The Contours of Mentoring

  • Don Payne
  • Nov 17, 2006

What "counts" as mentoring? How do we know whether we are interacting with students in the ways they really need?

Mentoring is defined in different ways, depending on which author you read. Some limit mentoring to skill development. Others use the term to describe a variety of formational relationships.

While there is no "inspired"  definition of mentoring, the multi-faceted formation needs of all who are preparing for Christian ministry assumes a broader understanding of mentoring. As mentors, you bring the rich variety of your giftedness, experiences, and passions alongside a student as he or she seeks to grow in Christ's image and be sharpened into a useful instrument in God's hands.

The discussion of what "counts" as mentoring tends to portray mentoring as a box of fixed dimensions with a number of straight lines (distinct mentoring tasks) inside it. But in real life mentoring is more organic, like farming on rolling hills. A map of many healthy mentoring relationships would show meandering lines that respond to  the contours of irregular terrain. In a mentoring relationship, the "countour" approach might seem more messy and hard to define, but it's also more personal, productive, and alive with adventure! So, as we weave our way through a mentoring relationship, how can we tell whether we are plowing in directions that respect the uniqueness of the "landscape" so that the best harvest will be experienced? That is, how can we tell whether the direction and content of our mentoring relationship are really what a mentoree needs?  Here are a few "plowing principles."

  1. Learn the terrain of a mentoree's life. That is, do we really listen to the life of a person?  Listening to a life is not merely allowing a person to talk, though it includes that. It means listening for what is not said, listening for patterns, listening for marks of affirmation and blessing, listening for moments of openness to a nudge or challenge.

    Ask yourself how well you know your mentoree's heart, gifts, passions, questions, and wounds.  What questions do you need to ask?  How can you create safe space for those items to be exposed?

  2. Create the conditions for seed, soil, and cultivation to work together. That is, are knowledge, character, and action feeding each other? These are all too easy to compartmentalize either out of a desire for safety, or in reaction against overemphasis on one, or out of special interests. One mark of a healthy growth process is permeable membranes between the cognitive, emotional, and concrete dimensions of our lives.

    Ask your mentoree probing questions about how the dimensions of knowledge, character, and practice are shaping each other.

  3. Encourage clarity about the harvest the mentoree needs and wants. Every farmer wants specific crops even though every harvest is unique, depending on numerous unpredictable and uncontrollable variables. Does your mentoree have qualitative, yet specific growth goals? Of course, every student's learning contract(s) will have a goal statement. 

Still, goals often undergo refinement or clarification as experience and resources unfold new understanding. While each person's life is as unique as their fingerprints, we are each called to the same path of maturity in the image of Jesus Christ, marked by the same fruit of the Spirit.

Ask your mentoree periodically, "What is the heart of what you really want God to do in your life?" Can it be stated in such a way that one could know whether progress was made? Are the steps being taken consistent with the goal envisioned?

When we get comfortable in our set ways of mentoring, we should look again at the unique contours in a person's life by listening to the life, asking integrative questions, and encouraging clarity in goals and process.

Mentoring is as much art as science; maybe more art because it involves the fascinating dynamics of being human! What "counts" as mentoring is not so much a matter of definitions, but prayerful responsiveness to a mentoree's growth needs and the movements of God's Spirit along those contours.