A Christian Theology of Mentoring

The following paper by Nan Thomas (Associate Director of Faculty Development, Union University and InterVarsity Faculty Ministry) and Thomas Trevethan (InterVarsity Faculty Ministry) was originally presented September 24, 2005, as part of the Faculty Mentoring Conference, hosted by the Maclaurin Institute, a Christian study center serving the University of Minnesota. The conference was co-sponsored by the Maclaurin Institute, the Emerging Scholars Network, and Campus Crusade’s Christian Leadership Ministries.

A Christian Theology of Mentoring

Today’s academy is undergoing significant changes. Faculty members at research institutions are faced with increasing competitive pressures to get bigger grants and produce more publications. Anecdotal evidence for this surfaces regularly in InterVarsity Faculty Ministry. Recently a faculty member at a research university stated, “I am working five times as hard to stay in place and that place is much less attractive than it used to be.” These increased pressures exacerbate our human tendency toward self-protection and self-exaltation, which work against any form of community. For faculty at liberal arts colleges, there is an increasing need to be more responsive to the growing student demand for more “relevant” teaching strategies and methodologies, as well as more creative ways to integrate technology with classroom learning. Today’s students are more involved in course design and faculty assessment than ever before. Indeed, becoming proficient in new teaching methods and reorganizing course materials requires a personal vulnerability that is threatening for many. In their book, Dealing With the Future Now, Gushin and Marcy state, “We believe it will be necessary to fundamentally restructure the organizational and learning systems of our colleges and universities around the most promising innovations in teaching and learning. Major structural change, although painful, offers the greatest hope for creating vital campuses in a climate of restricted resources.” (cited in Morrison 2004).

In the midst of this rapid change, faculty development research has concluded that maintaining and developing relationships among faculty is critical to faculty success. In his book, Advice for New Faculty, Robert Boice states, “One fact stands out in my 20 years of studying new faculty. Almost all failures and miseries of these new hires owed to misunderstandings about effective ways of working and socializing. Never, in my close observations of over a thousand novice professors, did I see someone falter for reasons of ignorance in his or her area of scholarship. Or from lack of desire.” Faculty success is not only an issue of expertise; it also depends on developing relationships with colleagues, identifying with the culture and values of one’s institution, and intentionally achieving some degree of balance between time spent on classroom preparation, scholarly writing and social networking on and off campus. (Boice 1992, 45-49). As Christians called to follow Christ in the academy, it is essential that we consider how the academic life is an opportunity to build community, and how mentoring is an historically practiced way to get there.

A “mentor” is commonly defined as “a wise and trusted counselor and teacher.” The word “mentor” comes to us from the classical tradition. It is originally the name of a character in the Odyssey, an old and trusted friend of Odysseus who was left behind as the warriors embarked for Troy to keep an eye on Odysseus’ household. Odysseus’ return was long delayed by many adventures and trials, and all was not well at home. His household was invaded by would-be suitors for Penelope, his long-suffering and faithful wife. Odysseus’ son, Telemakhos, was increasingly incensed by the disrespect shown his parents, but uncertain of what to do. At this point, Mentor played his important role as a wise counselor to the headstrong, wavering young man. He counseled continuing confidence in Odysseus’ return and a mission to search for him. Mentor, the old and trusted friend of the father, links the wisdom and power of the past to the uncertainties of the future.

In the Odyssey, Mentor’s role is actually played by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, disguising herself as Mentor. The goddess provided Telemakhos with the vision, resources, companionship, and encouragement he needed to act well in an unknown and threatening situation. The wisdom given the young man was not only the hard-won knowledge gained through a long and fruitful life, it was also divine insight. Mentoring is such a rich role because it shares a depth of caring and insight that build a bridge to the future. In the words of “a wise and trusted counselor and teacher” one often can hear divine insight and derive the courage and faithfulness to act for what is best.

