The Scoop on Mentoring

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A increasingly popular buzz word in business and in ministry is mentoring. When I googled the word, over 3 million hits came back. As a process (or relationship), mentoring has become useful as a way of giving and receiving influence. In youth ministry, I propose that it is valuable to be in a mentoring relationship both as a mentor and as a protégé (or mentee).

Dictionary.com defines a  mentor  [men-tawr], noun as 1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; 2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter; 3. As a verb (used without object) meaning “to act as a mentor.” (She spent years mentoring to junior employees); As a verb (used with object) meaning, “to act as a mentor to” (The brash young executive did not wish to be mentored by anyone).

The word came from The Odyssey a famous poem in Greek mythology written by Homer (so famous he didn’t need a last name, like Prince or Rihanna or Drake). The  poem (or epic) tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus (the Romans called him Ulysses in their version) trying to find his way home after the war was over. In the story he is gone for twenty years–ten years just to find his way home. He and his wife Penelope had a young son, Telemachus, who was in need of life instruction beyond just reading, writing, and arithmetic. In the mythology, Mentor was old and a friend of King Odysseus.  When the king went to war, he placed Mentor in charge of his son, tasked to guide him through life until (hopefully) his father would return.

In our century, we have taken the word to describe a process by which a mentor-usually older and wiser and more experienced, but not necessarily–guides a protégé or mentee in life instruction.  In youth ministry terms, we sometimes confuse the process of mentoring with the process of discipleship. They would be similar, but not identical. In his book, The Fine Art of Mentoring, Ted Engstrom said

“For the Christian, mentoring has objectives in the real world that are beyond the stuff of legends. Discipling is a close synonym, with these differences: A discipler is one who helps an understudy (1) give up his own will for the will of God the Father, (2) live daily a life of spiritual sacrifice for the glory of Christ, and (3) strive to be consistently obedient to the commands of his Master. A mentor, on the other hand, provides modeling, close supervision on special projects, individualized help in many areas – discipline, encouragement, correction, confrontation, and a calling to accountability.”

I have met with students in discipleship relationships where the agenda was more about memorizing Scripture, developing spiritual disciplines, and praying together. I also meet with a mentoring group of youth ministers each week to talk about life, youth ministry, family, and anything else that comes up in conversation. We do not have an agenda (though some mentoring relationships do) and instead I usually bring up a “topic of the day” and we share ideas. The relationship extends and becomes a mentoring one as these are the youth ministers I know best in terms of referring them to churches as potential youth ministry candidates or as speakers for a retreat or DiscipleNow weekend.

In youth ministry, mentoring is valuable in several relationships:

As a youth minister, it is helpful for you to have a mentor.  I have a memory of being a youth minister who thought that a lock-in was a good idea.  I planned for my regular group of less than ten students but because the night held promise of being allowed to not go to bed, about 135 students showed up. My mentor was gracious enough to receive my distress phone call and come to the church to help me make decisions about guiding (and protecting) ten times more students than I had planned on having.

As a youth minister, it is helpful to be a mentor. You have much to offer if you have been in youth ministry for a few years. The networks, connections, resources, experiences and skills you have accumulated are helpful for someone who is not as far down the road. It can be incredibly helpful just to have a conversation to remind him or her that they aren’t crazy (but the pastor might be).

3. As a youth minister, you might identify some students who might be headed for ministry.  While you should be discipling all of your students, you might mentor a few who are trying to figure out what it might look like to be a vocational pastor, youth minister, worship leader, or missionary.

I will finish with a few words of caution and a closing story.  Mentors don’t have to have it all together. I often feel like Paul when he confessed that he had not arrived but that he was pressing on in the journey. Mentors don’t always have all the answers and sometimes that is good.  If mentor and protégé seek answers together, they both benefit. Mentoring is casual and does not necessarily follow a lesson plan, but the relationship is intentional.  The mentor has in mind some topic or experience that the mentee needs to handle and he or she leads the relationship in that direction. Finally, mentoring is about relationship, but not necessarily friendship.  By that I mean that the parties in the relationship need to get along, but they may or may not be close friends outside the mentoring process.

When I was a youth minister in Georgia, I was talked into taking my students hiking on the Appalachian Trail. When we got to the place where we would begin our hike, I had a realization that I didn’t have a clue about how to lead the students over the river and through the woods.  One of my students was an Eagle scout who instructed me that all I had to do was to learn about the trail markers–small squares painted on trees every fifty feet or so.  If I could walk from white square to white square, I could lead these students all the way to Maine. Mentoring is like hiking in that the comfort and competency comes when we know that someone has gone before us and marked the trail.

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