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Mentoring: Following the Example of Christ

Ann Palmer Bradley


This article examines a theological approach to mentoring and how this can inform the practice of mentoring in either secular or Christian mentoring situations. Mentoring and related biblical terminology are examined through a review of professional literature, then a variety of theological lenses are utilized to examine mentoring in both general and specific applications.

Review of the Literature

The established origin of the word “mentor” comes from Homer’s Odyssey. During the Trojan War (around 800 B.C.), a wise friend of the king, Mentor, was given the responsibility to teach and protect the king’s son, Telemachus. As a concept, the term “mentor” later surfaced in a French novel by Archbisop Fenelon (1699), “Les Aventures de Telemaque”, which became the model for novels about the education of princes or heroes. “Mentor” was first documented as an English expression in 1750.

Cultural anthropologists tell us that nearly every society has had “elders” or mentors of some kind and the practice of mentoring has been commonplace throughout history. Apprentices were guided by senior craftsmen as they learned their trade and in the academic world students have often learned in the home of the scholar. Mentoring also took place in the early church, where novitiates were typically assigned a spiritual superior to help discover God’s will for their lives.

A significant body of research (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997; Cohen, N. & M. Galbraith, 1995; Mone, Baker, & Jeffries, 1995; Pajares, 1996; Ragins, 1999; Sosik & Godshalk, 2000; Zachary, 2000) has shown personal development is stimulated in developmental relationships like mentoring. Personal development is facilitated by a “relationship of care.” A mentor relationship should result in growth for both the mentor and the protégé (Allen & Poteet, 1999), although ultimately “the trip belongs to the traveler, not the guide” (Daloz, 1986).

Relationships serve as an essential source of support as one makes transitions throughout life. Activities in a mentoring relationship that enhance an individual’s internal sense of competence, identity, and effectiveness are referred to as “mentor functions.” These functions include role modeling, acceptance-and-confirmation, counseling, and friendship. It is this type of interpersonal relationship that fosters mutual trust and increasing intimacy and affects a protégé in personal and lasting ways (Kram & Brager, 1990).

Mentoring literature (Kram, 1985; Ragins & McFarlin, 1990; Sosik & Godshalk, 2000; Wilson & Johnson, 2001) identifies numerous personal traits and skills desirable in persons who mentor others. Most often identified are confidentiality, dependability, authenticity, high moral and ethical standards, honesty, integrity, and professional competence. Additionally, in this type of relationship protégés may help set the teaching agenda through their questions. Mentoring then is a multi-faceted process based upon a relationship that opens up our lives as mentors to the person we are mentoring. This relationship draws them into our world where we intentionally teach and equip him or her (Aven, 2003; Kolb, 1984). This emphasis on relationship is a key point of intersection between evangelical Christian theology and the social science concept of mentoring.

Biblical Origins – Mentoring

While the word “mentor” is not used in Scripture, the Greek term meno (enduring relationship) is found in the New Testament one-hundred and eighteen times and thirty-three times in the Gospel of John alone. In his farewell messages, Jesus repeatedly used the term to express the “steadfast relationship” He enjoyed with His disciples (Carruthers, 1993; Köstenberger, 2004, as cited in Beisterling, 2006). Exegetical sources provide us with a variety of synonyms for “mentor” including elder, discipler, and teacher (Moore, 2007).

In the Old Testament, elder is a name frequently used to indicate a person of authority who is entitled to respect and reverence (Genesis 50:7). For example, Moses shared his commission with the “elders of Israel” and seventy of them were selected to bear with him the burden of the people (Exodus 3:16, Numbers 11:16,17). In the New Testament church, elders served as the “pastors”, “leaders”, and “rulers” of the flock (Ephesians 4:11; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:12) (Easton, 1893, 2005).

The term discipler does not actually occur in scripture, disciple and discipleship [mathetes [maqhthv]] are used to describe the goals of the mentoring process. Discipleship is first about becoming like Jesus, about entering into relationship with Him (Luke 6:40). It is also about focusing on others in selfless servant-hood (Philipians 2:1-8). Authentic discipleship is to become a living example for others to follow: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1) (Baker, 1996).

