The other day a younger friend asked me a really good question: what is the difference between discipleship and mentoring? In fact, this is a great question, and one that arises from my insistence that discipleship is not primarily about the Christian’s personal and largely unmediated relationship with Jesus but about interpersonal human relationships, the participation in the missio dei (God’s mission) Jesus has delegated to us. If my understanding of discipleship is that it is relational and directive and handed on, is what I mean by ‘discipleship’ mentoring? An older acquaintance who asked me my views on discipleship recently thought so.
There is certainly a degree of overlap, but in my view discipleship and mentoring are not coterminous. While I am aware that there is a (growing) range of nuance to how the term ‘mentoring’ is applied, my understanding of mentoring is that it is vocational and that, while the mentor may certainly address character issues and facilitate networking, the relationship is primarily concerned with passing on specific skills to their protégée.
Another related-but-different field is that of life-coaching, which, unlike mentoring, is not vocational. The aim of the life-coach is to help someone identify changes they want to see in their life and to put in place changes towards that life. They are more concerned with values than particular skills: with helping their client to align their actions more closely to their ‘ideal world’ lifestyle. Life-coaches tend not to be directive: the impetus for change comes from the person who has engaged them; they act as a sounding-board to help that person articulate what they seek. As such, life-coaches – in contrast to mentors - do not necessarily model something they have learnt and are now handing on.
Discipleship is concerned with becoming Christ-like (“imitate me as I imitate Christ”) in every part of life. It is concerned with vocation – that is, our kingdom roles – as inextricably linked to personhood – that is, our covenant relationships. Therefore, discipleship involves a distinctively Jesus-centred form of life-coaching and mentoring, while adapting and exceeding both.
Discipleship as mentoring (as when a Christian businessperson mentors younger businesspeople in engaging in business according to kingdom values) puts one person between me and the place I want to go to – a person who will help me take that step. It may relate to a specific job or employment, or unfamiliar location; or more generally to the unchanging, developing vocation that is expressed through a series of jobs and in a series of locations. While discipleship must always take into account both Christ-like competence and Christ-like character, here competence takes the ‘leading beat.’
Discipleship as life-coaching puts one person between me and the person of Jesus – someone who will bring me to Jesus, just as I am called to bring others to Jesus. While discipleship must always take into account both Christ-like character and Christ-like competence, here character takes the ‘leading beat.’ It may be significantly removed from mentoring – a key observation for church leaders in inherited traditions: we are not primarily called to raise up the next generation of clergy or licensed lay ministers, but to create a culture of discipleship by making disciples – regardless of their vocation – who make disciples.
Both are counter-cultural to the extreme individualism of our age. Both are necessary, as the life of discipleship is a shared life of being called to come to the person of Jesus and be sent ahead of him into every place.
I shall develop these ideas in my next post, The Field Of Discipleship...