This poignant tale from classical antiquity, even as it affords insight into what mentoring is, also raises further questions. Every word in our brief definition, “wise,” “trusted,” “counselor,” “teacher,” can be understood in a variety of ways. Even “and” as it combines qualities and roles has more than a bit of ambiguity. In pursuit of greater clarity, we would advance five observations about mentoring.

Mentoring and World View

1. Mentoring, as a practice, is always embedded in a world view that gives greater specificity to our understanding of this practice.

For classical antiquity, that world view is polytheistic humanism. The gods and goddesses are finite, powerful, territorial, capricious, and unpredictable. Goodness and truth are not uniquely found in the divine. Rather, they can be found in those things that make for human nobility and flourishing. In the end, humanity (and usually an elite subset of human kind) is the measure of all things. Virtue and truth are acquired by relationships with the virtuous and truthful. So, for example, they are formed for Homer in the warrior culture of ancient Greece, epitomized in the epic struggles for honor and glory in the Trojan War. For Aristotle goodness and truth are found in the life of the city (polis), Athens of the golden age. In neither case would virtue be found in women or slaves or the young.

This brief characterization suggests that the classical understanding of virtue and truth, for all of its suggestive excellence and dramatic power, will not finally be intellectually or morally satisfying for Christian men and women. Indeed, we Christians draw on an equally ancient view of mentoring in the Old and New Testaments. Biblical narrative contains several dramatically powerful accounts that inform a distinctively Christian understanding of “mentoring relationships.” One thinks of Jethro and Moses, Moses and Joshua, Ruth and Naomi, Levi and Samuel, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and his mission team (especially Timothy), and pre-eminently Jesus and the Twelve and the Three (Peter, James, and John).

One foundational Biblical passage that more systematically focuses on mentoring is Proverbs 1 – 9. The teacher in these chapters is best characterized as a mentor.

The metaphor of the guide best pictures the multi-faceted role of the teacher in Proverbs 1-9. As a guide, the teacher uses his knowledge and experience to provide direction for the learner. The ultimate goal, however, is that the learner will develop independent competence in living responsibly in Yahweh’s world. The teacher’s progression from expert authority to facilitator parallels the intellectual and moral development of the learner. When the learner is a novice, the teacher must exert a higher degree of direction, but as the learner grows in wisdom, the teacher is able to become more of an enabler to assist the learner as he makes his own decisions. Thus the teacher’s role is to be a guide, to motivate the learners on to maturity. The teacher is at times an expert, at times a facilitator, but always the guide, pointing the learners toward their own independent competence (Estes 1997, 134).

The activity of wise and loving guidance, of mentoring, assumes four foundational convictions. The first and most significant conviction is creational, covenantal theism. Yahweh, the God of miraculous redemption and covenant faithfulness and love, is the Maker of heaven and earth. His works form and frame reality, and because all things owe their existence to his loving creation and sustenance, reality manifests a wonderful and mysterious coherence. Reality does not have multiple spheres, independent of one another and of the Creator. We live as creatures in a “uni-verse,” a creation that sings one song to the praise of its Maker and Redeemer. There is no definitive compartmentalization. All of life is our Creator and Redeemer’s invitation to joyful delight, service, and praise.

Second, instruction and direction are offered and received in the context of loving relationship. The mentor calls out, “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (1:8, cp. 1:10, 15; 2:1; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1, 7, 20; 6:1, 20; 7:1). As all human beings are created in the image of God, the wisdom required for life and for mentoring is not confined to an elite class of human beings. Wisdom is personified as a woman, and mothers as well as fathers are expected to mentor, to instruct and guide, their children. We should expect mentoring to go well beyond formal instruction. This filial setting for mentoring makes compassion, sympathy, loving care, and hospitality critical virtues and factors in mentoring.