The variety of Greek words used in the New Testament to express teach, or teacher, are extensive – “didasko [didavskw]”, to teach (Matthew 7:29), “katecheo [kathcevw]”, to instruct systematically (Acts 18:24), “matheteuo [maqhteuvw]”, to train disciples (Matthew 28:19), “paideuo [paideuvw]”, to train, instruct (Hebrews 12:6), “noutheteo [nouqetevw]”, to correct, counsel (I Thessalonians 5:14), “parangello [paraggevllw]”, to command, order (Acts 15:5), and “paradido [paradivdw]”, to hand down tradition. (Matthew 11:27) (Baker, 1996).

Teaching is clearly at the center of God’s plan for redemption. With God as the ultimate teacher, He calls the family and the redeemed community to teach future generations. In the Old Testament, following God meant to trust and obey Him; keep His commandments; and to obey the prophetic word (Numbers 14:24; Joshua 14:8; Deuteronomy 3:3-4; 1 Kings 14:8; Daniel 9:10).

Due to their importance in Jesus’ call on the disciples, the words follow, and follower are of interest. In the New Testament following of the incarnate Son of God was commanded explicitly, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19). Following Jesus meant and means to enter into intimate relationship with Him and share not only His kingdom work but also its final reward: eternal life (Luke 18:30) (Baker, 1996).

Theological Foundation – Mentoring

Is there an approach to mentoring that can be supported theologically? In the tradition of Luther and Calvin, one would first look to the scriptures. In Genesis 2, we find God engaged in a mentoring relationship with Adam. He anticipated Adam’s limitations, and provided guidance. God listened to Adam’s need, provided him with a partner, and presented a teaching-learning model for the mentor-protégé relationship. While they were not equal in status, they nonetheless had a powerful rapport (Beaudoin, 2003).

The scriptures also point to other significant mentoring associations: Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and Timothy, and Jesus and His disciples (Moore, 2007). Examination of their interactions can provide some insight into the power of mentoring relationships.

Moses, the foundational prophet, provided us with a number of examples of fulfilling a mentor’s role for an entire nation beginning with the institution of parental instruction to the children of the Passover story as in Exodus 12.  He highlighted a shift of attention from the older generation (in the wilderness) to the new (who would enter the Promised Land). He demonstrated that the role of spiritual “eldering” was not the exclusive responsibility of the prophet but belonged to all the people of God (Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984). God directed him to shift some of his responsibility for meeting the needs of the people to the elders (Numbers 11). In Deuteronomy, he was able to focus on discipling a new generation and the teaching and appointment of his successor, Joshua.

Elijah, the leading prophet of the Former Prophets, exemplified the transmission of a sacred inheritance to the next generation. In Malachi 4:6, God extended a divine call to Elijah to teach and influence the nation, “to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents”. The impact of Elijah’s mentoring on Elisha was seen as he called him “my father, my father,” and pointed to the relationship of a prophetic leader to his disciples (2 Kings 2:12). He “poured water on Elijah’s hand,” a phrase that indicated that Elisha served in an apprentice relationship to Elijah (2 Kings 3:11). Ultimately Elisha inherited from Elijah the role of father to the “sons of prophets”, literally donning his cloak after he ascended to Heaven (2 Kings 2:13-15) (Anderson, 1999).

Isaiah, the greatest prophet of the Latter Prophets, realized that, like Moses, he was called to attend to the youth. Isaiah knew the children were significant, and he knew his prophetic call was to be their mentor (Isaiah 8:18).  Isaiah’s appeal to the future generation was for others to take up the call.

The apostle Paul illustrated the succession of mentoring, first as a protégé to Gamaliel and Barnabus, and later as a mentor to Timothy and others. He clearly spelled out the call and importance of mentoring in his letters – “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2) Paul explained to the elders at Ephesus, “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you” (Acts 20:17) and “In everything I did I showed you that by this kind of work we must help the weak.” (v.35) He reminded them, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice” (Phil. 4:9) and he demanded that they, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (I Cor. 11:1) Paul told the congregations, “I showed you, now you show them”. His message was that if a Christian leader is not mentoring someone, he or she is not living up to his or her calling (Beisterling, 2006).

