Questions Regarding Discipleship Strategy of Robert Coleman
For a Doctoral Student
- Please give your name, along with when and where you were in one of Dr. Coleman’s discipleship groups.
Ajith Fernando—part of discipleship group from 1972 to 1974 at Asbury Theological Seminary
- What church did you attend while being discipled by Dr. Coleman?
Wilmore United Methodist Church
- How did the group function? [For example, how many others were in the group? How often did you meet? What happened when you met?]
We met once a week, I believe at 6.30 AM. We had about 25 or more at the beginning of the year which dwindled to about 15 or less as exams got close and the year wore on. It was a Bible-study and prayer time. But some of us would travel with him. His classroom teaching was very much a part of his influence on us—though I took only two courses from him (I was wanting to major in Biblical studies). He would invite us to his home for meals and that was a very important time of formation for us.
- Have you led discipleship groups in your own ministry like the one in which you participated with Dr. Coleman? [How often have you led groups? How many men would you disciple in a group? How often did you meet? What happened when you met?]
At different stages of my life I have had different groups. First I had the leaders of the YFC club which I led. This was in 1976. We planned our club programme and were involved in evangelism, we studied the Word together, and prayed. I personally discipled the young men and my wife the young women.
Since then I have always supervised one of ministries in YFC in addition to being national Director. The young staff became like my children. Almost all of them were first generation Christians, so we had to talk about many things which Christians take for granted. Now there is a long list of people who have been discipled over the years. I recently made a list of about 41 and all but two of them are leaders in the church (and one has already gone to heaven).
- If you have led discipleship groups like those in Dr. Coleman’s strategy, what changes have you made to Dr. Coleman’s discipleship strategy to use it in your own ministry?
I was much more involved in the details of the personal lives of the people I discipled. I visited their homes regularly. God to know their parents and other family members and had a part in most of the transitions in their lives—like engagement, Marriage etc. This is something a Seminary professor does not have the opportunity to do. I was both their supervisor and their disciple. I believe this is the biblical model and I think that the common separation of the pastoral function from the supervisory function is a big mistake.
- What are the most difficult aspects of Dr. Coleman’s discipleship strategy to reproduce? What complications have you faced in your ministry in implementing this discipleship strategy?
I cannot say that there are difficult aspects. His not being too involved in the details of one’s personal life was the place I realized I needed to change in my strategy. As leader of a large organization with about 75 staff and 450 volunteers, it is sometimes awkward to be concentrating on a small group of younger staff. But to compensate for the awkwardness was the realization among the staff that their leader modeled what is a key core value of our organization—discipling. Finding time for personal work, public ministry, church life, administrative leadership and correspondence, personal study, family-life and personal devotions, has been a huge challenge. I have been at my job for almost 35 years and probably have been exhausted all that time. Yet the variety has I believe kept me fresh and excited about ministry all these years.
- How strong has been the influence of Dr. Coleman on your life? Please elaborate.
He is one of the most influential people in my life. I regard him as my spiritual father. I still cherish getting opportunities to spend time with him. His godward, almost mystical, orientation is something that always challenges me. And spending time with him in the past 37 years since I was at Asbury is one of the highlights of my ministry life. It helps reorient my life to give priority to the things that matter most in life.
Interestingly I think the biggest influence Dr Coleman had on me was theological. He showed me that theology was important for evangelism, and that we should be aware of theological trends. Otherwise they could take us unawares and have a huge influence on the church as we helplessly look on not knowing how to address these issues. He also was a strong proponent of expository preaching. The theology of evangelism and Bible exposition have been the focus of my writing and wider public ministry.
He also demonstrated to us the blueprint for a happy ministerial home. Appreciating your wife and seeking to affirm her. Marietta is the opposite of Clem. She is talkative and he keeps quiet! Their obvious partnership and love for each other was a great model to me. I remember him saying that whatever happens we must make sure that our wives are happy. Otherwise the children will sense that their mother is unhappy with the husband work (ministry) and blame the husband’s boss—God—for the unhappiness in their family, resulting in a negative attitude towards Christianity. Thankfully, this is a message I learned resulting in my wife being the most powerful human influence for good in my life in ministry.
- What is the greatest lesson on discipleship that you have learned from Dr. Coleman?
That a godwardly oriented life with a conscious effort to communicate biblical truth informally (e.g. while traveling to preaching appointments and in his home over a meal) and formally (in the Bible study and the classroom) can have a marked influence on a person. Dr Coleman was not a leader who pried into our lives much (I do much more of that). He was not what we would call a strong leader. But what he stood for became the thing that I took from him. So in my ministry as a leader too, I have made teaching formally and informally the most important part of my ministry next to praying for the people I lead.