Third, wisdom is the critical qualification and virtue for mentors. For Proverbs, “the fear of the LORD is the first principal of wisdom” (1:9; 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 9:10. This is the motto of the wise!). “Fear” here is pre-eminently reverence and submission in the face of the unsurpassed majesty of the Creator God. The gods of paganism were feared because they were utterly unpredictable and terrifyingly powerful. The LORD is steadfast and faithful in his power, goodness, and love. He inspires filial awe. Certainly, when we cultivate the folly of evil and unrighteousness this awe is necessarily transformed into terror of his judgment. Indeed, 3:7 draws a stark antithesis between fearing the LORD, which causes one to turn away from evil, and being wise in one’s own eyes, which leads to grief and loss. The fear of the LORD produces a new way of looking at all of life, for it sees each moment as the LORD’s time, each relationship as an opportunity to express the LORD’s justice and love, each duty as the LORD’s command, and each blessing as the LORD’s gift, and each dimension of creation as a potential place of the LORD’s calling. Because the fear of the LORD gives rise to the desire to please the LORD in all things, it leads the God-fearer to attentive and dependent obedience to all that the LORD has commanded. So, the law of the LORD is a delight to those who fear him, to truly wise mentors first, and then to their students and followers and friends.

Fourth, wisdom is both a gift from the LORD and the result of disciplined seeking. For classical culture only a certain elite class could be truly wise. Wisdom was the province of free, well-born men. Women, and slaves, as we noted above, were excluded by nature. And wisdom was never found in the young. Just here the Biblical understanding of wisdom shows itself distinctive, for wisdom is not only the fruit of disciplined seeking; it is pre-eminently a gift from the LORD.

    My son, if you accept my words
        and store up my commands within you,
    turning your ear to wisdom
        and applying your heart to understanding –
    indeed, if you call out for insight
        and cry aloud for understanding,
    and if you look for it as for silver
        and search for it as for hidden treasure,
    then you will understand the fear of the LORD
        and find the knowledge of God.
    For the LORD gives wisdom;
        From his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
    He holds success in store for the upright,
        he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
    for he guards the course of the just
        and protects the way of his faithful ones (Proverbs 2: 1-8).

Speaking from the same perspective, James adds, “If any of you lack wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:6). The central issue in acquiring wisdom is the unfailing generosity of the LORD. A life ordered to the creation and covenant of the LORD, concerned for his glory and attuned to his instruction, makes for fruitful reception of this most valuable gift. So the greatest wisdom psalm can say:

    Oh, how I love your law!
        I meditate on it all day long.
    Your commands are always with me
        and make me wiser than my enemies.
    I have more insight than all my teachers,
        for I meditate on your statutes.
    I have more understanding than the elders,
        for I obey your precepts (Psalm 119: 97-100).

Mentoring and Locale

2. Mentoring as a practice assumes a locale, a specific setting in life, which shapes its content and goals.

Caroline Simon, in her wonderfully suggestive work Mentoring For Mission, makes this point forcefully by contrasting mentoring in a fast-food restaurant with mentoring faculty in the church-related college (Simon 2003, 17). Mentoring in the food-food restaurant may be valuable, just, and even humane.

Such businesses may seek to treat their employees fairly, but their workers are, at bottom, replaceable means to set corporate goals. “Mentoring” of this sort would be severely impoverished from a broadly humanistic and a Christian perspective.

The Biblical world-view we sketched out above assumes the ordered, ruled creation of the LORD as its background, providing vision of the widest sort for our examination and practice of mentoring. We will need to realize this vision in the very specific locales of our life and vocations. So, for example, Simon’s very helpful work is contextualized for women and men in academic vocations in the church-related college. As helpful and suggestive as it is, especially in offering a compelling vision for a Christ-like way of living academic life, Simon’s work is limited in its usefulness for Christian academics in the “secular university.” An effort to locate the Biblical wisdom about mentoring in the life-world of the “secular university” remains an important task.