Jesus was the ideal mentor. His approach incorporated: “(1) the casting and communicating of a life vision, and (2) teaching via: (a) verbal instruction, and (b) experiential learning in a secure, mutually committed relationship; (3) intimate relationships with (protégés), in which they are allowed to determine some of the direction of teaching based on questions and life circumstances, and; (4) enduring life-long relationships” (Moore, 2007). In communicating His vision, Jesus made clear that He expected a commitment that went beyond a personal relationship with Him. It could only be demonstrated through His disciples caring for the lost as much as He did:

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:15-17).

Christ realized that some of what He taught might not be understood until much later but He continuously taught them with sensitivity and patience (John 13:7). Jesus used the disciples’ questions in His teaching, and while He had His own teaching agenda, He answered their questions and addressed their concerns (John 13:6).

He used day-to-day dilemmas to illustrate higher truths. Specific issues that arose for them still have profound present day applications in areas such as diversity (Murrell, Crosby & Ely, 1999). For example, the racial bias illustrated in the parable known as “The Good Samaritan” could just as easily be told when dealing with bigotry today. Jesus’ love for His protégés endured through all their failures and imperfections, even though He had to die to help them understand how great was His love for them (John 13:1).

It has been established that there is unmistakable evidence of scriptural support to the calling of all God’s people to be responsible for mentoring the next generation. The disciples needed to learn how to relate to God and what type of people He wanted them to become. They needed to learn to follow, to obey, and to be humble, self-sacrificing, servants. Jesus gave them ministry tasks to help them learn these things and even allowed them to sometimes fail. He always provided them with necessary correction as He mentored them with prayer, example, word, and deed. He provides the same for us and expects the same from us extended out towards a dark and desperate world.

Cultural Context for Mentoring

Next let us turn to the societal cultural implications and some of the historical positions of the church in the last hundred or so years. A.E. McGrath (2007) wrote that in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries Liberal Protestantism moved Christian theology from its strict interpretation of scripture toward a more flexible approach that demanded a greater degree of freedom in relation to doctrine and interpretation. This occurred at least to some degree because of the emphasis on a need to relate Christian faith to the human situation. In Christian Faith, F.D.E. Schleiermacher suggested that theology’s function was to analyze the human experience. As a result, “Religion came increasingly to be seen as relating to the spiritual needs of modern humanity and giving ethical guidance to society” (2000).

McGrath (2007) wrote that by the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, theologians like Paul Tillich focused on moderating the discussion between Christian faith and human culture. In the mid twentieth century, H. Richard Neibuhr had crafted a theoretical framework to assist in the examination of the relationships between Christianity and culture. His radical/social realism maintained that there are five Christian/culture paradigms: Christians living in absolute separation from culture; an integration of Christianity and culture; a position that Christianity reveals the answers to culture’s questions; and/or the paradox of Christians living in the world; while attempting to obey the authority of God. His fifth model, “Christ the Transformer of Culture”, aligns with the views of Calvin, Wesley and Jonathan Edwards (McGrath, 2007). Here the values and goals of the secular culture are transformed to correspond with those evidenced in the service of God’s kingdom.

In a general sense, mentoring may offer a theological connection between Christianity and the goals of the present culture. From ancient to present times mentoring has been essential in the “training up” of the people. Through mentoring the protégé seeks maturity, the integration of all his or her facets: biological, sociological, and psychological. We know that many of life’s lessons need to be learned firsthand so Christ modeled with the disciples how tender teaching after a difficult learning experience can lead to important discussions between mentor and mentee. It can serve as a strong foundation for the growth and development of the protégé. The mentor can provide the caring and understanding heart of someone who has walked the same path. A good mentor will use all he or she has on behalf of the protégé (Earle, 1998). This may even include looking for ways to rid us of the desire to mold a protégé in our image (Beaudoin, 2003).

