“Mentoring is so American,” a friend from another country told me. We were talking about older women mentoring younger women, and she had a different take on it than most people around me. “Where I’m from, people would never do it. They just take part in the life of the church and try to be faithful in their personal lives.” What she meant was that the early 21st century American version of mentoring—more of a Evangelical, programmatic Titus 2 system—was something unique to this culture. And she is probably right: the one-on-one coffee dates, note taking, and arranged, lay shepherding isn’t exactly something that has a timeless or universal feel. Not that this “American” version of mentoring is wrong, it’s just a cultural expression of Protestant America trying to help the older women teach the younger women.
Biblically, and as far from cultural influences as we can get, mentoring is actually a relationship between two Christians—an older one and a younger one—for the purpose of fostering growth in grace in both people, but especially the younger one. Mentoring is telling a younger believer, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Mentoring is not stopping to work so that you can run and have a coffee and ask how their week was. Mentoring is not a programme that you follow. Paul did not go out for shawarma once a week with Barnabas to ask about his quiet time, or start an accountability system in the congregation. They went on a mission trip together; they actually lived out the Christian life in close proximity, working towards the same goal. This does not mean that asking about devotions and having accountability (or shawarma!) is bad; it means that they are small parts of the much more comprehensive and full lifestyle that biblical mentoring is.
As an older woman, mentoring is opening your life and inviting younger women from your church family into your everyday work so that she can actually see how biblical principles work on the ground. It’s investing in a younger woman so that she can reap temporal and spiritual dividends. As a younger woman, being mentored is honestly opening your life to an older godly woman so that you can grow in your calling as a Christian, wife, and maybe mother. Mentoring can include things like Bible memorization and book studies, but it is a lot more holistic than only that. Mentoring is an organic relationship between an older woman and a younger woman whom God has brought into regular contact with one another, where the younger woman learns about life and godliness from someone who has wisdom in those areas. Mentoring is not a project or an event. It should be a lifestyle for every professing Christian woman: a deliberate, intentional use of the relationships God has placed us in. When it is being done biblically, there’s nothing artificial about mentoring: it’s honest, on the ground, and produces fruit, in one or both people.
Just like Christians in the New Testament era, we are living in a secular culture. Our churches are increasingly full of young women who have grown up in homes where they were not taught what biblical womanhood looks like, either because their parents were not Christians, or because they had an underdeveloped understanding of biblical Christianity. A lot of these younger women are struggling and need someone come beside them and say, “Hey, I can help you figure out how to do this.” We all need that, because none of us have ever done what we are doing before, and counsel, encouragement, and warnings are all helps to keep us from falling.
Mentoring is also important for girls who have grown up in the church. If you have a daughter, you are automatically mentoring her, although that is not the best way to think of that relationship as Scripture describes the parent-child relationship far larger, more comprehensive ways than can fit into mentoring, though mentoring is an aspect. But we should be mentoring younger women outside of our families, just as our daughters should have someone outside the family mentoring them, since families have blind spots, shared sins, and often similar weaknesses and strengths. Involving other Christian women with different perspectives, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses is a huge asset for all of us. If we are part of a healthy church, this should happen by default. Older women in the church will welcome younger ones into their lives so that the younger women can develop a broader, fuller understanding of what applied Christianity looks like.
Mentoring is also important because it is personal. Google only gets you so far in getting answers, and since bloggers and dead authors don’t know you and your situation personally, they cannot speak to you specifically. And, when you google instead of going to a mentor, you lose all of those little, extra interactions and comments that can be a big boost, not just in your day, but in your developing understanding of the Christian life. You can google how to roast a turkey, and sometimes you need to do that. But if you call a mentor and ask them, you will likely get the answer you are looking for, plus some tips on celebrating Thanksgiving and some encouragement in your planning.
Ideally, every older woman in the congregation will be mentoring every younger woman in the congregation in some way at some point. That’s part of the blessing of being part of the body, isn’t it? At one church we were in, I asked older women all sorts of things, from, “What do I do about a flooding basement?” to “I am really frustrated with this person. How can I overcome that?” And the younger women asked me all sorts of things, from, “Do I have to use a zipper foot to put the zipper in this dress?” to “I’m not feeling much respect for my parents; what can I do about it?” That situation was a general mentoring, which was good in its own way.
