The True Nature of Christian Mentoring, Part 1

Mentor and his protege, Telemachus

Mentoring is a popular concept in ministry and education in the first decade of the 21st century. Books, conferences and journals on mentoring have sprung up in recent years, and various schools of thought regarding mentoring have emerged. While every Christian view of mentoring agrees that Jesus’ relationship with the twelve disciples serves as the foundational model for mentoring, the diversity of interpretations and applications of mentoring principles reveals that much ambiguity exists regarding the true nature of mentoring in real life situations.

There are many weak or erring models of Christian mentoring. One approach is to treat mentoring as information download where the mentor is merely passing on information to the protégé. This approach understands the student’s greatest need to be data that he doesn’t already possess. Another view conceives mentoring as mere accountability, where the mentor asks the protégé a number of questions in order to strengthen his spiritual discipline. The student is expected to share failures and successes honestly in order to experience both the joy and support he needs in his Christian life. Still another model of mentoring is practiced by those mentors who seek to mold the protégé into his own image, with all the same opinions, personality traits and idiosyncrasies. In effect, the mentor is trying to make a replica of himself, not helping the student become who God wants him to be.

A genuine understanding of mentoring acknowledges that each of these models contains elements of truth, but each is insufficient by itself. In addition, a mentor dare not leave it up to a student to shape the scope of the mentoring relationship. I agree with Howard Hendricks that a mentoring relationship ought to be based on what the student wants to learn from the mentor and not what the mentor wants. However, many times the protégé does not know what he needs, or may seek to avoid some of the more pressing needs in his life. Students who want mentors often think what they need most is that information download I mentioned earlier, and don’t realize that their greater need is guided character development and spiritual maturity. Also, many protégés who think they are being open and honest with their mentor pull back and keep parts of their inner life hidden as soon as the mentor begins to address those areas.

As a result, the mentor and student must craft together the nature of the relationship, but the student must remain open to the mentor’s scrutiny in areas of his life that the mentor senses needs examination. In the few years that I have been mentoring, I have come to believe that what my students need most is a relationship with me where they can let down their guard, be transparent and honest about their true selves, watch my life with all its warts, ask questions, challenge my answers, have me pray for them and with them, and generally say to them what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

In Part 2 we’ll examine a vivid historical example of this kind of mentorship which occurred almost two millennia ago.

Waiting: God’s Cure for Unredeemed Ambition

In his book, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010), Dave Harvey skillfully explains the practice of God to curb and refine our ambitions through the often painful process of waiting on him.

Waiting is God’s backhoe in the excavation of our ambitions. Waiting unearths and brings to the surface what we really want. Yet waiting is a strange thing. God’s purposes are not a bus stop where we just sit, waiting for the right option to come by. No, we keep walking while we wait, and we wait while we walk. This may sound ironic, but it serves many purposes (p. 72).

Harvey offers three possible reasons why waiting is so important to the rescue of our ambitions. First, waiting purifies our ambitions.

Reach your hand into a river and grab a handful of rocks. You can tell the ones that have been recently deposited and those that have been there a long time, waiting. The new arrivals are rough with edges and sharp points. The other rocks are smooth; time and water have worn away their rough exterior, revealing a polished, beautiful stone. For us, waiting has the same effect. God purifies our ambitions by delaying their fulfillment. An ambition with a waiting sign is an ambition being smoothed in a riverbed of God’s activity (p. 72).

Second, waiting cultivates patience.

Perhaps in reading this you’re becoming aware of impatience toward God and his timing in your life. But is God’s timing not perfect? Are his ways not perfect? Is his will not perfect? Is his character not perfect? And hasn’t all this perfection been displayed for us in the cross? Who are we to question God in impatience when he has so perfectly displayed his love for us in the shedding of his Son’s blood on the cross? (p. 73)

Last, waiting redefines our definition of productivity. In our culture we define success and work by “productivity.” We keep tightly packed schedules and run from one place to the next, fearful of not being able to maintain all our commitments, and failing our own expectations.

Waiting is often God’s reorientation program aimed at our definition of success. He lovingly empties our misguided preoccupation with accomplishment and fills it with ambitions to know him and be like him. God isn’t beyond slowing our walk to remind us that only he is omnipotent, and we’re not; only he is omnicompetent, and we’re not; only he exists without need for rest, and we don’t (p. 74).

