people identify where they’re at on that pathway and then help them think about the next step. So too often, our churches that do put together a discipleship pathway, don’t help people connect to that pathway. It’s like, “oh, it’s this thing hanging out here. It’s pretty. It has all of these neat little pictures that go along with it.” They worked a whole long time on it. But the pathway seems to be treated like this appendage of the church, rather than treating it as the heartbeat or the purpose. So, we need to help people develop as disciples by connecting all that we do in the body of the church, the Body of Christ, to that discipleship pathway. So that includes things like weekly worship, every ministry offering, every serving opportunity, etc. So, when we say, “Here’s our message for today” and help them connect to the discipleship pathway in particular. “Today we’re going to be talking about prayer. And if you’ll remember, in the discipleship pathway, that prayer is reflected in this way.” However their church may describe it, continuously helping connect all that we do in the life of the congregation to that discipleship pathway instead of that feeling separate.

Doug Powe: That makes sense. And, I’m assuming then, that when we are connecting it to the pathway, people aren’t simply becoming members, but then we really are multiplying disciples?

Kay Kotan: Exactly. Exactly. And so, in days gone by, as you and I both know, Doug, because of the way we counted numbers, our vital signs in churches, the most important piece was getting people to membership. So, get them coming regularly enough and then get them down the aisle to take their membership vow. And then it was kind of like “okay, we’ve got them on the books, so now what?” And in established churches, we have three to four times the number of members than we do attenders. And in our newer churches, that is reversed. Most often, we have three to four times the number of attenders than we do members. Because membership is no longer about privilege. It’s about these folks are mature disciples and they’re beginning to disciple others and they’re leading. It’s not we need to get them on the books for the sake of vital signs. Therefore it’s taken on a new meaning.

Doug Powe: I think that’s insightful, particularly the reversal of how the congregations have more attenders than members. Because I do think, still too many congregations focus on membership and aren’t really thinking about it in terms of discipleship. Can you just speak for a little bit about what do you think is the role of the pastor helping this process? The pastor can’t do it by her or himself, of course. But the pastor certainly has a key role in helping to make sure this pathway exists in a congregation.

Kay Kotan: Absolutely, I often say, “Pastors, you have to go first. And you need to model it. Laity, you’ve seen it modeled so, therefore now, it’s your work to do.” So, it’s a both/and. I think, too often, we lay blame on the other. Like laity say, “Well, pastor, we pay you to do that.” And pastors go, “Well, this is the work of the laity.” And it’s a both/and. I often say, “Pastor, if you aren’t bringing people in on your elbow as guests on Sunday, how do you expect your congregation to do that as well?” So, how do we both share the load that it certainly has to be modeled by a spiritual leader first. So even for the pastor to be talking about their own spiritual journey where they’re at on their pathway, and talk about where they have grown in their discipleship, and where they have stumbled in their discipleship, so that they can see, “Boy, even the pastor stumbles.” This is real. It isn’t always forward progress.

Doug Powe: As we get ready to bring this to a close, I want to ask about smaller congregations. As you know, most of our churches in the United States are under 50 members. Do you believe this sort of discipleship pathway is the same for them? Or do they need to think about it differently?

Kay Kotan: So, I would first say that I believe that every church has a responsibility to disciple folks. Again, that’s our responsibility. That’s our mission. That’s our purpose. So, regardless of our size, we have that need and that responsibility. That being said, I do believe that smaller churches probably need to have a simpler discipleship pathway. They don’t usually have as many ministry opportunities to engage in their discipleship process. However, the blessing in the discipling process in a small church is the opportunity to more easily claim our heritage as discipling through the bands and the classes model, which is what our earliest churches were. They were small groups. They were small churches. And so, we can use that model of our roots, in our small churches, to model discipleship. We don’t have to create something per se, but we do have to intentionally disciple people, regardless of our church size.

Doug Powe: Okay, thank you so much. I think this has been helpful and will be helpful for our listeners to think about in their own congregations what it means to develop a discipleship pathway.

Kay Kotan: I pray that’s so. Thank you, Doug.

Doug Powe: Thank you.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Mark DeYmaz asserts that churches need to create multiple streams of income by leveraging the value of their people, money, and buildings to bless the community and advance the gospel.

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About Author

Kay Kotan

Kay Kotan is the founder of You Unlimited, a credentialed coach, church consultant, speaker, and the author or coauthor of more than 35 books. She is a former Director of the Center for Vitality for the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and served on the Missouri Conference's Healthy Church Initiative Executive Team. A recent book is Being the Church in a Post-Pandemic World: Game Changers for the Post-Pandemic Church (Market Square Publishing, 2021) available on Cokesbury and Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.