“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ~Plutarch

Mentoring is about as old as man: the elder shall teach the younger. How do young people learn anything except through parents and teachers? But sometimes a rare individual comes along who is more than a teacher; he is no ordinary person, but a mentor (adviser, counselor, or guide), someone who is able to replicate himself in another person.

In the Bible we see the mentoring relationship in the lives of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and the disciples, Paul and his protégés Timothy and Titus, to whom he wrote the Pastoral Epistles.

I was blessed in my own life to have several mentors. Most were not born pretty: proof that you don’t have to be good-looking to work for God. Two were even handicapped. But all enriched my life in ways that no other adult could.


“A teacher [or mentor] affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” ~Henry Adams

The first was a woman, a Bible college graduate, in a day, by the way, when little more than 5 percent of women had college training. She was not a pretty woman—she wasn’t even congenial—too professional for that. She wore no makeup, dressed simply, and even walked with a cane, because she was crippled; but she was dependable, faithful, hardworking, responsible, and absolutely dedicated to the salvation and spiritual growth of young people.

Married but childless, Sister Carr*, as we called her—as Bill Gaither says, “You will notice we say brother and sister around here”—worked for the general church as a writer and editor. By day she created curriculum and instruction manuals for school-aged children; but, in her own hours, she voluntarily headed up an afterschool girls’ club, for Bible study and Christian development. She started the club meetings with prayer, devotions, and pledges to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. Afterward, we were dismissed into small groups, under individual group leaders. Giving us paces to work through, Sister Carr had us reading the Bible, earning badges, and making crafts, like basket-weaving. She herself tracked the girls’ individual progress.

I saw Sister Carr regularly at the club meetings, but sometimes I would drop by her office to chat. Other adults looked down on children, vertically, but she looked out, horizontally. To her I was not a child (a pre-adult): I was a human being (a peer).

One day, in her office, she looked me in the eye and asked not “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as other adults would have done, patronizingly, but “What do you want to do with your life?”

“Why, Sister Carr,” I answered spontaneously, “I want to be like you. I want to write.”

That is the first thing a mentor imparts: a desire to be like one’s teacher. “It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master” (Matthew 10:25). “Everyone that is perfect shall be as his master” (Luke 6:40).

“What a teacher [or mentor] writes on the chalkboard of life can never be erased.” ~Anonymous


“What the teacher [or mentor] is, is more important than what he teaches.” ~Karl Menninger

Ours was a beautiful, brand-new high school, set out on a prairie a mile or so beyond the town, and I was privileged to be there its christening year. It had high glass walls, interior courtyards, spacious corridors, shiny, never-before-used lockers, a band that would warm your heart, and a winning high-school football team. The classes were divided by aptitude: academic (college prep), business (typing, shorthand), trade (shop, home ec), and general. Each group was a cohort that took their classes together. I and about a dozen or so others were college prep; hence, Latin I and II, algebra, algebra II, plain geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

Each year Mr McPhee* was our mentor for math and Latin. He was a man of stately bearing and tawny-beige complexion, well-groomed, always wearing stiff white shirt, suit, and tie, hat, overcoat, galoshes or snow shoes, and carrying an umbrella. Each day I would watch him come in, take off, then set aside or hang up his outer wraps, set down his umbrella, and step to his desk with his briefcase. I never saw a more distinguished gentleman. He imparted almost as much by his manner of living as he did by his method of teaching. (The kind of person he was, was revealed even more, years later, when after retiring from schoolteaching, he became the pastor of a small Brethren, or Anabaptist, church.)

Pleasant and smiling, McPhee walked us through our classes, teaching us not only to conjugate Latin verbs, but to translate and read Latin classics, like The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar. There was no wrong way to speak Latin: it was a dead language, so there was no diacritical mark or correct pronunciation, which spared us a bit of what our peers were having to learn in French class. And since it was the foundation language for so many other Western languages, including English, the vocabulary wasn’t too hard to learn. The purpose of Latin, as anyone who has studied it knows, is etymology. If you understand Latin, you can make out most professional or high-brow language, including legal and medical terms.

In math we learned exponents, formulas,  logarithms, shapes,  square roots, and theorems until my head was buzzing with data. But however mind-expanding it was to me, it was already known to Mr McPhee. He would stand at the wall of glass, look out over the prairie grass, and say something like, “If I knew the height of this building and the distance to that Acme Supermarket”—the nearest structure in sight and only a pimple on the landscape at that—”I could calculate the hypotenuse [the largest and third side of a right triangle] to the last decimal.” I knew right then I wanted to know everything Mr McPhee knew, and I wanted to be every much a lady as he was a gentleman. He had given me more than Latin and math: he had given me an ideal of what a human being should be.

That is a second thing a mentor imparts: a desire to be more than what you are. When Paul said, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), he showed an aspiration to be more than what he was.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” ~William Arthur Ward


“The best teachers [or mentors] teach from the heart, not from the book.” ~Anonymous

My first professional job after college was working for a Christian press. One of my immediate bosses was a German, about a decade older than I, and much wiser. (He was the only one of my mentors that I called by first name; the others I referred to by surname.) Though he didn’t have to train me, Werner*, a graphic artist as well as a writer, graduate of a well-known Christian school, was often talking shop and giving me pointers about layout and design; he was also telling me how to write as if he were an instructor and I a student.

