What is a Mentor?
Its worth looking at the historical background to the notion.
The word actually dates back to ancient Greece, where a man named Mentor acted as a advisor and life coach to the young nobleman Telemachus.
A mentor is commonly defined as “a wise and trusted counselor and teacher.” The word “mentor” itself comes from the Classical tradition. It is the name of a character in Homer's The Odyssey, an epic poem written in the eighth century BC about the Greek hero Odysseus and his long journey home after the Trojan War. Odysseus’ return was long delayed by many adventures and trials, and issues arose with his wife and son left at home. Mentor was a trusted friend who had remained in the house as a wise advisor to both. He counseled the son - the young Telemachus - to keep faith in his father's eventual return and was able to bring wisdom and power from the past to bear on the uncertainties of the time. Homer portrays Mentor as a disguised form of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who gives Telemachus the vision, resources, companionship, and encouragement he needs to act well in face of a threatening future. Mentoring, then, has a sense of divine insight as well as a deep caring, drawing out courage and faithfulness to enable the mentoree to do what is best.
Today one professional organization helpfully defines a mentor as “an experienced person who goes out of his/her way to help another person set important life goals and build skills to reach them.” (Faith-Centered Mentoring and More) Here are some other definitions:
"Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be." (Eric Parsloe, The Oxford School of Coaching & Mentoring)
"Mentoring refers to the process in which a person with a serving, giving, encouraging attitude (Mentor), sees the leadership potential in a still to be developed person and is able to prompt or otherwise significantly influence that person along to the realisation of his/her potential’. (J Robert Clinton)
"A mentor in the biblical sense establishes a close relationship with a protégé and on that basis through fellowship, modelling, advice, encouragement, correction, practical assistance and prayer support influences his/her understudy to gain a deeper comprehension of divine truth, lead a godlier life and render more effective service to God". (Gunter Krallmann)
"Mentoring describes an intentional and deliberate attitude to encourage another’s life and ministry. It finds its biblical base in Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22: 32 - " help your brothers be stronger...” (Bishop John Reid)
Some of these definitions are more explicitly Christian than others. Although mentoring is a relatively recent term in Christian circles, what it describes has been the focus of Christian community since the early church. "It is a dynamic relationship of trust in which one person enables another to maximise the grace of God in his/her life and service. It has a sound biblical and theological basis with Jesus as the ultimate model, retaining all that is consistent with his life and teaching." (from "Mentoring to Develop Disciples and Leaders" by John Mallison).
In classical antiquity, however, the world view was polytheistic humanism. Gods and goddesses were finite, powerful, territorial, capricious, and unpredictable. Goodness and truth were not found in the character of God, but in noble men and their virtuous deeds in war, literature or art. Virtue was never found in women or slaves or the young. So the classical understanding of mentoring, for all of its apparent excellence and truth, can never be intellectually or morally satisfying for Christian men and women, who look to God for wisdom and truth, and to humans of any social strata as mentors. (from Thomas and Trevethan, 2005) However, Christians draw on an equally ancient view of mentoring in the Old and New Testaments. The Biblical narrative contains powerful accounts of a number of “mentoring relationships,” the foremost of course being Jesus and the Twelve. These Biblical role models will be covered in a future post.
It’s better to have a partner than go it alone.
Share the work, share the wealth.
And if one falls down, the other helps,
But if there’s no one to help, tough!
Two in a bed warm each other.
Alone, you shiver all night.
By yourself you’re unprotected.
With a friend you can face the worst.
Can you round up a third?
A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.
Ecclesiastes 4: 9 - 10
This article was originally published as a post in Godshaped Mentoring, the site storing resource materials from a Baptist Mentor Training event in Auckland New Zealand.