A Spirituality of Mentoring

John Stack conquered the lecture hall, entering it like an ancient prophet: with a ruddy, tanned face; an out-of-control, black but graying beard that sprouted defiantly, Karl Marx-like, in a hundred directions; uncombed graying hair swirling like a collection of Midwestern twisters atop his head. He wore black or gray Levi’s, work boots and fraying earth-toned pullover sweaters over otherwise nondescript dress shirts, usually with the sleeves rolled halfway up his arms.

His lectures, stuffed with unpredictable antics, held us rapt. Discussing the emergence of the welfare state in England after World War II, he modeled a pair of postwar government-issue horn-rimmed glasses. To elucidate the Romantics’ trust in their feelings, he composed a free-form sketch across the chalkboard in swooping arcs and furious, passionate squiggles.


As a college sophomore I had the good fortune of getting close to this man, and for 10 years, from 1988 to 1998, I was mentored by Stack, as we called him, an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

He modeled for me a vocational identity that combined outstanding teaching with a passionate intellect. Helping me to see that I could live my calling as an intellectual through my vocation as a teacher, Stack awakened in me a drive for the life of the mind that, once unleashed, has never retreated. And his laughit was so generous, it flew out of him. It could ignite that full-torso, that I’m-not-embarrassed-to-blow-spittle-and-snot laugh, so easily, even over the phone, and that is one of the things I loved most about him.

Stack collapsed from a heart attack while walking in Washington, D.C., in May 1998. He died soon thereafter. In every humanizing moment with a student, I myself am performing a ritual of goodbye, and of gratitude, to him. If I am indeed saved, it has only been with reference to John.

As I try to make sense of my relation to Stack from the perspective of a Christian theologian, Scripture offers me clarity and challenge. For Genesis 1-3 gives us some clues about God as a mentor and as creator of the mentoring relationship.

On what grounds might we consider God as mentor? In forbidding Adam and Eve to eat of the tree, God points out where there is something for which they are not ready. God knows them, his mentees, well enough to know that they will eventually stumble upon it and perhaps make a decision for which they are not prepared. In this story God is the steward of their human flourishing and spiritual growth, which at this point in Genesis are so deeply interrelated that they are essentially the same thing. The narrative places God in solidarity with their flourishing.

Further, the mentor learns something from the mentees. Genesis 2 suggests that God learns from Adam that Adam needs a partner, and allows Adam to voice a protest against the inadequacy of God’s ideas for a partner, as God cycles through various animals. Finally, Adam gets to name an adequate partner, ishsha, or woman. We can read Genesis as proposing a divine teaching-learning dynamic as a possible model for a mentor-mentee relationship. The mentor and mentee are not equals in station, but they experience mutuality nonetheless.

Thus, in a sense, the early chapters of Genesis present a God who is the creator not only of the sun and moon and stars and animals and plants, but also of the mentoring relationship. Mentoring is created even prior to the covenant. In the light of such a theological claim, all authentic human mentoring can be seen as a participation in the divine mentoring of humanity.

Mentoring here does not operate through tactics of enslavement or manipulation. This is the case despite the clear disparity in power and knowledge between God and God’s human creatures. Bound up with God’s creation of mentoring is God’s releasing of the creatures for a life bound up with their own free decision. What is it that allows God to forswear absolute control over God’s mentees? It is nothing but the mysterious courtesy and unselfishness of the divine love. As Karl Rahner, S.J., observed, Ultimately love alone is able to leave what is other...in its own reality. God...who is love, makes the creature a real being which is different [from God] and which has its own independent reality, and so freely gives himself to it. If we find this reading of these Scriptures good news for our mentoring relationships, then all authentic mentoring should mirror the love of a mentoring God for us. All authentic human mentoring is a godly work.

What, then, is mentoring?

First, a mentor is one who agrees to be a steward of another’s maturityspiritual, intellectual and emotionalthrough a concrete solidarity with the unique personal needs, questions and desires of a protégé. A mentee or protégé is one who invites and cooperates with such stewardship from another.

Second, this stewarding and being-stewarded happens in a mentoring relationship in the context of a way of life in the world, a project. That way of life or project could be anything from the mundane to the sublime: from a job, an assignment, a task, to a career, a vocation.

Third, a mentor-protégé relationship is a human relationship, not an institutional arrangement. It is a sort of apprenticeship freely entered into, not an arranged marriage.

This spirituality of mentoring raises a signal question about power for educators today: How do we guard against mentors’ considering themselves as the god of their protégés?

