The Paradoxical Mentoring Space

Both the theory and practice of Christian mentoring are notoriously hard to define with precision. In part, this is because the discipline of mentoring holds several dynamics in tension. Mentoring is a paradoxical space where apparently contradictory things are both true.

In his book, The Courage to Teach[1], Parker Palmer writes about six paradoxes he sees in teaching. I’d like to apply these to the mentoring space and add a seventh paradox I have discerned that is especially important to me.

Bounded and Open
Mentoring conversations are bounded in the sense that they have focus and direction. The partners do not approach a void; there is agreement about why the partnership exists and what is being pursued. At the same time there is a profound openness to welcome many perspectives and explore fresh ways of understanding and responding.
Hospitable and Charged
Mentoring is hospitable in the sense that it is an inviting, safe, reassuring, sheltering and trustworthy space. It is a nurturing setting which at times also holds energy like an electrical charge. Mentoring conversations can be adventurous, significant, consequential and may feel risky as old perspectives are scrutinised.
Accepting and Discerning
Mentoring holds no condemnation, no hostility. There is freedom for expression without the hazard of being judged. It is a place of deep acceptance, starting where we are and not where someone says we ought to be. And yet, the mutual commitment to discerning truth in a context of grace means that not all things are approved and affirmed.
Little Story and Big Story
In mentoring, the little story of the mentoree’s life and circumstances are honoured as significant and taken seriously. Alongside this, Christian mentoring insists that the ultimate meaning of every individual’s unique little story is found only within the big story of God’s kingdom and the broad sweep of salvation history.
Solitude and Relationship
Christian mentoring maintains that the mentoree is solely responsible for their life, their decisions and actions, and that the primary connection and dynamic is that which is established between the mentoree and God. Nevertheless, a relationship of solidarity is offered by mentor to mentoree in support of their pursuit of God’s invitation.
Speech and Silence
Conversation is a fundamental methodology underpinning mentoring partnerships. Yet the words exchanged between mentor and mentoree are merely stepping stones towards the revelation, transformation and empowerment that comes from God. Space is left in the silence for reflection and receptivity to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Skilful and Naïve
Christian mentoring aims to be skilful through thorough preparation and commitment to excellence. Simultaneously, acknowledging the abject inadequacy of our skills, we mentors are naïve enough to believe God will work. We walk the line between the artful skill of a thoughtful, hardworking servant and the naïve, innocent trust of one who merely hosts a mystery of divine transformation.
I find I need to keep reminding myself to maintain the tension of these paradoxes, and not gravitate to one side or the other.

Rick Lewis – February 2024

[1] See Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998)

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