A Philosophy of Informal & Intentional Mentorship
by Benjamin C. Shin
In this issue
- I/I Mentoring
- The Pastor & the Fringes
- Book Reviews
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus News
- Faculty Activities
Mentoring is an important—even necessary—practice in the development of effective and impactful leaders for the future. This practice has also been called discipleship or coaching. Whichever term is used, it is important to realize that society and culture are changing and, as a result, traditional methods may not be as effective as in years past. Thus, it is important to adapt our methods in order to accommodate and reflect the changing times. Nevertheless, while the methods or forms must change, the basic function or goal of mentoring should not. Mentorship is one of those functions that should never change, as seen through the timeless principles of the Scripture (1 Cor 11:1; Phil 4:9; 2 Tim 2:2). In our day and age, it has become increasingly difficult to mentor and train up men with the goal of developing leaders.
Part of the challenge has been the whole issue of time; people simply do not have enough time in their busy schedules to invest in mentorship. That is why new forms or methods need to be developed. One such method is what I call I/I MENTORING: “Informal” but also “Intentional.” This is basically an alternative to the more traditionally structured and formalized meeting times of previous generations. Let’s explore three possible venues where informal and intentional mentoring could occur and how this could, in turn, reach others caught up in the busy–ness of everyday life.
The Background Context
I stumbled upon this “method” accidentally over a dozen years ago. I didn’t sit down and try to devise this method with precision or planning but rather developed it over time with practice. It is only now, after about 15 years of doing this, that I can see how the Lord has used this method.
The method began to crystallize in my mind when I saw an interesting comparison of the different models of mentorship in the book, Spiritual Mentoring.1 The authors, Keith Anderson and Randy Reese, noted a difference between a classical or traditional mentoring model versus a more progressive and informal model. Some characteristics of the more traditional model are that it is structured and formal, hierarchical and one–directional, authoritarian, and usually done with clergy. On the other hand, the more progressive model is informal, mutual, suggestive and evocative, as well as being unofficial—even being led by lay leaders. Anderson and Reese laid out a framework by which I could clearly see what I was doing on a weekly basis in the mentoring relationships that I had.
Other influences came from J. Robert Clinton in The Mentor Handbook2 and Connecting.3 In both books, he highlights informal and occasional models of mentoring that challenge traditional views and practices.
Clinton also offers an alternative to the traditional model of mentoring and discipleship in which I was trained through my parachurch experience and with Campus Crusade for Christ at UCLA. I loved my experiences with the various organizations, but often felt the methods were a bit too artificial. For me, it was too neat and nice; too programmatic rather than organic and natural. I was unconvinced that each level of discipleship programming was thorough and comprehensive enough to prepare me for the next level. The manuals were too simplistic with just short statements and fill–in the blanks. I thought, “There must be much more to this whole discipleship/mentorship deal than I’m experiencing now!” I deeply desired to have a life–on–life experience, not just short, pithy answers from a workbook!
I began investing myself in the lives of younger men with whom I spent time in a number of situations. These relationships were characterized simply by talking with them about the weightier issues of spiritual life, which led me to conceptualize three different categories of informal, intentional mentoring, which I called Driving Discipleship, Mealtime Mentorship; and Coffee Time Coaching. All three of these practices occur in very natural and organic settings, during which specific questions can be asked that fall roughly into the three respective rubrics. The bottom line is that these are real life situations where great amounts of time and effort can be expended to help develop vibrant and godly leaders for the future.
Driving Discipleship: What Road Should I Follow?
The first of these informal and intentional methods is what I call Driving Discipleship. The key question that could be asked, along the lines of the driving metaphor, is “what road should I follow?” Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had occurred while driving to no particular destination. This has been true with my pastoral staff, young men in our ministry, and even with my wife. As we travel together, due to time and privacy of the vehicle, thought–provoking questions and meaningful discussions have, many times, surprised me during the drive. It was not initially planned; it just happened informally and spontaneously! Due to the success of this kind of ministry, it later became an intentional practice where I would take young men with me to speaking engagements or on errands where this time together would turn into some marvelous times of bonding and encouragement.
The thought and practice of traveling partners and meaningful conversations is definitely not a new one. We find many instances where people who traveled together often practiced discipleship and mentorship very effectively, using natural opportunities to interact during travel. This was modeled by Jesus, for example, as he ventured with the Twelve (Mt 9:9; 20:17–19; Mk 8:27; Lk 8:22;) and the Inner Circle (Mt 17:1–13), during which Jesus spent time with them and ministered to them largely through simple conversations. He did not necessarily teach them didactically (with the exception of the Lord’s Prayer in Mt 6:9–13), but just lived life with them.
