What theologically defines the practice of mentoring is far from clear.
Books, articles, and programs abound on mentoring, but few offer more than is otherwise found at the intersection of human decency and common sense. Yet the practice of mentoring demonstrates its value over time and, therefore, deserves our reflection.
This is especially true in the area of Christian ministry.
Take the example of Seth, who believed from his youth that God had called him to ministry. Although neither of Seth’s parents served as ministers, they raised him in the church and supported his calling. Seth’s youth pastor and senior pastor also affirmed this calling and encouraged him to attend Christian college, where he flourished and gained support from peers and professors.
Before heading to seminary, Seth accepted a job as a youth pastor at a suburban church near his alma mater. And while he enjoyed working with youth, there were ongoing challenges with some of the parents, who had competing agendas for how Seth led youth ministry. In one situation, Seth realized that no parent group was willing to compromise.
The parents quickly appealed to the senior pastor, who had shown little interest in Seth’s efforts or his transition to full-time ministry until then. The pastor simply ordered Seth to resolve the situation before other parents were drawn into the fray. But when other parents got involved on social media, the senior pastor stopped by Seth’s office to ask why Seth had failed to resolve the situation. At this point, we can all agree that Seth needed a mentor as well as a supervisor.
Arguably, the people most likely to benefit from the Christian practice of mentoring are millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and members of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012), as certain qualities of these generations are often perceived as sources of friction. For example, in a New York Times Review 2020 commentary, Jasmine Hughes informed employers to hire a “generational consultant” to “make Gen Z workers happy.”
Regardless of how one views younger generations, they are gradually entering the workforce and filling roles once filled by baby boomers and Gen Xers. By 2016, for example, millennials had become the greatest generation in the American labor force.
Resisting the changes spurred by Millennials and Gen Z members is not only a pragmatic mistake, but also fails to appreciate the positive qualities they can introduce. For example, Claire Cain Miller and Sanam Yar laid the following question about the next generation: “Could they, on the contrary, be among the first to understand the proper role of work in life – and end up doing work again for everyone?
To tap into these positive qualities in younger generations, sociologists point to an increased need, even appetite, for mentoring.
In his 2016 book studying youth and the church titled You lost meDavid Kinnaman Noted that the “prodigious use” of the next generation of technology, entertainment and media is historically significant. But these forms and uses of media often disconnect young believers from older adults and, in turn, impact how they will inherit their future roles.
Kinnaman suggests mentoring practices that focus on cultivating vocational awareness and wisdom as ways to address these challenges.
But we still need to explore a theological definition — to clarify what it means to be human, what it means to cultivate wisdom, and what it means to flourish — if we are to position mentoring as a distinctively Christian practice that serves the next generation.
Understanding what it means to be human is the theological starting point for mentoring. In Genesis 1:26 we read: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.’ Unlike any other created being, humans were created in the image of their Creator and bear that image on earth. .
In Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes the obvious but often overlooked truth that humans are not the result of their own creation but of the relationship they share with God. Mentors are called to cultivate this awareness by helping their mentees understand that even though they are limited, the unique potential they possess reflects the One who created them.
Second, helping mentees see the potential they possess involves cultivating wisdom.
Mentors need to recognize that the challenges they have faced are likely to differ from those their mentees are facing. However, mentees will benefit greatly from knowing that the nature of the challenges they face are not unique and that they are not alone in their experiences. Wisdom invariably comes with limitations, but mentors who have faced similar challenges and overcome them with varying degrees of success can offer advice to their mentees.
In several of its passages, the Book of Proverbs speaks of the importance of wisdom, including the value of identifying and avoiding the ways of the wicked, recognizing the blessings and curses of wealth, and understanding the value of work. Proverbs 1:9, for example, describes the wisdom of a father’s instruction and a mother’s teaching as “a lovely garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (ESV).
The value of wisdom is not simply in helping others to react well in a particular situation; it is by helping them understand how their response to one situation relates to their response to another situation.
In A public faithMiroslav Volf argue this wisdom in this sense offers “an integrated way of life”. Mentors therefore need to consider whether they are helping their mentees learn how to react in various situations as well as how these responses relate to one another.
This, according to Volf, “allows people, communities and all of creation to flourish.” Fulfillment relates to the sum total of the decisions we make rather than each individual decision, so mentors can help mentees see fulfillment as the end to which wisdom is the means.
Although Seth never found a mentor in the senior pastor of the church where he served, he fortunately found one elsewhere. While attending a luncheon for area youth pastors, Seth sat next to a youth pastor who had served in one of the area’s largest churches for nearly 20 years. Their conversation that day led to regular meetings over coffee.
During these meetings, Seth found a mentor who appreciated his potential, helped him cultivate wisdom and, in turn, helped him flourish. Sometimes their conversations involved shows of support, and other times they came with challenge points. But by getting to know Seth, his mentor understood what response was deserved at any given time.
This type of mentoring not only deepened Seth’s call to ministry, but also enhanced his ability to support the youth of his church, and even some of their parents.
Todd C. Ream is a professor of higher education at Taylor University and a senior programming fellow at the Lumen Research Institute. Jerry Pattengale is an Indiana Wesleyan college professor and co-director of the Lumen Research Institute. Christopher J. Devers is Assistant Professor of Education at Johns Hopkins University and Senior Operations Researcher at Lumen Research Institute. They are the editors of Cultivating Mentors: Sharing Wisdom in Christian Higher Education.