Mentoring as life-sharing, experience-imparting and skill-training has a long history. The third-century bishop Gregory of Neocaesarea wrote an account of his relationship with the church father Origen, who became his mentor. When Gregory came to Palestine, it was for the purpose of having a relationship with Origen. Although he admired Origen’s mind, he wanted more than an information download. He wanted to spend time with the great bishop in order to learn from his life, not just his mind.
This view of mentoring was common in the early centuries. Clement of Alexandria wrote in his book on ethics, The Tutor, “The role of the tutor is to improve the soul, not to educate nor give information, but to train someone in the virtuous life.” Like others who wrote on mentoring, Clement understood the purpose to be “to form the soul in virtue” (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale, 2003, 268).
This is the aspect that many students don’t realize they need just as critically as they need theological training or skills in biblical languages. But the truth is, more men wash out of ministry because of character issues than doctrinal deviation.
Character formation is not always welcomed by young protégés. At first, Gregory resisted Origen’s attempts to change him. Though Origen’s words “struck like an arrow” Gregory was not ready to undergo the discipline imposed by Origen. Gregory was more interested in argument and intellectual debate, but this was not acceptable to Origen. His aim was to “move the soul,” and he challenged his disciples to open their hearts and allow their wills to be molded by the good (p. 269).
Although learning a set of precepts was part of the mentoring training, “what counted for more was the example of the master and the bonds of friendship formed with the disciple…Friendship, said Gregory, ‘is piercing and penetrating, an affable and affectionate disposition displayed in the teacher’s words and his association with us’” (p. 269).
This personal relationship had a profound impact on Gregory. “Through Origen’s friendship with him, Gregory learned to love Christ, the Word, but he also began to love Origen, ‘the friend and interpreter of the Word’” (p. 269). Only when this relationship became personal, was Gregory finally persuaded to give up those objects that stood in the way of Christian maturity. The master had to first know and love his students before he could cultivate their souls, and like a skilled husbandman, bring forth fruit from an uncultivated field. “To correct, reprove, exhort, and encourage his students, the master had to know their habits, attitudes, and desires. Origen’s love for his disciples was part of the process of formation” (p. 270).
This is the soul of genuine Christian mentoring. It is not a business-like, formal transaction of a superior to an inferior; nor is it a feel-good stroking of a student’s ego. It is rather an intentional life-guidance that is based on the mentor’s genuine love for the student, so that he is able to give either encouragement or rebuke when needed, all the while the student knows he is loved and valued. This is true mentoring, and it is desperately needed today, both in the lives of those preparing for ministry of some kind, and any young believer who takes his or her growth in godliness seriously.