What Is Mentoring?
The word mentor originally came from the name of a friend of King Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was entrusted with Telemachus, the king’s only son, while he was off at war. Mentor showed wisdom, caring, and commitment, which are all essential ingredients of a good mentor by today’s standards. Jesus practiced discipling by using a multi-layered, small group system. At the core were the 12 apostles and the three disciples with whom he was closest: Peter, James, and John. Within the inner circles, his discipleship also had some elements of mentoring to it. Although Jesus was busy ministering to many, he also brought along these chosen few. He poured himself into preparing them for the ministry that lay before them. This had a lasting effect with the establishment of the church, one which can still be seen today.
At a basic level, there are three modes of mentoring: active, occasional, and passive. Active mentoring would include discipling another person in the basic tenants of faith, serving as a spiritual guide, or coaching someone to meet specific ministry goals or challenges. Occasional mentoring is when someone serves as a resource person, giving timely advice, perspective, knowledge, guidance, or sponsorship. A third category, passive mentoring, has been recognized by some, but by nature it is closer to the concept of a role model. Although mentoring is used in professional settings, in a church setting the focus is on spiritual formation.
When thinking about mentoring, it is important to consider the needs of the mentee. Different modes of mentoring can be employed to meet different needs. While some mentees may need frequent, regular meetings, other situations may be handled by occasional meetings to advise. It is also important to know there is not one way to mentor. Many may feel uncomfortable with the idea of traditional mentoring, not seeing themselves, their time, or the personality fitting that style. The concept of “coach,” for instance, may seem like an accessible model, especially for those who have previous experience coaching or being coached. This model is also pretty clear about who is doing the hard work: it’s the mentee, not the coach. When we broaden our understanding of mentoring, we may discover this opens doors for more people to participate and for us to have time to help more.
Anderson and Reese in Spiritual Mentoring believe that although mentoring is grounded in the ordinary, and by nature includes autobiography, the mentor represents the word incarnate. He or she is partnering with the Holy Spirit throughout the process, and should pay careful attention to nudges by the Spirit. There should be purpose and aim built into the relationship (p. 37-55). The mentor’s role is to allow the mentee to access past experiences, good and bad, and to be honest about one’s own struggles. To do this successfully requires accessibility and vulnerability.
The interaction by the mentor affects the relationship. Johnson and Ridley in The Elements of Mentoring (p. 74-101) offer some good advice on the process of mentoring. The mentor should not do all the talking, but should allow for the mentees to share and be self-reflective. If the mentor allows the mentee to process aloud, and then engages them at important points, real growth can occur. Active listening should be used with the mentor summarizing what was said to confirm what was said before offering advice. This also provides a good example of how to interact with others. The mentor should display genuine warmth and care during conversations. A mentor’s faith and value system should be strong and reflected in his or her interactions.
A mentor also needs to show unconditional positive regard. This is especially important as the mentee is trying out new things or developing beliefs. Challenges are bound to occur. A mentee may make mistakes and poor choices. Mentors must balance not expecting unrealistic levels of perfection with encouraging mentees to develop to the best of their ability. Especially as mentees make mistakes, or think things through, the mentor must choose to be a trustworthy individual. The privacy of the mentee should be respected, and instead of facing judgment when they mess up, they need to be coached through it and challenged.
Most importantly, mentors need to be sound in their own faith. They should understand that their influence is replicated in this relationship, and they need to consider their own actions, heart, attitudes, and teachings. Even though this is not a teaching relationship, their attitudes and thoughts need to be in line with Scripture. Becoming a mentor is a sacred trust with eternal consequences.
However, mentoring does involve a set of skills that need development, and mentors need to enter into this relationship with the self-understanding that they themselves are not perfect. As they gain experience, self-reflection and evaluation of how things are going can be useful tools for tweaking one’s skills. There are many good books available about mentoring, and a good routine to develop might be to commit to reading one book each year. Mentoring is a valuable opportunity that benefits both the mentor and mentee. I would encourage anyone who feels called to this ministry to step out in faith and prayer, entering into this sacred opportunity to impact another person and create a real different in the church.