We have been enclosing “secular university” in quotation marks not to signal ironic distance, disdain, or doubt about the value of this class of academic institution. Rather, it is not at all clear that “secular” is the best descriptive adjective to characterize the contemporary research university. From the perspective of relationship to the church, of course, these institutions are secular. But they are anything but irreligious. Nicholas Woltersdorff’s experience at Yale has convinced him that the right appellation is “pluralistic” (Wolterstorff 2004, 299) and no less than Stanley Fish argues that the next “big thing” in the academy will be Religion, that is religion that makes truth claims (Fish 2004-2005, C1). Whether secular or pluralistic (and both are in their separate way helpful descriptions), we could add five other descriptions:

  1. “Public:” whether state-related or private legal entities, all of these universities not only aspire to shape the wider culture and have elite influence of considerable weight, but they see themselves as serving not some sub-culture but the entire society.
  2. “Research driven:” the principal reward criterion for faculty is success in research (or research-like activities, like elite performance for musicians), and the institutions identify themselves first with research activity rather than teaching or service.
  3. “Functionally and socially centered in disciplinary professionalism:” no central focus or ideology holds these universities together and relationships are principally based on professional association. Often relationships are closer with research collaborators half a continent away than with a “colleague” in the adjoining office. The campus feel is quite “balkanized.”
  4. “Very large size, in numbers of faculty, students, administrators, and even geography:” the mass society that is the university contains very few and very weak mediating structures. These universities are hardly communities. There is no place where everyone assembles, either socially or professionally.
  5. “Diversity (in ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, etc.):” a much wider diversity of people is intentionally being cultivated not only as an ethical imperative, but as a foundational educational value.

Mentoring which aspires to be fully and intentionally shaped by the Christian world-view will face unique challenges in such a setting. But we must also note, that the role of such mentoring will also be very significant. It will provide a deeply personal dimension to a setting that is burdened by facelessness and soulless-ness. As a further consequence, mentoring in the secular university is a critical component in the formation of the next generation of faculty. This is no less important for the Christian colleges than it is for the full flourishing of the secular university itself. Even faculty in the church-related college will receive their advanced education and training in these very large, very professional, research-driven, pluralistic institutions. How the next generation of faculty fares personally, professionally, and spiritually will turn critically on the quality of mentoring in the “secular university.”

Mentoring and Virtue

3. Christian mentoring in the academy involves a practice of the Christian virtues.

A virtue is defined by Linda Zagzebski as “. . . a deep and enduring acquired excellence of a person, involving a characteristic motivation to produce a certain desired end and reliable success in bringing about that end” (Zagzebski 1996, 136). Christian virtues, then, are those acquired excellences of women and men that are extolled, analyzed, empowered, and rooted in the Christian faith. For example, hospitality is a Christian virtue, the moral and spiritual habit of welcoming and caring for “others,” especially our needy neighbor. It involves both the motivation to provide such welcome and care and the moral and spiritual environment and energy for success in this endeavor. This practice arises from considerations deeply embedded in Holy Scripture. The grace of God, the loving hospitality of Jesus, Jesus’ love for us when we were his enemies, the command “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you, to the praise of God” (Romans 15:7), and our Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan are just a part of the depth of this theme in Scripture. We could add countless stories from the history of the Christian church that further deepen our understanding of this virtue.

One further distinction aids our understanding of virtue, namely the distinction between skills and virtues. A skill can be defined as an acquired procedural ability that is often necessary to accomplish the end aimed at by virtue. Virtue, on the other hand as we have seen above, is an acquired excellence of motivation that conditions and determines the best end and the skills necessary to be deployed to achieve that end. Perhaps an illustration drawn from the practice of hospitality in Scripture will clarify this distinction. In the famous story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-41, Jesus is offered hospitality by these dear friends. Each deploys skill in expressing this hospitable aim, listening and serving. Neither skill is unnecessary or unimportant, but a correct reading of the situation and the practical wisdom to determine “what is better” led Mary to the more fittingly hospitable action. This illustration suggests that virtues and skills are similar, in that they are acquired, mostly by practice. Further virtue and skills are characteristically associated and necessary in any practice that is successful. But virtue is a prior reality for the acting subject, given its motivational thrust. And virtue has a wider sphere of application. Skills tend to be specific to particular actions or sets of actions, while virtue can provide the motivation and intended effect for the deployment of a wide range of skills. As Zagzebski concludes, “Virtues are prior to skills and are strongly connected to motivational structure, whereas skills are more connected to effectiveness in action” (p. 116). This distinction is of great significance because most of contemporary education pays close attention to the development of intellectual skills and almost no attention to virtue. Such an education often leaves the educated with powerful abilities and moral and spiritual ignorance and confusion about motives and goals to direct the use of those abilities.

