I have a problem with mentoring. But it isn’t what you might think.
One of my responsibilities at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville is overseeing our Man2Man mentoring program. We pair up older men with younger men for the purpose of discipleship, encouragement, and fellowship. In other words, we match up mentors with… what do you call the guy being mentored, exactly?
A person who mentors others is called a mentor; that part is clear. What do you call a person who is being mentored? Not so easy. “Mentos” are those weird little mints, so that can’t be it. “Mentoree” sounds like it would be a small beach town on the gulf coast of Florida. “Protegé” is a pretty good term for what happens, but any word you have to stop and add an accent to is never going to get traction and besides, it sounds like you’re the promising assistant to a mad scientist. How about “person being mentored”? Nope, much too clunky. Words like “devotee,” “acolyte,” “disciple” are all not going to work for pretty obvious reasons. My dictionary says that “mentee” is the correct word for this, but I just don’t think that “mentee” has enough going for it to be recognized as an actual word. What will we do? We need to figure this out, though, because mentoring is essential.
Let’s leave the terminology aside for a minute and talk about where the idea—and the word—mentor come from. First, the English word “mentor” comes from Homer; there’s actually a guy named Mentor who is a minor character in the epic poem, The Odyssey. Mentor shows up in the story only a handful of times. He is an older man who gives counsel to Odysseus and later, to Odysseus’s son Telemachus. When Odysseus reluctantly sails to Troy with the Greek armada, he leaves Mentor to care for and supervise his estate, and especially to train up his infant son Telemachus.
Homer never comments on the quality of Mentor’s work, but when Odysseus finally returns home 20 years later, he finds in Telemachus a young man, equipped with wisdom and courage, ready to assist his father in purging the estate and restoring order and justice. It’s no wonder that we’ve named the process of discipleship after this guy.
But still, how did that happen? How did we take a guy’s name from a 2700 year old Greek epic poem and turn it into a verb that describes one of the most important components of Christian discipleship? Maybe you’ll indulge my love for language for just a minute so we can talk about how we got this word, “mentor.” There is no evidence that the name existed in Greece before The Odyssey, so it is possible that Homer made the name up. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that Homer may have formed the name from the mnē word group. All those related words have to do with memory and remembering. If you’ve ever wondered whose dumb idea it was to mash up an ‘m’ and an ‘n’ at the beginning of the word ‘mnemonic,’ there’s your answer: the Greeks did it! So, what is the connection between remembering and mentoring? Good question. I’m not sure exactly what ‘ole Homer had in mind here, but maybe the connection has to do with imparting knowledge to the one being mentored (see, there’s my problem again!) so that he can remember the lessons of those who have gone before him, not make the same mistakes, and build upon the legacy of his forebears. In order to remember, you have to know what went before.
Now, lest we dabble too long in Greek mythology and lose the thread of Christian discipleship, let’s bring this back to the Bible.
I want to talk specifically about why mentoring is important for our deepest desire of godly manhood, which is to grow to be more like Jesus Christ. We can call this whatever you want: mentoring, discipleship, spiritual fatherhood, leadership development, the bottom line is: older men need to be deliberate, thoughtful, and sacrificial in giving of themselves to guide a younger generation into faithfulness here. And younger men need to be humble, eager, and take initiative to go get the mentoring or discipleship that older men have to offer.
It is not an innovation for me to make this appeal. The Bible is loaded with examples of mentoring: Moses prepared Joshua to lead God’s people; David prepares his son Solomon to build the temple; Elijah takes on Elisha as a protegé and teaches him how to be a prophet; and of course Paul trains Timothy, Titus, and other men for ministry.
The Bible doesn’t tell us everything we would want to know about the dynamics of these stories of mentoring, but I think you could certainly make the case from the story of Joshua and Elisha that they pursued and put themselves in the way of grace through mentoring. Like these godly men whose lives were recorded for us in the pages of Scripture, we need to seek out mentoring and ask God to provide it.
There is a lot of instruction in the Bible about the importance of mentoring as well. Have you noticed how many times the New Testament urges Christians to learn from the example of other Christians? I plan to do another episode soon specifically on the counter-cultural priority of Christian imitation. But I think that the gold mine of teaching on the importance of mentoring is the book of Proverbs.
The book was written by Solomon to prepare his sons for how to be king. More broadly, it is easy to take it as a manual for parents to bring up their children in the knowledge and wisdom that comes from the fear of the Lord. But we can apply Proverbs more broadly still by recognizing how the book exposes the need in younger Christians for older Christians. You can see this mostly obviously in the way a father endeavors to train up his son, but again—if we grab that principle, it is not much of a leap to say that younger members of the people of God need the example and instruction of their elders.
Let me give you one example: “Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck.” (Proverbs 1:8–9). There are many more verses like this and young men, I encourage you to take a lap through the book of Proverbs and create your list of verses like this one that motivate you to seek out the wisdom of godly men, especially your dad.
In fact, this gives me a good chance to honor my Dad and tell you about the difference he made in my discipleship, especially when I was a young Christian.\-=
Our family went to church all growing up but it wasn’t until I was in college that someone began mentoring my dad. We lived in Northern Virginia and I was away for my freshman year at Virginia Tech when a pastor named Keith started investing in my dad. I remember coming home at Thanksgiving break that year and Dad wanted to talk to me about what he was learning from the Bible, how he was growing in his relationship with Jesus, and how he wanted to do anything he could to help me to grow to be more like Christ as well. I had a great relationship with my dad before—he was always a really good dad—but the change was so profound, I remember joking with him, “Who are you, and what did you do with my dad?”