We must honestly admit that in any mentoring encounter, there is a force field of power within the relationship that either repeats or interrupts the power dynamics of the larger institution.

When I meet a student mentee at my office at Boston College, I may have many powers at my disposal: the power to formally assess their work (which will more often than not be taken as an assessment of them personally), to pose questions, to control content, to structure time, to represent a powerful educational institution and religious tradition, to favor overtly and covertly some mentees over others, to be or not to be the patron of students wanting and needing a patron in the discipline, to write letters of recommendation that will directly affect the future of their careers, to manipulate students or protégés by playing them off each other, to conceal or reveal my own political commitments and personal life and professional knowledge with relative impunity, to endorse or undercut student voices by a wide array of rhetorical privileges at my disposal, to speak well or ill of students to colleagues who may be directly involved in the students’ personal and professional futures, to control varying degrees of relationship with them outside of the classroom and to provide them with spoken and unspoken clues about their academic potential and their intellectual identity. Whether or not I intentionally accept these powers, they pertain to me in my position.

Given these power dynamics, it seems that we need to train potential mentors in the ancient philosophical and spiritual art of self-examination, so that in our mentoring we can ask ourselves critical questions about power. What aspects of my vocation, for example, do I accent in my mentoring, and why? Who do I want my protégés to become, and why? How have I become the mentor that I am now, and how do the gifts and shadows of my own experience as a protégé influence my presuppositions about mentoring?

To paraphrase Martin Luther, what are the everyday gods of our lives and vocations, and to what degree are we initiating protégés into a critical awareness of these gods? As Luther argued, A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. What do we trust and believe in, and are we initiating our protégés into relation with the true God or some other god of ours? That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself, Luther says, is really your God.

Once we take this step, we can begin a more honest self-examination about how our practices of mentoring might be subtle ways of controlling others, of socializing them into our own understandings of our own vocation, into our own unresolved issues with superiors or our old mentors, into life options that have worked for us because of our needs but may not work for our protégés.

What is called for is a spirituality of power as an exercise of regular self-examination on the part of the mentor. This is the kenosis, the self-emptying love, of which the Christian Scriptures speak in Philippians 2. For Christians, when God, the mentor of Genesis, mentors humans in Jesus, this Jesus gives up pretensions to the advantage of divine power. A spirituality of power for the mentor continually looks at the ways in which we need to empty ourselves of the power to mold a protégé in our image. In other words, a good mentor will use the power that he or she has for the flourishing of the protégé, who does not need to be recreated in the mentor’s image.

Life-giving mentoring disallows the ignorance of power and the rationalizing abuse of power through appeals to the mentor’s superior knowledge and knowing better. For the sake of the flourishing of the protégés, mentors may strive to take up a nondominating relationship to their mentees. This striving for nondominative mentoring requires first that the mentor/educator have a fundamental willingness to be corrected or challenged by the protégé. The protégé makes demands on the mentor that sometimes force us to give up what we want. Nondominative exercises of power may be better orchestrated if the mentor can thus prize the virtue of humility.

Working for protégés’ flourishing is also a matter of practicing solidarity with them. By this I mean a heightened awareness of who protégés are as spiritual persons; who they have been and who they are becoming. It is a matter of dignifying the particularity of their intellectual, spiritual and emotional needs, as emerging from the concrete history of their everyday life experiences. Solidarity with protégés is a willingness to relate to them in a way that dignifies them as the agents of their own spirituality, who come to the mentor already vibrant with their own unique struggles to be alive, and who have their own absolutely unique concrete history of sin and grace through relationship to the Holy Spirit, which will find its way into their participation in the mentoring relationship.

Finally, mentoring can become a practice of everyday prophecy. Today almost everything in our larger culture is commodifiable. Authentic mentoring, however, is a matter of a free exchange of wisdom that, if it is truly free, cannot be commodified. These are relationships based not on the clock or on a monetary value, but on a regular exchange of gifts between protégé and mentor. Mentoring is a relationship based on quality, not on quantitative measures. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, privileging quality in relationships requires taming the hubris of the mentor, the renunciation of all place-hunting, a break with the cult of the star,’ an open eye both upwards and downwards.

The importance of a spirituality of mentoring lies not only in providing lessons and cautions for our own roles as mentors and mentees today. It reminds us that in these particular relationships, as in my relation to John Stack, we allow another person to redirect the very meaning of our lives, reorienting who we become before God. Mentoring can indeed be a saving relationship.

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