Mentoring: concept vs. experience

by Eric*

I get excited when I hear the word “mentoring” in a discipleship context. I desire human relationships that simultaneously empower and encourage both individuals. Mentoring has formation/transformation as its goal, and that is worth being excited about. However, my experiences with mentoring have often left me feeling less than satisfied with what I find conceptually to be such a positive and powerful idea. The disconnect for me between the goals of mentoring and the actual outcomes of mentoring — which can be discouraging — has sometimes left me thinking, “What’s the point?” 

It is clear that mentoring is very much a part of the kingdom of God. There are numerous examples in scripture: Elijah and Elisha, Moses and Joshua, Paul and Timothy, and perhaps the greatest example is Jesus and the Twelve. Jesus speaks directly about the importance of relationships in the kingdom when He answers the question about the greatest commandment. First, love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And second, love your neighbor as yourself. 

So, if mentoring is something that we see Jesus modeling and indeed prioritizing, then there must be something missing or incomplete in my experience. Maybe it is because mentoring has become a compartmentalized idea with a specific end and parameters: “When my mentoring hour is over for the week, I’ll return to the rest of life.” That understanding of mentoring is too shallow, and can even make everyday relationships feel burdensome or overwhelming. Perhaps “mentoring” is something that is actually supposed to form the foundation of our interactions. Every relationship that we have is both formative and transformative. 

Two years ago, my family and I moved to a city in Germany, where we have been living and working since. As we have settled into our lives here and began the process of learning German, my role in our church community revolved mostly around helping people with physical tasks: moving, airport runs, installing kitchens, fixing toilets, etc. In all honesty, these menial tasks have not always come at convenient times. Even more so, it has been a challenge for me to see these interactions as a form of mentoring. Drinking tea with the people I’ve helped has led to meaningful conversations, but my compartmentalized mind doesn’t count that as “mentoring.”  And yet, those kinds of interactions with mature Christians in my own life have been the most formative.  

My parents modeled this very practical way of mentoring in my early life. They were quick to help others and welcome unexpected visitors into our home. Now, as a father myself, I more clearly realize how much their example of caring for and mentoring others impacted me and my siblings … how much their willingness to be inconvenienced taught us and formed us. 

My youth leaders were always willing to welcome me into their home even at inconvenient times. I had many meaningful conversations with them that shaped me in important ways. I’ve experienced countless examples of this form of mentoring at our home church, West End Mennonite Fellowship, from the leadership team to peers who constantly allowed themselves to be inconvenienced for the sake of me and others. For these and countless other examples, both in my present life and throughout my personal history, am I grateful because they remind me that perfection and advanced theological study are not prerequisites for faithfully pursuing the call to “go and make disciples.”

The simple truth is this, life is full of “the unexpected.” Being connected with other people is and always will be inconvenient — and it is precisely this inconvenience that is so critical for our spiritual formation. It reminds us of the truth, that being sons and daughters isn’t actually about doing work, proving our worth, or showing the results of our efforts. Rather, being sons and daughters in Christ is simply a state of being — being in relationship with God, in whose image we’ve been created. However, this state of being does not leave us without responsibility. Being a beloved child of God means that we have a responsibility to relationally invest in others to help them grow and to allow others into our lives to help us grow.

So at the end of all of this, what do I do? How do I reconcile my experience with the concept of mentoring? For me, the best place to start is by naming it. Maybe you’re in a similar place. If so, join me in naming this temptation to view human relationships only as a means to an end, rather than the very thing that perhaps forms the basis of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. Then, take it a step further by asking God how he might be calling you to live a life inconvenienced by the call of Christ to transformative, sacrificial love.