With me, writing was a passion; with Werner, it was an art. He was more skillful than I in almost everything in our field, and I was eager to learn. To this day I not only remember, but use the things he taught me.

For writing anything: “Draft it. Set it aside. Wait a few days till it’s cold, then come back and read it fresh. You’ll notice things you didn’t notice before.”

For features: “Don’t leap into your research. Start with an introductory paragraph or story that will draw the reader in.”

For graphic arts: “Don’t make the copy too busy. Leave some white space on the page. Paragraph often, as an eye gate.”

For word choice: “Don’t overdramatize or to use hyperbole. Tame your language, prefer softer, even subtle, manner of expression. Don’t use a fifty-cent word if a five-cent word will do.”

That is a third thing a mentor imparts: training or know-how. When Philip the Evangelist came upon the Ethiopian eunuch and heard him reading from Isaiah, Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Ethiopian answered, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:30, 31). Philip became a facilitator or mentor to the man to guide him in understanding the Scripture.

“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” ~Bob Proctor


“People must be taught how to think, not what to think.” ~Margaret Mead

One of my colleagues in Christian ministry was Koch*. We had about ten years together before he passed away from terminal illness. He and his wife were my parents’ generation; he had done his graduate work at a prestigious Eastern school, where his wife had worked in administration. So, he was well-connected, sat on secular boards and committees, and knew the governor personally. Though most of his life he had been physically confined to a wheelchair, and, therefore, was shaped something like a dumpling, Koch was academically brilliant. All the energy that perhaps could have gone into walking, running, or playing had been channeled into mental gymnastics, in which he excelled. What drew us together was that we were both theologians, who liked to read old commentaries and write biblical exposition. Our tastes and our training were so rare that only Providence could account for our having found each other.

What was unique about this man was that, using the catechetical method and coming up on my blind side, he taught me not what to think (we pretty much agreed on that) but how to think, how to dig for and process information. He sometimes complained, for instance, when writers he’d hired turned in material that had no meat: a draft may have been well-written, but it didn’t say anything. He said he’d much prefer poor writing to poor thought—as editor, he could fix the former, but not the latter.

Charles H Spurgeon said, “What is needed is thought, truth, and sound doctrine, and the Spirit of God.  Young men are apt to think less of what to say than of how to say it; but our advice is, think of both in due proportion.  Set the matter before the manner; get the horse first, and get a good one, and then harness him.  Give the people the grand old Gospel, and plenty of it, and they will not much mind the way in which  you bring it forth.”

That is a fourth thing a mentor imparts: mental prowess or acuity. Several times Paul impressed on his readers that they should give more diligence to how they channel their thoughts: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2) … “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) … “Think on these things” (4:8). Peter said, “Gird up the loins of your mind” (1 Peter 1:13).

“A teacher [or mentor] is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” ~Thomas Carruthers


“I am not a teacher [or mentor], but an awakener.” ~Robert Frost

My last mentor was a retired missionary. Grant* and his wife had served several tours of duty overseas, afterward he had served as a missionary representative and world traveler, and he was, at the time I knew him, working as a college professor of missions. He had been to about 200 countries of the world back when there were little more than 200 (before the breakup of the USSR). There wasn’t much he hadn’t seen or done, and his life was one unending story of adventure and exploration, which he was still writing.

So aged and experienced a man, naturally, could process information in a wink. Though it wasn’t part of my job description, I voluntarily worked for him as his assistant. All I had to do was tell him something, and he’d immediately come back with an answer or a decision. He didn’t have to mull over anything. His mental capacity was colossal, but what stood out more was his encyclopedic knowledge of just about anything anywhere. One could not be around him without seeing that his world was huge and, therefore, sensing, with him, a global vision.

This is a fifth thing a mentor imparts: vision and clarity, for “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

“The art of teaching [or mentoring] is the art of assisting discovery.” ~Mark Van Doren

Over the years, I learned from parents, teachers, and friends, but only these five stand out in my life as mentors. A mentor is larger than life, unforgettable, someone who casts such a long shadow that you realize you are in the presence of greatness. Even Sister Carr, for example, was more than she appeared. Later privileged to work alongside of her professionally, I marveled at her sharp mind. It was she who told me, “You don’t write with adjectives and adverbs, but with nouns and verbs.” When I watched her edit and heard her reasons for cutting, trimming, and rewriting, I knew she was rare. And judging by her age (I was there when she retired), and knowing that her generation was passing away, I wondered if we would ever find her kind again. Sometimes the genius of such persons is preserved in textbooks and manuals, but more often it is passed along through the process of mentoring. If a mentor has trained someone to take his place, then he can confidently entrust the work to younger hands.

“Every Timothy needs a Paul; every Ruth needs a Naomi.” ~Aaron Williams

*Not the real name

Copyright © 2013 Alexandra Lee

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