But in most cases, we will develop a mentoring relationship with one person more than others in the congregation, simply because of schedules, living locations, and personalities that fit better than others. That’s the sort of relationship we generally mean when we discuss mentoring: one-on-one, deliberate life-teaching. Typically, the healthiest mentoring happens within a local congregation, because it (1) is under pastoral oversight, (2) builds up the local body, and (3) has a regular, social, and relational context within a congregation.
Mentoring is more than the older woman getting to know the younger woman so that she can help shepherd her. A huge part of mentoring is the younger woman getting to know the older well. We should be able to say to them what Paul said to the Corinthians: “Follow me as I follow Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). That doesn’t mean that we’re saying that we are perfect or have it all figured out. In fact, if we’re opening our lives, it’s going to become very obvious that we’re not perfect. But because we are older and have been running this race longer, we do usually have more figured out than younger women and so can help them run better than we have.
So what does this look like in real life? Here are three (real) examples of Christian women doing a good job at mentoring. Some are momentary, some are long-term, depending on the younger woman’s need:
• Jen is mentoring someone that doesn’t know she is being mentored. The younger woman is a young Christian who comes by Jen’s house because of a work routine. After the younger woman finishes her work, she goes to the kitchen for a drink and they talk while Jen makes supper for her family. Jen asks a lot of questions that helps the younger woman evaluate her situation. It’s only about half an hour once a week, and though the younger woman would not call it mentoring, it is having a significant influence on her life.
• One summer, Michelle was in a different town for a weekend because of a wedding. An older pastor’s wife, who knew Michelle’s family, was there, too. This older woman basically spent the weekend mentoring Michelle. They sat together for several meals, and she asked Michelle a lot of good questions that helped her think, she encouraged her, and she let Michelle close enough to see how she interacted with others, including her husband, how she dealt with new social situations, how she conversed with other people.
• A dating couple that started attending a church while they were at university; she came from a very unique background and lived thousands of miles away from her family. For the years that this couple attended the church, the pastor’s wife had them over almost every Sunday for lunch, and really taught the younger woman what it looked like to be a Protestant wife, a hard-working mum, and Christian hostess. That mentoring relationship formed a lot of that young woman’s ideas about marriage and motherhood, let alone Christian community.
Mentoring is being deliberate with the relationships you already have. It’s a lifestyle, not a special occasion. It’s not stopping work to mentor, it’s part of work: showing a younger woman what it looks like to have your boots on the ground in the Christian life. Be creative in maximizing your mentoring time; let younger women see your life in action.
And being mentored is being deliberate with the relationships you already have. It’s a lifestyle, not a special occasion. It’s not stopping work to hang out with someone you think is cool; it’s learning to work more faithfully as you work. It’s watching an older woman so you can learn what it looks like to walk the Christian walk in real time. That won’t always be pretty, but it will be fruitful, Lord willing. Be creative in maximizing your mentoring time; follow an older woman so you can see her life in action.
I want to emphasize what a gift mentorship is—it can sound like a lot of work on both sides, and that is true. For older women, it’s a work of service: freely giving up your limited time and energy to a younger woman teach and pray for her. For a younger woman, it’s a work of learning: being humble and diligent to get wisdom from an older saint and make sure that it is the Bible’s wisdom instead of justifying what your current thinking is. On both sides, it is a lot of work. But God has given us an incredible blessing in commanding that older women teach the younger women.
As a younger woman, it is so encouraging to have someone say, “Hey, can I help you out there? You’re doing good, hard work, but if you do it this way, it might be better.” It is so good to know that an older believer cares for you, prays for you, and is looking out for you, and is there in times of trouble. And as an older woman, it is so encouraging to watch a younger woman pursue biblical Christianity in her life and calling! It is so good to know that God is raising another generation of saints who are hungering and thirsting after holiness, and that you can be a small part of building that.
Of course, God knew when He inspired the verses and examples of older women teaching younger women that this would be the case. As in so much of life, the blessing is woven into obedience. Let’s not allow cultural preconceptions or some other hesitation make us miss out on either.