The utility of providing mentors to early career professionals is widely recognized. Many businesses encourage them with established formal mentoring programs. Many universities do the same, assigning incoming faculty and staff to more experienced counterparts to assist in their onboarding. The exact relationship between the “mentor” and “mentee,” however, comes in a wide variety of flavors. Presumably, the starting point for the nature of the relationship is that of its historical namesake, Mentor, the tutor of Telemachus from Homer’s Odyssey, whose likeness Athena took to provide him encouragement and direction. In this blog post, I argue that Christians have a better model of how to invest in our new colleagues, the model of discipleship laid down by Jesus Christ.
The benefits of mentors for those starting in a new career or position are numerous and obvious. A mentor can help new hires adapt to the organizational culture, teach them the company norms, and help them avoid embarrassing faux pas. Mentors can also serve as a relational bridge, introducing the new member of the organization to the right players and helping them connect with others who can help them succeed. Mentors can reduce the stress of new arrivals by being available to answer their questions and giving them someone in whom to confide when they encounter problems.
The utility of mentors is so obvious that they are now widespread across multiple industries. Big four accounting firms Deloitte and KPMG have well established mentoring programs for their junior accountants. Tech giants like Intel and Google (which famously refers to the mentees as “Nooglers”) use mentor programs to help their new hires adapt to firm culture. More mature firms like General Electric and Caterpillar utilize mentoring programs to allow incoming employees to better navigate within the firm and to ramp up their company knowledge more quickly.
Mentoring programs are also well established in higher education. In my own college, I meet regularly with new faculty in their first year to address their inevitable questions about the peculiarities of UMHB. In these informal meetings, we talk about family life and our favorite music, as well as how to manage student appeals or information requests from the Provost’s Office. NYU has a program targeted at faculty from ethnic minorities or groups that are underrepresented in their fields. The program pairs junior faculty with seasoned colleagues and offers group meetings for community support. The University of California at San Francisco operates two separate programs for some of its new faculty: mentorships—for helping the faculty integrate and succeed at the university, and sponsorships—wherein senior faculty actively promote the careers of young colleagues for advancement and other opportunities.
The ubiquity of mentoring programs and their broad variety may obfuscate an unfortunate fact of their existence: Institutions that deploy them have reasons of their own. Athena did not assist Telemachus in the form of Mentor out of any sense of love for him (as we would understand love from 1 John 3:16) or of self-sacrifice. Athena hated the Trojans. All her actions in the Trojan War, including her “mentoring” of Telemachus, were designed to further her goal to destroy the city. In a sadly comparable way, in both industry and higher education, the institutions’ underlying motive in mentoring programs is to retain valuable employees. Institutions will continue to invest in mentoring programs only so long as they serve corporate objectives. They are neither loving, nor sacrificial in the Johannian sense.
Christians have a better model available to us. Rather than relying on mentoring to assist new colleagues, and thereby the institution, we can provide creative kinds of discipleship to those we are trying to onboard. The distinctions between discipleship and mentoring are subtle but profound. Both models may take on similar issues, but both the approach and the goal are different.
While mentoring is a binary relationship between the mentor and mentee, discipleship always consists of three parties, the disciple, the discipler, and the Lord, whom both are seeking to please and follow. Mentors assume the position of wise counselor and powerful insider. Disciplers approach their disciples with humility, offering to share what the Lord has revealed to them about serving at the institution. It tends to involve sharing some of our most embarrassing failures. A mentor seeks to advise a mentee about how to navigate an organization, solve problems, or produce valuable outcomes for the mentee and the organization. A discipler seeks to help the disciple integrate her experience in the workplace into her spiritual walk and calling. Disciplers illustrate and educate new employees regarding how they can serve Christ in their workplace and in their career. While a mentor may explain how to manipulate the boss, a discipler will explain how to serve, and even pray for, the boss. A mentor may coach a mentee in how to survive a reduction in force. A discipler may recommend both parties redistribute their responsibilities to help others within the group even though it makes them more vulnerable to termination.
A critical distinction between mentoring and discipleship is the motive of the discipler. Mentors provide their organizational wisdom and connections to mentees in order to retain the mentee and to speed up her process of becoming a contributor to organizational goals. Disciplers, on the other hand, invest in disciples purely for the disciples’ sakes. Benefits to the organization, or to the discipler, are secondary. Jesus’s example of discipleship involved repeatedly serving His disciples without any expectation, or even a permitted opportunity, for return (See John 13:6-10).
With its intentional Christian focus, discipleship may be challenging to organizations which define themselves as secular, such as state universities or most business enterprises. Discipleship, however, can be applied with a deft hand even in such environments and with individuals who are not themselves Christian. In a 2019 article on disciple making in the workplace, Marty McMahone demonstrates how managerial relationships provide opportunities for instilling biblical virtues in their employees such as service, genuineness, integrity, grace, and humility.1 McMahone notes the transcendent value of these virtues in any organizational setting and argues that the modeling and teaching of these virtues orients the new employee towards a Christian approach to work and career. This orientation is one step on a discipleship journey that can ultimately lead an employee into a divine relationship.
Converting our efforts from mentorship into discipleship adds an eternal element to what would otherwise be a temporal activity. It allows us to further the Kingdom of God even as it contributes both to the disciple and to the organization. It also assists us in loving our colleagues as Christ loved us, rather than objectifying their careers for the good of the institution. Why would I be a mentor when I can be a discipler? Homer’s classics are amazing stories and explorations of human character. Let’s not confuse them with divine guidance on how to love our sisters and brothers and serve our Master in the workplace.
- McMahone, M. (2019). Discipleship as process: The managers role in connecting people to faith. Journal of Biblical Integration in Business (22)1. Available at View of Discipleship as Process: The Manager’s Role in Connecting People to Faith (cbfa-jbib.org).