What Is Mentoring?

By Darrell Johns

The word mentor comes from the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey. In this ancient greek tale, King Odysseus of Ithaca entrusted his only son, Telemachus, to the care and training of his wise friend, Mentor, while he himself went off to the Trojan war. A dictionary definition of a mentor is “a wise and trusted guide and advisor.” A number of words can characterize the one being menored including protégé, mentoree, disciple, and learner.

In the book The Fine Art Of Mentoring, Ted W. Engstrom defines a mentor:

  • A mentor is a person who has achieved superior rank in an organization or profession.
  • A mentor is an authority in his or her field as the result of disciplined work, study, and experience.
  • A mentor has a certain measure of influence in his or her chosen field.
  • A mentor is genuinely interested in a protégé’s growth and development.
  • A mentor is willing to commit time and emotional energy to a relationship with an understudy.

On the other hand, Engstrom wisely adds some things that a mentor is not:

  • A mentor is not automatically a pal or buddy, or one to be included necessaritly in family gatherings or other social functions.
  • A mentor is not on call for grievances and frustrations, imagined or real.
  • A mentor is not to be gracefully dismissed when the mentoree decides that the relationship is no longer useful.

A few insights into the mentor-protégé relationship might be helpful here. Mentoring is more relational than positional. A person can mentor from a position, but not merely because he holds that position. Positional leadership is the least effective level of leadership. A position may give one power over another, but not necessarily the force of influence to inspire emulation. By nature, a healthy, caring relationship is the basis for mentoring.

To be a trusted guide and advisor, a mentor is generally a person with more age and experience than the person being mentored. Part of the mentoring process is following an example. An effective guide has walked the path before the one being guided. This feature of mentoring typically precludes a peer-mentoring relationship, although it is possible to some extent.

No matter how much wisdom, knowledge, and skill is possessed by the person serving in the role of the mentor, proximity is the one indispensable quality that cannot be compromised. Proximity to the protégé is vital to successful mentoring. The Bible is careful to say that Jesus Christ chose the twelve apostles to be “with Him” (Mark 3:14). While Jesus taught multitudes and dialogued with individuals, He focused at least half of His ministry tenure on the intensive training of the twelve.

Life was the classroom for Jesus. He mentored the twelve through life lessons in the Temple, in synagogues, on a ship in a storm, while walking through the fields on the Sabbath, from homes, on mountain-tops, and in many other places. Jesus used familiar surroundings and ordinary objects as illustrations. He asked and answered questions. He probed their hearts and challenged their thinking. Jesus Christ was a mentor—a builder of men.

After the mentoring season was completed at the ascension of Jesus, the apostles were so impacted by their relationship with Jesus Christ that when their enemies saw their boldness, “they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). This observation is telling since the twelve apostles had no formal training in the rabbinical schools of the day. They were considered as ignorant and unlearned people of the land. But, given enough time in close proximity to Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, those twelve men were radically changed and thoroughly equipped to turn their world upside down.

A mentor must be a model. Modeling leadership is a powerful concept and a cornerstone of mentoring. According to Lawrence O. Richards, there are three steps to modeling.

Live it. A person serving as a model must first live out the principles that are to be imparted. It is true that what is transferred in the mentoring process is caught more than taught. It is for this reason that a close personal relationship must exist between the mentor and the protégé. If the mentor intends to impart compassion to the protégé he must first personify that quality in his own life.

Say it. The principles being conveyed in the mentoring process must be expressed through teaching. Principles are larger than life. Outside of Jesus Christ, all the principles of the Bible are imperfectly represented in the lives of people. Every mentor should strive to be a mature Christian, but focusing the protégé on principles that are perfect and permanent by nature is the most stable and solid way to mentor.

Do it. The principles being imparted must be experienced in real life situations. There is often a disconnection between theology and practice, theory and behavior. Christianity was meant to be lived out more than thought out. Scripture is clear that true disciples are to be doers of the Word, not hearers only (James 1:22). Only those principles which are evidenced in our lives have been thoroughly learned. Jesus not only called the twelve to be with Him, He also sent them forth to practice what he taught. (See Mark 3:14.)

A mentor must be an open person. Insecurity can undermine mentoring. If the mentor is not free to share his soul, his strengths and weaknesses alike, the protégé may feel that the life of the mentor is beyond his reach. Getting in touch with his own feelings and circumstances of life he experienced at the same age as the person he is mentoring will help him better relate and connect. Some of the most powerful and memorable moments I have spent with my mentors are times when they opened their hearts to share stories from their lives. Principles conveyed through stories have a way of sticking to our minds and shaping our belief system.

A mentor must believe in people. Young adults are at a special time of life when many long range decisions are being made; moral values are often being tested; and permanent relation-ships are being forged. A few years after my graduation from Bible College, in conversations with friends who had been fellow students, I noted how many of them made reference to one particular faculty member who had impacted their lives. While this man had made some decisions that ship-wrecked his life in every area, the memory of his contributions to our lives was significant. The conversation with my friends would go something like this: “I am really hurt by what happened to him. All I can say is that when no one believed in me, he did.”

After a few chance meetings with friends and after hearing almost the exact words several times, I began to realize just how much this man expressed his belief in his students. We all are hard-wired by our Creator to need encouragement. If we do not get it from the right sources, we will seek for it in inappropriate places that may take undue advantage of our hunger for leadership. Since the time of those conversations with former college classmates, I have made a conscious effort to encourage and affirm young adults and especially leaders. As I learned from some of my friends, when a person believes in you, there are almost no limits to your loyalty.

Experiencing times of fun and fellowship are an important part of mentoring. A protégé will rarely open up until he is comfortable with his mentor. I firmly believe that few people will cry with you until they have first laughed with you. Relaxed times of fellowship break down barriers and show the protégé that life must be lived in balance while cultivating closeness, trust, and respect. I have experienced times when a social gathering among friends turned into a spiritual experience as a result of the relaxed and open nature of our fellowship. While relaxing with friends is valuable in itself and laughter does good like a medicine, there is also a mentoring dimension that is found by spending relaxed or recreational time together.

In an age of selfishness and ego, the heart of a mentor is an unselfish heart that is willing to give. Mentoring is an investment in the life of a person and in the future of the church and is the most effective way that a leader can leave a legacy. My grandfather died at the age of 100, but his life and legacy continue to influence the world through the many people he mentored. Although mentoring may not be as natural a process as it was in times gone by, it still remains the most effective means of equipping future generations.

What are you doing to mentor the next generation of leaders in the kingdom of God? Who would you list as your mentors? Who are your protégés? What legacy will you leave for future generations?

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