About a year later, through a variety of circumstances, I came under conviction of sin and decided to leave Virginia Tech at the end of my sophomore year and transfer to a university that was just a few miles from our house so that I could get discipleship from my dad. We had lunch every week, read the Bible together, he taught me how to get up early and meet with God, he talked me through major decision making like going to the Pastors College, and in that season I grew. That rapid season of growth was the work of the Holy Spirit through my dad’s initiative. He was eager to give it, but I had to go get it. For me, that meant a decision as radical as transferring university, changing my major, and moving back home in the middle of college. The effect on my life was profound and set me on a trajectory. Within a few years after that I was married to Nicole, began pastoring back at the home church, and was headed towards becoming the man that I am today. And so I thank God for Dad’s influence and I badly want for young men to have an experience like I did.
Now, I can imagine a couple objections at this point. I’ve heard some young men say, “I tried that and it was fine, but I didn’t get much out of it.” Of course I don’t know your exact circumstances, but I have a hunch. Hang with me here. If this is you, ask yourself, “How active was I in that process?” I think some young men come to mentoring and they are expecting the mentor to do all the work. Maybe you are one of these young men who is waiting for an older man to reach out, to ask questions, to teach. If this is you, we need to flip the script. I want to say mentoring is something you do to yourself, but that leaves kind of the wrong impression. A better way to say it is that we need to bring mentoring on yourself. First, by asking for it, and then by asking… lots of questions. Mentoring works best when you go get it and the way to go get it is to ask lots of questions. When I was a new pastor, back around 2002, I was getting involved in ministries I knew nothing about: children’s ministry, youth ministry, eventually counseling and preaching. CJ would encourage me to find my way to other Sovereign Grace pastors and ask… lots of questions. I learned so much.
Let me tell you about someone else who has done this really well. When I moved to Louisville, I needed income to provide for my family while I went to seminary, so I got a job selling furniture. The company was small when I began and my role grew with the company so that within a few years I was a store manager and then eventually the general manager overseeing all the sales operations of the company. I did a lot of hiring and a ton of onboarding and training new sales reps. I could usually tell in the first 15 minutes how good a sales rep this trainee would become, and it was all about questions.
At one point, we got a new sales rep, who had also just begun attending our church. He was young and came from a really different theological background. Immediately, this guy started asking questions. At the store, he listens in as more experienced sales reps would talk with customers and help them feel comfortable and confident about a decision. He would ask, “Why would you say that?” or “Why didn’t you say something there,” and we would explain the art and science of closing a sale. He was a quick study, and he never had to ask the same question twice. At church, he bombarded us with questions about our theology and practice. Sometimes, he was initially unconvinced and would go study the Scriptures for himself or read books we recommended, coming to biblical convictions in areas where no one had challenged his thinking before. He grew so much that from there, he soon went to the Pastors College, graduated, and later moved to Ethiopia where he started an Ethiopian Pastors College. How did that happen? The man asked a lot of questions! He asked thoughtful questions with lots of followup questions. He was not afraid to say, I don’t get it; can you explain it again? The fruit of this humility in his life is obvious. The Lord blessed it and he has grown—and is continuing to grow—in profound ways.
I’ve seen some young men—some of whom aspire to leadership in the church—grow disgruntled because they feel like there is not an older man in the church who is reaching out to them and investing in them. Young men, a very small mental shift here will help you a lot: mentoring is something you bring upon yourself. Humility, initiative, godliness—some of the key qualities of biblical manhood—come together in a drive to seek out mentoring. In an earlier episode, I gave a definition of godly leadership that goes like this: Godly leadership is joyful and faith-filled responsibility and initiative to provide example and direction that motivates and moves for the glory of Christ and the good of God’s people.
I hope you can see how the simple steps of humility involved in seeking out mentoring are also training for the kind of leadership that every man is going to need at some level in the future.
There is a chain of events here that is essential to the extension of Godly manhood to the younger generation and beyond.
If young men don’t get mentored, they can’t ask questions.
If they can’t ask questions, they won’t get wisdom.
If they don’t get wisdom, they won’t grow.
If they don’t grow, they can’t lead, at least not in the manner God wants them to.
If they don’t lead, we might fumble the gospel and fail to pass it on the next generation.
All of this is so important because it seems like the Lord uses the work of mentoring to extend the work of the kingdom further from one generation to the next. We’re not saying the younger generations are better, wiser, smarter, or godlier than their mentors, but younger generations are able to continue and build upon the work of prior generations and thus go further than if we had to start from scratch with each generation. Again, think about the examples in Scripture:
- Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, but it was Joshua who would lead them into the Promised Land.
- David was the man after God’s own heart, but it was Solomon who would build the temple.
- Elijah trained Elisha, but God empowered Elisha to perform twice as many miracles as Elijah did.
The advantages to our spiritual lives, our families, our churches, and our ministries will be greatly multiplied if we will go after mentoring, humbling ourselves, and learning from older men.
So, this is a lot of words and we still haven’t figured out exactly what to call the guy being mentored. But if we listen to the biblical message on mentoring, I think we’ll be able to agree that what’s most important here isn’t what we call it but that we do it.
So let’s go get some mentoring and let’s go grow into maturity.