Practical Realities of Mentoring

On a personal level, to serve as mentors can facilitate the integration of our own faith and provide a powerful link to our ultimate purpose; the why and how for all we do. Let’s take a look at how this interest in mentoring may provide a reasonable response to the impersonal attitudes and individualism prevalent in today’s culture (Clinton& Stanley, 1993). The future of schools in the twenty-first century depends on our ability to establish and maintain an organizational infrastructure with sensitivity to the development of the people involved.

Mentoring is both an opportunity and a risk…It provides a framework to bring about a cultural change in the way we view professional development for competent future leaders. The road to the top in most schools today is an uphill and bumpy ride – you simply can’t float to the top. Mentoring is a key way to help us get to our destination. (Kunich & Lester, Kunich, 1999, p. 117)

College and university teacher preparation programs have long embraced the notion of mentoring novice educators. However the approach and focus of these efforts may have been misplaced. Ideally, the goal of mentoring should be to build capacity not dependency. Capacity requires an internal locus of control and strong personal efficacy. However, teaching trainees report that the mentoring efforts often center on fixing the deficiencies rather than building competence. They also report that mentors spend altogether too much time telling, rather than listening. Albert Bandura (1997), a pioneer in efficacy theory, gives this explanation:

People’s beliefs in their efficacy… influence the course of action people choose to pursue, how much effort they put forth in given endeavors, how long they will persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, their resilience to adversity, whether their thought processes are self-hindering or self-aiding, how much stress and depression they experience in coping with taxing environmental demands, and the level of accomplishments they will realize. (p. 3)

The characteristics he describes are critical to teachers as they deal with problems they did not cause, make decisions without enough information and fix things that are not theirs to fix (Crow and Matthews, 1998). They point to the need to develop and implement mentoring programs and networks that develop self-efficacy in new teachers.

A Delphi study conducted at the University of LaVerne in California utilized input from 34 national and international experts from across the field of mentoring educators (Bradley, 2006). The research examined the essential elements of and the barriers to effective mentoring focused on the development of self-efficacy. An extensive literature review as well as panel narratives identified mentor traits, behaviors, and functions. In a four round iterative process the expert panel provided, ranked, and prioritized specific essential elements of and barriers to mentoring focused on the development of self-efficacy in protégés. The study resulted in effective strategies to overcome those potential barriers. Table l identifies essential elements to mentoring classified by six common themes.

Table 1. Essential Elements for Mentoring to Develop Self-Efficacy
Belief in Others

  1. The main goal is building capacity in the protégé – not building dependency
  2. Viewing protégé as capable/positive and resourceful
  3. Belief by leadership in coaching – walk the talk


  1. Ability of the coach/mentor to build and maintain a trusting relationship
  2. Absolute confidentiality
  3. Trust in the process/es


  1. Coaching skills
  2. Professional competence
  3. Training for anyone who mentors or coaches


  1. Use of data rather than judgments
  2. Clear goals


  1. High level communication and dialogue skills


  1. Dedicated time and resources for the work

Significant to the study were that the same themes aligned when the experts identified barriers that inhibit the effective implementation of mentoring. Table 2 displays the barriers classified along the six common themes.

Table 2. Common Themes and Barriers to Mentoring
Belief in Others

  1. Perspective that mentoring is about deficiency
  2. Viewing mentor’s role as a fixer of another’s deficiencies


  1. Lack of trust
  2. Lack of confidentiality


  1. Lack of training for mentors in ways to support protégés
  2. Lack of or poor mentoring skills


  1. Lack of goal focus in the process
  2. No plan of action


  1. Inadequate communication skills


  1. Time on the part of the mentor and protege to meet and interact

As Christians we hold to a belief that none are worthy in and of themselves so sometimes it is easy to forget that novice educators are capable, positive, and resourceful. We believe that God works for the common good through human hands and words so mentors can provide that support to those who have a calling to become teachers. In light of that, examination of the three most significant themes identified can help us eliminate any suggestion that mentoring and coaching is about deficiency or viewing the mentor’s role as an expert in fixing of other’s deficiencies.

