Dr Rick Lewis
When I explain my approach to mentoring I sometimes have people say, “Isn’t that a bit like spiritual direction?”, or “Isn’t that a bit like coaching?” Unfortunately, there is no agreed terminology pertaining to various empowering processes, which can make things rather confusing for those starting to explore mentoring, spiritual direction, coaching and the like. The best I can do is explain exactly what I mean by the term ‘mentoring’ and explain how I see other processes being distinct from that.
All of the processes discussed below can bring genuine empowerment to those who participate in them, and all may be used to good effect within a Christian context. Just what the terms mean is a matter of dispute, however. The explanations given here, while simply one perspective among many, will hopefully provide a starting point for understanding the differences between processes, no matter what they are called.
Coaching refers to the development of a particular skill and doing something well. Different skills require different competencies. Athletes require strength, flexibility, speed, coordination and endurance, while academics require reading, comprehension, logical analysis, memory recall, and expression. The coach works with the subject to eliminate bad habits and to strengthen good ones, all for the sake of performing an activity with excellence. Mentoring does deal with skills but, in a Christian context at least, it is fundamentally concerned with the inner life as a priority over outward performance. Mentoring is concerned with who you are, how you relate and what you do. Coaching is really just concerned with what you do.
However, these terms are somewhat slippery in current usage. In recent years the term ‘life coaching’ has come into vogue, referring to a more all-embracing process that in some cases may be indistinguishable from mentoring. At the same time, the way the term ‘mentoring’ is used in secular contexts reduces it to something little more than professional skills development with a little career path management thrown in. There is an argument that Christians ought to drop the term ‘mentoring’ and use ‘life coaching’ instead, in order to speak the language of the world around about us. I’m not convinced, but would not quibble as long as what is meant by these terms is clarified.
Variations on this term include ‘spiritual formation’ and ‘spiritual guidance’. This empowering process is especially concerned with the subject’s relationship with God. It may be argued that everything after that is mere detail and implementation. Even if that point is granted, yet I would insist that such implementation does not take place automatically and without concentrated effort. Mentoring goes beyond spiritual direction in that it is concerned to carry the implications of the work of the Holy Spirit through to its practical outworking in the world of human relationships and Christian ministry and mission.
While methods of spiritual direction vary, it is often the case that practitioners are at pains not to allow their ‘self’ to intrude into the process of direction. The idea is that such intrusion would somehow get in the way of the vital transactions that are going on between God and the person being directed. In mentoring, the mentor’s self is seen as an asset rather than a liability; a channel for God’s grace rather than a potential impediment to it.
Counselling is a process that revolves around remedial care. Its starting point is a specific presenting problem which prevents the subject from functioning normally. This issue is then explored with the goal of empowering the subject to deal with and then move on past the issue that has troubled them. Although mentoring will, from time to time, tackle problems that arise in the course of pursuing goals in line with the work of the Spirit, it is not problem-centred. Rather, it is centred on the purpose and activity of God. If debilitating problems persist, the mentor may refer the mentoree for skilled counselling.
In many church contexts, pastoral care has devolved into little more than tea and sympathy – a non-directive sort of Christian companionship that comes alongside when people are troubled. For this reason it is sometimes seen as a weak and ineffective process in terms of empowerment. Yet understood from a Biblical perspective, pastoral care is less about sympathy than it is about discipleship. The main function of a shepherd is to protect and nurture the growth of the sheep so they end up healthy, strong and safely part of the flock. If this is what is meant by pastoral care, there is considerable overlap with mentoring.
However, pastoral care is generally implemented reactively, whereas mentoring is proactive. Like counselling, pastoral care is problem-driven whereas mentoring is driven by God’s call and agenda. Furthermore, pastoral care approaches an individual from the perspective of them being part of a community, and emphasises positive participation within that community. Mentoring has the capacity to transcend the boundaries of particular communities and may persist while the mentoree passes through several different churches or organisations.
From a Biblical perspective, discipleship is a lifelong process of following Christ in which a person is transformed by the power of his Spirit to be like him in thinking, character and action. Facilitating this process is closely akin to what I have described as mentoring, so why don’t I just use the term ‘discipling’ rather than ‘mentoring’? The reason is that the term ‘discipling’ is generally not used in its far-reaching, Biblical sense. Instead, discipling is commonly understood as initial faith-formation: a content-driven process of orientation provided to new Christians.
According to this understanding, discipling imparts to new believers basic Christian beliefs and trains them in practices that are regarded as ‘normal’ for committed Christians. The essential message of discipling is “Here is what you need to know and do”. It is usually carried out in structured, short-term programmes. Once the subject has completed the course, they are regarded as having been ‘discipled’. Distinct from this, mentoring is not driven by a particular curriculum, pays more attention to the being that lies behind the knowing and doing, and is a lifelong process.
Those with gifts of teaching are an invaluable resource for the whole Christian community. We all need to be taught what the Bible says, what it means and how it relates to everyday life. Mentoring, on the other hand, seeks to operate within the revealed truth of the Christian scriptures, taking what is known generally and specifically about God’s purpose for the mentoree and helping them to integrate that knowledge into their life. Though there may be occasions for a mentor to express what he or she has learned, it is not primarily an opportunity to exercise one’s teaching gift. It is vital for the mentoree to be active within mentoring to discover and cooperate with the work of the Spirit and not simply to absorb more information.
It is a wonderful and positively therapeutic thing to simply hang out with a Christian friend. It is not a bad thing to share the things that God is teaching you or reminisce over one’s life experiences. If Christian leaders took the time to develop deep, lasting friendships, they would probably avoid many of the pitfalls into which they commonly fall. But just spending time together enjoying good company does not constitute mentoring. Friendship does offer the possibility of a basic level of watching out for one another. If it is to become a ‘soul friendship’, a kind of peer mentoring relationship, some kind of clear understanding or informal ‘contract’ will need to be agreed. Without such a negotiated agreement, the rigorous, focussed, intentional accountability process within mentoring would be rude and presumptuous in the setting of a simple friendship.