Tuesday, August 22, 2006


We are in the middle of the evaluation season at Carey Baptist College. All 30 of the students in our Pastoral Leadership track journey through an annual process which probes for both critique and affirmation. As Principal I have been committed to participating in every single one. It is just exhausting... Reflecting on the written material - phrasing that open-ended question that cracks an issue open - committing to leaving no hard thing or affirmative thing unsaid - on and on it goes. In fact last year the process left my emotional tank so dangerously low that this year I am participating in just the first and third year student evaluations.

And each year the same issue comes up. When faced with a student who has some vulnerabilities which have yet to be strengthened, what is the default setting by way of response? I've gradually watched it take over in the past decade:

"They need a strong mentor."

Please don't get me wrong. I believe in mentoring. I submit to the process myself and I look forward to sessions that I have with people whom I mentor. [Last week I even read Walter Wright's book on Mentoring - just so useful as he gave me permission to do what I tend to do: allow for a giving and receiving to take place in the mentoring relationship]

But three questions are beginning to gather for me...

(a) Should the instinctive reaction be to throw people on to a mentor, or should it be to throw people on to God? At the very moments when we consider a mentor to be needed, should we not be coaching people towards 'casting' (1Peter5:7) themselves on God? Is God not the primary mentor in our lives? Who was the mentor for the psalmist, I wonder?

(b) I wonder if 'having a mentor' becomes a crutch that keeps people one step removed from grafting the personal disciplines and habits into life that are required? The ol' cliche about needing to 'do the hard yards' comes to mind. Establishing priorities. Addressing weaknesses. Pursuing holiness. Are we becoming responsible adults are are we being kept in a kind of infancy? How does the mentoring process contribute to (and then be changed by) someone's growth into maturity?

(c) What role does community play? Is this not designed to be mutual-mentoring-en-masse? Is this prominence of the mentor playing into the hands of our individualism? I wonder if this default to mentoring as the solution would be quite so prominent if people were better integrated into healthy and accountable communities?

I guess an effective mentor keeps an eye on (a) and (b) and (c)... but I do find myself concerned that a mentor-dependency is emerging. It is reaching the stage where people who are separated from this kind of specialist support (you could add in coaches, supervisors, spiritual directors...) for a period of time might well end up unravelling and deconstructing. That should not be the case!

nice chatting



Andrew Butcher said...

A challenging and thought-provoking post, Paul.

Like you, I regularly see a mentor and really appreciate it when I do. But my mentor is one of the many people in my faith community that encourage me along.

You know I can't help but wonder whether the great attraction to mentors is that as our faith/life/being is fragmented, disconnected and individualised we lose sight of what it means to be in a community of Christians worshipping a God-in-community.

We can't actually do this alone; well, I can't. I really benefit from the input that my faith community has into my life and I hope that in some small way they benefit from whatever input I give to them.

But it is still my faith in God and it remains my responsibility to ensure that my relationship with God, as with anyone else, is a relationship that i actively work to cultivate and grow.

And if I don't then I can't blame those around me because the responsibility is mine alone. But it is an even more dangerous thing for me to isolate myself and to think that I don't need other people in my life.

I guess it's finding that balance between living in a community of faith, but keeping our faith in God, not others.

Seth said...

There seems to be two divergent streams in your post. One, hyper-individualist, that would question mentoring in favour of "throwing them on God". And a second, counter-individualist, that would question mentoring in favour of community - "mutual-mentoring-en-masse".

Certainly we should challenge anything that becomes a crutch, addiction or stumbling block and impedes personal resposibilty. But conversely, we need to challenge anything that becomes an excuse for apathy and impedes communal responsibily.

There should be in any christian community that layer of mature, disciplines, wise christians who see mentoring-en-masse as their responsibilty. When this is true a person in a church community will have many mentors (proverbs 15:22). Amidst this plethora of Godly and seasoned advice, the person seeking wisdom will have no choice but to listen to both counsel and the voice of God, and act taking full responsibilty for their actions. This to me, seems the ideal.

The problem is the advice. - "They need a strong mentor." in that it limits the mentor role to a single person. "They need to get amoung strong mentors".

I do. We all do.

Paul Windsor said...

I guess both of you only confirm me further in my thinking that the way mentoring is set up and spoken about today - it does tend to appeal to a rampant individualism among us, rather than challenge it.

Just in passing - it is interesting to ask what the similarities between 'the postmodern thing' and 'the modern thing' actually are. I reckon I know one! With both of these the starting point for life and knowledge is the self...and radical conversion from either and both must involve commencing life and knowledge with God - as he reveals himself in Bible and in Christ. What say ye?

seth said...

This is true. Both Modern and Postmodern thought is anthropocentric, only in radically different ways. (Where I find postmodernism so helpful is that it refuses to seek to define the anthropos without seeking to understand everything else. Finding the context as immanent in the text, and the culture as constituent of the individual.)

The radical conversion that you speak reminds me of Kierkegaard's view that each Man has an absolute relation to God. Each man's walk with God is in its own way incommensurate with any others, existing in its own paradigm (to use Thomas Kuhns terminology). This undermines BOTH the postmodern deference to the community AND the modern penchant to universalize.

Christ when asked simple questions like "What shall i do to be saved?" seemed to have a different answer for every asker. And his answer to the question "What about him?", was "What is it to you?"

There is a beautiful scene in the Narnia books where Lucy sees Aslan up a hill and tries to get her siblings to change course. They don't. And when they eventually find alsan, she expects a pat on the back from Aslan for being right, instead she is reproached, "When they didn't listen you should have come alone.."

Somewhere in there is the via media to between the capitulation of postmodernism and the universalisms of modernism. At the moment where we come alone; that moment of absolute relation - where God is true and every man a lair.


Nigel Foster said...

I guess I am lucky to have had a very good mentor .
Sometimes he counselled me to do things that I balked at , but I can never think of any mistake that he made . He was smart enough to listen to God and listen to me at the same time -- quite often he would sit in silence for quite some time before he would say anything -- and that was often a question throwen back to me .

He was smart enough to help me to put the crutch aside and to start practising walking by faith . He knew that a permanent crutch was going to be a major handicap

Alot of advice that he gave me , I can now impart to the younger christians in my cell group . My leaders ( I am just a leaders assistant )often wonder " where I get these gems from "

Dont just throw people at a mentor -- ask God to choose the BEST one available for the person