Belief in Others

Central to the theory of successful mentoring is a profound belief in people’s capacity to grow and learn. As we support our students in their struggle, challenge them to do their best, and cast light on the road ahead, we do so in the name of our respect for their potential and our care for their growth. Thus is about building capacity and facilitating a relationship. That relationship requires balance. “We need our students as much as they need us…if we are to teach with life and vigor and hope, then we must recognize that we teach not just for our students and not just for the world, but for ourselves as well” (Daloz, 1999).

Numerous strategies and action steps to diminish or eliminate the perception that mentoring is based on a deficit model came out of the LaVerne study. Table 3 shows those suggestions that deal with organizational perceptions of mentoring. Table 4 displays strategies directed at the mentoring program itself.

Table 3. Strategies to Deal with Organizational Perceptions

  1. Role modeling of a new perspective for leadership – that being a leader who develops the talent of others through effective coaching and mentoring is absolutely essential.
  2. Create a written description of the organization’s coaching/mentoring program including a philosophical statement defining its positive purpose and referring to the benefits of coaching/mentoring. This should be addressed in orientation to the program and clearly articulated throughout the program.
  3. Make sure that schools where teachers are placed communicate that mentoring and coaching are about supporting educators and not about deficiency.
  4. Gain support and validate importance of the mentoring program throughout system.
  5. Both mentors and protégés can have the unrealistic expectation that the mentor’s role is to fix weaknesses. This is a perception issue that can be reduced with good training and processes and behaviors that don’t contradict.
  6. In the event that a mentor is assigned and sent by the university due to poor performance of the protégé, this must have to be spelled out in the beginning.

Table 4. Mentoring Program Strategies

  1. Provide models of successful mentoring relationships in all types of settings including business and education.
  2. Use positive presuppositions throughout –concentrate on developing efficacy and consciousness.
  3. Clear expectations and goals established by program administrators with very clear norms generated by both parties established and maintained.
  4. Use a mentoring model where all levels of personnel have mentors – enrollment in the project is not by perceived professional ineffectiveness.

Building a Relationship of Trust

Two critical barriers under the dimension of trust are “Lack of Trust Between Mentor and Protégé” and “Lack of Confidentiality.” Mentors need to realize that trust is essential to learning and without taking the time and effort to build trust; no learning relationship will follow. Table 5 provides nine practical strategies to eliminate or diminish barriers to building trust.

Table 5. Strategies to Eliminate or Diminish Barrier to Building Trust

  1. Mentor must acquire skills of trust building and rapport – listening intently, mirroring, non-judgmental questioning and responding.
  2. Mentor and protégé need to consciously focus on building trust.
  3. Mentors and protégés discuss trust in open dialogue.
  4. Both parties need to read resources/books on the importance of trust.
  5. Allow protégé to select mentor.
  6. State upfront that everything discussed MUST be confidential. If a mentor does not fulfill this responsibility, they will be removed as a participant in the program.
  7. Make confidentiality explicit as part of the coaching agreement.
  8. The protégé needs to know he/she is working with someone they can trust and share. They need to be assured that the mentor will not go back to the university with tales about the school or situation and use outside coaches who adhere to code of ethics.
  9. In a first “grounding conversation,” include specific agreements regarding confidentiality. These agreements should address who will know/not know about the coaching/mentoring relationship, what words will be said to those who know about the coaching/mentoring relationship, what specific topics and information are confidential (perhaps everything), and, if there is a supervisor/master teacher/university who hold some expectations regarding the coaching/mentoring, what precisely will and will not be shared with that supervisor/master teacher/university. Leave nothing to chance.

Mentor Training

There are many recommendations with respect to strategies to diminish or eliminate the barrier of “Poor Skills or a Lack of Training.” Table 6 shows the strategies for training suggested by the Delphi Panel and contains approaches to program, process, and training content.