Caroline Simon helps us to see mentoring as rooted in the practice of four virtues: hospitality, conviction, humility, and practical wisdom (Simon 2003, 5-7, 19-23). Simon’s presentation focuses on mentoring as foundational to the development of individual faculty careers and to the maintenance of institutional mission and spiritual identity in the church-related college. In the setting of the secular university the practice of these virtues is similarly foundational. But intentional Christian practice of hospitality, conviction, humility, and wisdom will necessarily take a different form. Christian faculty in the secular university will always have a desire to affirm the mission and identity of the university, believing deeply in the value of research and learning in a pluralistic setting as an expression of the LORD’s calling for their lives. In this way, they are for Christ and the university. In other ways conscience will demand that they be against the university to be for Christ and the university. They will deplore the loss of community, the intellectually balkanized professionalism, the ideological stridency of so much university discussion, and the anti-religious bigotry of the dominant campus mind.

Consider, then, how concern for collegiality in the university will be affected by the practice of hospitality. The truly hospitable Christian faculty member will be genuinely welcoming and caring toward “others,” colleagues who are significantly different. In part, this will mean venturing out of our important research programs and disciplinary ghettos to engage with others who share the Christian faith with us. We will seek to form Christian communities of redemptive influence within the larger secular university setting as an expression of the mission of the LORD. And in these relationships and communities, we will engage in the foundational spiritual and academic disciplines that are the soil of virtuous practices. In part, it will mean welcoming the new colleagues and graduate students in our immediate academic environment, remembering what it was like to be a newcomer ourselves. In particular, it will mean alertness to the needs and vulnerability of international and minority students. In part, it will mean consciously engaging with our unbelieving peers, seeking out their reactions and critique of our ideas, not least, our ideas most closely associated with our faith. Being able to celebrate someone else’s accomplishments is truly a fruit of the hospitable life; it requires accepting one’s own place and gifts so we can accept the gifts that have been given to someone else.

Conviction involves the combination of clarity and courage. Again, in the secular university clarity about the Christian faith is no easy thing. Often we encounter faculty who are profoundly sophisticated in the intellectual life of their discipline, but whose grasp of the Christian intellectual tradition is quite rudimentary. Further, courage is required to engage in scholarship that is deeply rooted in the Christian faith. Scholarship meaningfully based in the Christian faith is as outrageous in the secular academy as active support for Christian evangelism. Without community among Christian faculty (and faculty in formation) clarity and courage will be leeched out of us. And, without significant mentoring we will be without challenge or encouragement to avoid the extremes of stubbornness and bravado on one hand or accommodation and compromise on the other. Clarity and courage are considerably more complicated and arguably more difficult virtues for Christian women and men in the secular university.

Humility is a necessary virtue, because without it we come to regard all the other virtues we possess as our proud achievement. Then every virtue slouches toward vice. Sadly, the academic life of the secular university is dogged by the downward tug of intellectual hauteur. We might say with St. Paul, “Knowledge [as our proud achievement] puffs up (I Cor. 8:1).” Humility keeps our practice of mentoring from becoming indoctrination and empowers mentors to seek the independent competence of those they mentor. Humility makes us more eager to learn from others and less eager to project our own competence and accomplishment onto others. Without humility, mentoring will never be of value to the mentor. One mark of healthy mentoring relationships is their mutuality. Both mentor and those mentored are conscious of the benefits derived from these relationships. In fact mentors almost always are rejuvenated themselves by their gift of time and insight. When Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” he was articulating not pious fluff but a critical truth about the spiritual life. A humility that sacrifices to give is never a net loss to the giver.