We see Paul travelling with Barnabas4 and Luke5 in the famous “we” passages all throughout the book of Acts, and the three missionary journeys.6 “Driving Discipleship” is also seen with the different traveling partners of Paul in the epistles, including Timothy and Silvanus.7 This was a pattern that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul had as a part of their lives—they traveled with others and were able to train up and disciple them through their shared–life experiences together.
The dynamic behind Driving Discipleship is one of building trust and confidentiality. Because the automobile is such a private place, often times a person feels safe to share and to engage in considerably deep conversational matters. I think that the fact that each person is facing forward, not physically facing the other directly in conversation, helps in fostering this sense of safety and confidentiality. As I work mainly with Asian–Americans who suffer from a lot of guilt and shame, this dynamic actually works positively and to my advantage. Once the initial “ice is broken” and they have shared through this means, there is greater and faster progress in the mentoring process.
In the safety of the car, I’ve had guys do everything from confessing their sins to asking for my advice on future directions for their life. After speaking engagements or training times, the discussion usually becomes even richer as the younger man accompanying me has just witnessed ministry up close. He now has an opportunity to process the situation by probing and asking questions directly. These times are key moments to help counsel and guide young men as they are facing important decisions or needing encouragement during difficult times. Driving Discipleship has been, and continues to be, one of the most fruitful investments that I’ve seen over the years; especially since I drive a lot!
Mealtime Mentorship: What Should I Eat Today?
The second method of leadership development is what I call Mealtime Mentorship. Eating has always been a wonderful means of connecting, sharing, and having fellowship together, and it seems that all Christians do this fairly well! In my experience, eating together has lead to some amazing and meaningful times of mentoring and leadership development.
Again we see this in the life of Jesus. For example, Jesus practiced “table fellowship” (Mk 14:18; Lk 15:2) and taught many things during meal times. Jesus gave some key instruction during His Last Supper with the disciples (Mt 26:20–35), including sharing again one day in the future the consummate meal in the marriage of the Lamb (see Rev 19:7–10) when all the saints in the church will be united with Christ forever.
Mealtime Mentorship is a good step in meeting with a person for the first time. The ambience of eating a meal together helps facilitate the conversation. One important initiative that I’ve practiced is for the mentor to pay for the first meal. This provides a good sense of shepherding and care for the person, especially if he is a student who may have limited finances. Meals also vary with different kinds of people. Morning people might enjoy a nice early breakfast while evening people may appreciate a later and longer dinner. Length of meal time and time of day can be flexible depending upon different personality types.
One of the most practical reasons why Mealtime Mentorship is so effective is that everyone eats a meal every day and, for the most part, people enjoy eating meals with other people. What better way to encourage people informally yet intentionally than through sharing a meal—and one’s life—with another?!
The metaphorical question that could be asked during this time is, “What should I eat?” What I have in mind refers to counseling about different decisions or choices one has through life. The mealtime opens up opportunities to weigh different decisions and to give counsel. Typically, I will not tell a person what to do but, rather, will simply lay out all the options as I see them and help them discern what is best, considering all the factors such as time, resources, and spiritual readiness.
Topics of discussion can be as varied as types of food available during the meal. What often occurs after the Mealtime Mentoring is a time to “digest” or process the conversations that, in turn, allow for future follow–up times to get together.
Coffee Time Coaching: Caffeinated or Decaf?
This third and final category of I/I Mentoring is what I call Coffee Time Coaching. Drinking coffee is one of America’s favorite past times—it seems that there are places to buy coffee everywhere you look. This affords numerous opportunities to meet with people and have Coffee Time Coaching. This is not a meal or an extended time (although it certainly can turn into one!) but rather it is a shorter get–together with someone as an opportunity to coach another in an area of life, especially an area of a spiritual nature.
Some frequent coaching topics include listening to hardships, giving counsel concerning leadership struggles, academic encouragement, and even family circumstances. The public nature of a coffee shop paradoxically often creates an openness that allows a person to share privately amidst the crowds of people. The metaphorical question of “Caffeinated versus De–Caffeinated?” again lends to giving advice that would be applicable in any life situation. These shorter “workouts” allow the coach to challenge, encourage, correct, advise, and empower the person in the midst of a busy day or time. Coffee Time Coaching can give a boost to the morale of the person who may be struggling with hardship or difficulties.