Table 6. Strategies for Appropriate Training

  1. Provide a formal university training program in mentoring/coaching so everyone is on the same page.
  2. Mentors need to be taught skills prior to becoming a mentor.
  3. Provide coaching of mentors with support groups and regular meetings.
  4. Train mentors in facilitative coaching.
  5. Connect to any available local educational training programs to lend continuous support for mentors
  6. Provide periodic support and practice sessions for the mentors.
  7. Provide mentoring orientation – with simple guide booklet, videos showing role-play, and facilitated mentor forums.


  1. Provide training and practice guided by a skilled facilitator.
  2. Draw upon trained mentors who are part of a professional learning community of leadership mentors.
  3. Provide a framework and process for coaching rather than expecting support providers to “shoot from the hip”.
  4. Train mentors with guided practice and follow up to monitor for mutations.
  5. Provide mentoring opportunities in groups to connect with other mentors/protégés.
  6. Require participation in coaching training that is of excellent quality and of sufficient depth to ensure an appropriate level of skill.


  1. Provide feedback loops regarding effective practices.
  2. Organize reflective practices in the training.
  3. Train mentors in purpose and goals of coaching, coaching maps, response behaviors of pausing, paraphrasing, probing, providing data, and questioning skills.
  4. Skills must be taught sequentially with a developmental perspective.
  5. Study dialogue, adult learning theory, and coaching texts.

There were also specific recommendations made for concurrent or at least parallel training of mentors and their protégés. Table 7.

Table 7. Training of Mentors and Their Protégés.

  1. Provide training for mentors and orientation for protégés, who have an active part in making the relationship and activity work.
  2. Training needs to be provided prior to onset of program for both parties on how to identify, set, and follow through on goals, strategies for the process and clear delineation of what will be necessary to establish and maintain trust.
  3. Provide ongoing process checks between mentor and protégé.
  4. Require prior participation in consultative skills workshops, or another communication skills program by all program participants.
  5. Provide training in dialogue, communication skills for both parties – coach prior to beginning, as a prerequisite to being a coach and protégé in the beginning stages of the process.

A variety of professional mentoring training models are available. One comprehensive mentoring methodology currently used in educational settings is Cognitive CoachingSM. In Cognitive Coaching, support services are learned: collaboration, consulting, coaching and using professional standards to self-assess/calibrate teaching abilities. Expert coaches learn how to navigate among and between each of these approaches. Regardless of the methodology chosen, it is clear mentoring programs should require program specific training of anyone who will be acting as a mentor.


Warren Bennis (2003) coined the phrase “managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.”
This expression also represents the twenty-first century concept of mentoring; one in which mentoring includes care for the spirit. In strong, positive organizational cultures there is a duality of leadership and mentoring. Great leaders prepare their people, develop them, challenge them, encourage them, and touch them with their vision and the passion for that vision. In much the same way, mentors prepare their protégés.

Mentoring impacts not just individuals but also the organization. It affects many aspects of organizational behavior including leadership, culture, job satisfaction and performance. The impact of mentoring on institutional culture can seen as a sense of identity for the group and a group belief in its capacity to produce results, expend more energy in their work, persevere longer, set more challenging goals, and continue in the face of failure. Finally, organizational benefits include an advocacy of life-long learning with more collaboration and interest in improving teaching and learning as protégés learn to balance multiple roles.

For academic mentors, this vocational integration allows us to advance our work, developing and using virtues God expects of us where we can ask ourselves what really shapes our practice. Boyd (2007) provides these powerful questions for mentors:

Do you create space for others to learn? (hospitality)
Do your responses to others reflect the love of Christ? (charity)
Do you demonstrate that you care for others and do they know that? (compassion)
Can you admit that you don’t know? (humility)
Do you show others that you can learn from them? (docility)

As Christians who mentor, we can verify a faith-based reality that the love to which we all are called is truly possible. God’s Spirit makes our efforts powerful as well as the efforts of our extended community of care (Lottes, 2005). Mentoring as relational empowerment is just one approach to bring the personal touch back to an impersonal, individualistic, and spectator society, it may also be that mentoring is the most powerful method by which we can shape the future and follow the example of Christ.


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