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Mentoring Is More than Teaching

It’s actually a lot more like mothering.

“So can you help me? Please? I really need your help.”

As I stared into the eyes of my new Christian friend, I saw her struggling. She was feeling tempted to enter into a serious romantic relationship with a non-Christian. Of course I will help her, I thought. I know just what to do!

I scheduled a weekly one-on-one Bible study with her to examine the book of Romans. I just knew it would be a great help as she faced this temptation. We met weekly in my office, but after a few meetings, it became apparent that my bright idea of Bible study didn’t really seem to help my friend when the forces of temptation came at her most strongly.

What’s wrong with Bible study? Nothing, of course. But when we’re fighting a serious battle against temptation, we might need something more. Though I’d been eager to help my friend, I approached her with the mindset of a teacher rather than that of a parent—and there’s a big difference.

In 1 Corinthians 4:14–16, Paul offers a warning to the church: “I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children. For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me.” Paul related to the Corinthians as a father, not as a teacher. A teacher’s predominant goal is to pass on information to others in a way that can be understood, processed, and applied easily and effectively. It’s what I do as a university professor. And I would argue that it’s the default mentoring approach of many in evangelical church leadership. Thus, church seminars are offered, sermons are delivered, Bible studies are written, and podcasts are recorded—all with an eye to helping individuals grow. But growth requires much more than a transfer of information and an exhortation to apply that information.

A parenting approach, on the other hand, incorporates a different mindset. Mothers and fathers focus on what will help their child change, grow, develop, and become all that God desires them to be. It’s a more holistic approach. It certainly includes teaching, but it’s not focused exclusively on the mind. Instead, parents take into account both the will and the emotions.

Parenting is centered on relationship. While I can teach people without a personal relationship with them, I certainly can’t parent without one. Relationship makes trust possible, drives discussions to deeper levels, creates a safe place for failure, injects encouragement, and allows for healthy imitation as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 4. This kind of caring relationship touches the individual in a deeper way than teaching ever can.

When I applied this parenting mindset to helping my struggling friend, I realized that what she really needed in addition to biblical study was friendly pop-in visits, encouraging phone calls, occasional late night sob-and-pray sessions, and lots and lots of hope and cheerleading. Only then was she strengthened to act on the biblical teaching she knew applied to her situation.

If you’re involved in caring for and mentoring others on a regular basis, ask yourself these questions to see if your predominant approach is more like teaching or parenting:

  • Do I tend to lecture like a teacher, or listen like a parent?
  • Do I want others to understand my thoughts, or do I work to appreciate their perspective?
  • Do I wait for someone to ask me a question if they don’t understand something, or do I pursue that person, reaching out before I am asked for help?
  • Do I simply invite those I mentor to help me in my ministry, or do I also invest my time in their unique passions and ministries?
  • Do I find those I mentor improving only in how they explain and defend Christian doctrine, or do I see them exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit such as being patient with those who oppose them, serving outside their comfort zone, or choosing to resist the temptation to say unkind words to others?

Approaching mentoring with a parenting mindset isn’t that difficult. First, it’s important to be unwavering in our commitment to spending time with God ourselves, allowing him to mold our hearts to become more like his. The more we spend time with God, our Father, allowing him to change us in the deep places, the more we will default to a parenting mindset when we mentor others. Studying and meditating on biblical passages that emphasize God’s fatherly care for us can also help. Consider meditating on Psalm 103:13–14, Isaiah 43:1–7, Song of Songs 2:8–13, Zephaniah 3:14–17, or John 17:20–26.

Besides spending time with God, there are several practical ways you can ensure you’re mentoring with a parenting mindset:

  • Record prayer requests, including dates of significant happenings, in your personal calendar. Connect with your mentee on those days with a text or phone call.
  • Set a weekly or bi-weekly reminder on your calendar to check in with mentees, whether or not they have contacted you.
  • Do an act of service for mentees, such as bringing over a meal, washing their car, or picking up their kids from school.
  • Ask the Holy Spirit how to pray specifically for your mentees. Share your prayers with them when appropriate.
  • Invite your mentees to step into a leadership role with you—allow them to teach one of your church classes or your Bible study, ask them to pray for a request you have, or request their advice on a spiritual challenge you face.
  • Ask for insight on a topic that your mentee has experience with or is passionate about.
  • Attend an event or meeting that they participate in or lead.

In these days of easy access to podcasts, TED talks, audio books, blogs, and tweets, it’s extraordinarily easy to find a teacher. It’s a lot harder to find people who care about our development like a loving parent. We have the opportunity to develop others in our churches by mentoring them with a parenting mindset, just as God the Father lovingly parents us. It’s easy to default to simply transmitting information, but let’s lean into the nurturing nature God has given us—the nature that reflects all the ways he is a good father.

Lisa Smith has a Ph.D. in Early American Literature and teaches English at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She serves in the small-group ministry of her local church and enjoys mentoring, praying with others, and teaching and studying how we process and share spiritual experiences.

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