The Advantages and Challenges of I/I Mentoring
One of the biggest advantages of informal, intentional mentoring for the mentor is that this format does not require a lot of planned, formal, additional time. It is efficient, it is natural or organic, and it is based in the context of life upon life. Having enough time to do the ministry as well as train and develop leaders is one of the biggest dilemmas for a pastor or leader. Due to the lack of time, we often see that there is no mentorship, no discipleship, and no coaching done because everyone is simply too busy. This is a sad excuse though, because the prioritizing of mentorship ensures the future in regard to having qualified leaders who will later reproduce themselves.
But I should also note that there are some possible challenges or hindrances to this kind of mentoring. One is that the mentor or discipler needs to be one who is fairly relational and able to initiate these meetings. It would be awkward or strange for the mentee or disciple to initiate a meeting by asking to go for a ride in a car. The question would be for “what purpose?” This is where the mentor needs to set the agenda and follow through with asking the person to join him. In the Asian culture where I minister, due to the hierarchical nature of the culture as a whole, it would be very unusual for mentees to even approach a mentor. They may allude to a mentorship type of relationship but seldom do they have the nerve to ask for one straight out. It simply goes against the culture. For this reason, if one who is older invites another to any of these venues, there is a greater chance for a positive response.
Of course, the spiritual maturity of the mentor is crucial. The mentor must be able to give biblical counsel that will help the person to move well in the proper direction of their life. This requires great study, experience, and preparation on the mentor’s part. If he doesn’t have the knowledge or experience, then the time driving, eating, or having coffee will be a waste of time. There needs to be something worth imparting; otherwise it will be informal but not intentional in the development of the leader. My own personal preparation has been to pray daily asking the Lord for wisdom like Solomon (2 Chr 1:10–11). This is not necessarily a request for more knowledge, but rather for having the ability to utilize that knowledge in real life.
The Comprehensive Plan: Putting It All Together
Although each of the above “informal and intentional” practices is successful by itself, I have found that it is best if they are used together in complementary ways. For example, one could do Mealtime Mentorship for a season and then shift gears to Coffee Time Coaching. This allows for not only more variety but also more frequency in meeting. Also, because of the variety of personality types, different kinds of people will do better in one situation over another.
Now I must raise an important question: “Should I mentor or coach someone of the opposite sex?” My first answer is simply “no.” The main reason is that, in the long run, a same–sex approach is more effective in the development of a person in light of their God–given roles. Titus 2:1–8 states that older men should work with younger men and older women should work with younger women, which allows for deeper and greater relationship building and development. And certainly for practical reasons, opposite–sex relationships should be limited; we must be careful to be above reproach. Since one could go very deep and personal during these relationships, it is simply best to keep safe boundaries between the genders.
A final question to ask is, “Does I/I Mentoring work best with individuals or groups?” I have personally done both and can see value in both situations. When I meet with a person individually, he feels safer to open up and share his life. When I have a group of guys together having a meal, however, there is also a special dynamic that happens through the camaraderie that is unique and encouraging. An observation of the models in the New Testament shows Jesus typically meeting with groups like the Inner Circle (Mt 17) and with the Twelve on many occasions. Paul did the same with his different traveling bands during trips and church planting. From an efficiency perspective, there is a higher probability of training more leaders and then having a greater sphere of influence through those leaders. Of course, there is a greater risk of uncooperative group members, but I’m often reminded that even Jesus had His Judas who dropped out. If Christ could have someone like that, I am sure that I could have many more Judas’ in my group! I thus tend to favor the group option with occasional meetings with individuals from that group.
In summary, the informal and intentional approach to mentoring is highly relevant and applicable to our modern day needs and circumstances. It still takes focused intentionality on the part of the leader in order to accomplish these goals well, yet the whole approach is more appealing to a person who is busy since it works within the framework of everyday life. I encourage you to see each of these every day practices—driving, eating, and having coffee—as opportunities to train, equip, and raise up leaders for the glory of God so that the church of Jesus Christ would grow stronger, deeper, and wider!
1 - Keith R. Anderson & Randy D. Reese, Spiritual Mentoring (InterVarsity Press, 1999), 35.
2 - J. Robert Clinton & Richard W. Clinton, The Mentor Handbook (Barnabas Press, 1991), 3–7.
3 - J. Robert Clinton & Paul Stanley. Connecting (NavPress, 1992), passim.
4 - Acts 13:42–43; 14:12–14.
5 - Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–21:18; 27:1–28:16.
6 - Acts 13–14; 15:36–18:22; 18:23–21:16
7 - 2 Cor. 1:1;Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1 and Philem. 1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1.