So many times our dreams and ambitions are frustrated, and we are tempted to see that as a sign that God is perhaps not as good as he makes himself out to be, or at least not as good as we’ve been told he is. But if we could see our lives from God’s perspective, we would see how many times God delivered us from a dream or ambition that would have made us incurably miserable, or one that would have destroyed more precious things in our lives. This means that every job lost, unhappy marriage, condition of infertility, frustrating boss, and dead end in life is actually a blessing from God.

We find no peace in life until we’re convinced our path is his way and our place is his choice. That’s so important it’s worth repeating: your place is his choice. Fences and all. When God is fencing our ambition, it can sure seem to constrain our freedom. But fences don’t simply contain, they protect. A good fence keeps us on the right path and prevents us from hurtling over cliffs, even if it seems we’re chasing something good (p. 79).

Rescuing Ambition for Ministry

Do you desire to be involved in ministry? Does your passion burn for serving God? I am writing primarily to those who long for vocational ministry, but the principles apply to anyone seeking to serve God in any way.

Paul’s first epistle to Timothy gives sobering instructions concerning the proper way for a man who possesses ambition for ministry to find his desire fulfilled. In 1 Timothy 3:1 he states that if a man is “reaching for” oversight (Gk. episkopos), that is, the responsibility of leadership in the local church, then he is desiring a good thing. But what of this desire, this ambition to lead?

Ambition can be constructive or destructive, driven by pride or driven by a passion for the glory of God. In his new book, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010), Pastor Dave Harvey seeks to show that ambition is not evil in itself, but has to be redeemed, or rescued by Christ. He believes ambitions for greatness are natural because we were made to experience glory—just not our own. Comparing our inner ambition for glory to storm chasers, he says,

Maybe you don’t chase tornadoes, but we’re all born glory chasers. Glory moments stir us…We experience something totally vicarious, some strange exercise in identification. And make no mistake, it goes deep. It calls to something we value. To do something that matters. To seek something greater than our own puny existence (p. 21-22).

The temptation for those who desire ministry is to let their natural ambition for glory become selfish, turned inward. What should be fuel for the glory of God becomes selfish ambition for our own glory. Ministry becomes a means for getting praise, flattery, gifts, and ultimately worship. The root cause of this is sin.

Sin does the same thing to us that it did to Adam and Eve. It distorts the truth of God and undermines our essential dependence on him. It seduces us to crave things that deface God’s holiness and assault his glory. Ultimately, sin moves self to the center of our desires and dreams. Rather than promoting God’s order and glory, we become relentless self-promoters. It’s a condition that shrinks the soul (p. 37).

Sometimes those who desire ministry see those already in ministry, and the respect and influence that typically accompanies faithful execution of the task, and assume that the way to obtain influence and respect is to seek influence and respect. These mistaken observers, however, miss two points. First, the way to glory is not to seek glory. The way to glory is to seek humiliation and servanthood. “Humility comes before honor,” says Proverbs 15:33. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you,” says James 4:10. Many aspiring leaders misunderstand the path to leadership. Second, those faithful leaders that have obtained influence and respect did not do so by seeking it. They, too, pursued a path of service and humility that led to influence and respect.

Selfish ambition, on the other hand, is self-glorifying, and any time glory is drawn from anything other then God, it has the opposite effect of worship—it shrinks the soul. Harvey quotes Jonathan Edwards:

The ruin that the Fall brought upon the soul of man consists very much in losing the nobler and more benevolent principles of his nature, and failing wholly under the power and government of self-love. Before, and as God created him, he was exalted and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish. Immediately after the fall, the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness (Charity and Its Fruits, 226-7).

Ambition and humility are not mutually exclusive. A minister with a proper humility will also be possessed of a holy ambition. G.K. Chesterton distinguished between a proper humility, which he called “the old humility,” and a “new” false humility that dampened ambition. He appealed to a return to the old humility.

The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

Humility, then, should harness, not hinder ambition. Harvey expounds on rescued, or redeemed, ambition.

Formerly our aspirations were the soul-shrinking agents of self-exaltation. But because of Jesus, everything has changed. Having God’s approval changes why we obey, aspire, and apply. Now aspiration fuels delight. We can pursue great things for God, and it will enhance our joy in God. We no longer live ambitious for approval, but we act ambitious because we have approval. Here’s the difference: One disillusions us, the other inspires us. One is temporary, the other permanent. One drives us, the other delights us. (p. 59)

So what should a person who desires ministry do with his ambition? He should certainly not squash it, castrate it or kill it. Rather, he should redirect that ambition to bring about the greatest glory to God possible, recognizing that this happens through humble, selfless service that strives for the ideal of William Carey’s famous maxim: “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.”