As this brief sketch suggests, each of these virtues is necessary, wonderful, and very difficult and challenging. Holding them all together in one life seems nearly impossible. At just this point the centrality and importance of practical wisdom in the virtuous life is clarified. (Zagzebski 1996, 211-231). It is wisdom that allows us to know when the practice of a particular virtue is slipping into a false extreme (for example, when courage is becoming bravado). It is wisdom that allows us to know how to mediate between the virtues in situations when more than one virtue is required. And it is wisdom that allows us to coordinate the various virtues into single line of action. As virtue is required in all areas of human activity, so wisdom and good judgment are always required to act virtuously.

One of the most important aspects of good judgment, both in the way it is acquired and in the manner of its functioning, is its social basis. Virtue is learned by imitation. It depends upon the presence of persons with good judgment in the community. It follows that we all need mentors and mentoring through participation in a community that contains wise men and women among its members. Collegiality is not only the fruit of mentoring, but it is also its source. Communities of Christian faculty, not least in the secular university, are required for the wisdom that allows us all to live well.

That mentoring is needed to advance collegiality in higher education is a commonplace, often more honored in the breech than in the observance. But our argument for Christian mentoring in the secular academy can be significantly advanced by considering that mentoring is foundational to the distinctively academic aspects of faculty life in the secular university. Mentoring is foundational not only to healthy relationships but also to healthy intellectual life.

Perhaps the clearest way to see this is to consider the foundational place of the virtues to the life of the mind. Knowledge has foundations not only in intellectual skills, the normal focus of education in the university, but it also has ethical foundations. We characteristically believe that folk ought to believe what is true, that belief ought to be somehow founded upon and proportional to evidence, that folk ought to seek maximum coherence among our beliefs. But “ought” more than casually suggests ethical or moral obligation. Whence this ethical obligation? Christians suspect that enlightenment rationalism and post-modern skepticism have no finally convincing answer to this question. We Christians would point to the majesty of the Creator, His ordering of his creation, and our being fashioned in his image as a sufficient ground for a persuasive answer.

But if the life of the mind is grounded ethically, then progress in the life of the mind depends not only on the sharpening of skills, but also on growth in the virtue that is a critical part of this “ought.” Virtue based epistemology has seen a renaissance in recent years, refurbishing an older wisdom about knowledge. (see Schwehn, Woods, and Zagaebski). In fact the very virtues that promote the practices of collegiality we have just considered are also foundational to the life of the mind. So, Mark Schwehn notes, for example, how hospitality to thinkers whose views are quite contrary to his own contributes to making him a better historian (Schwehn 1992, 50-51, 57). And we can be thankful for the conviction, the clarity and more precisely, the courage of many members of the Society of Christian Philosophers that has put Christian philosophy back into the mainstream of the academic study of philosophy. And humility has long been valued as a necessary character trait for fruitful intellectual dialogue and understanding, Socrates being perhaps the classic exemplar of the tenaciously humble enquirer.

In a way analogous to the function of wisdom as a collegial virtue, wisdom is also required as an intellectual virtue. We saw above that wisdom is necessary to determine how to balance the exercise of any single virtue, how to draw on the various virtues most fruitfully in any given circumstance, and how to combine and order the virtues to contribute to a given single line of action. Such wisdom is needed for the action of knowing. Forming beliefs and determining lines of investigation to confirm those beliefs, like many complex human activities, can be neither fully described nor evaluated in terms of following a set of replicable rules or procedures. “Good judgment is required in all areas of human activity, including the cognitive. . . . There is a very strong element of inclination in most beliefs, even in the beliefs of those persons most intellectually practiced and aware. The difficult part is to train the inclinations themselves to reliably produce the desired end – in the case of intellectual activity, knowledge” (Zagzebski 1996, 225-226). In brief, learning and understanding, and the research programs that advance them, depend critically on the exercise of wisdom. Asking the best questions of a text or of ones’ discipline in general, choosing which themes and which connections between those themes are worthy of emphasis, even the determining of particular words and phrases to express our ideas are all based on a set of values that stem from beliefs. As good stewards of ideas, we need to take these daily, cognitive judgments seriously and self-consciously as Christian women and men.

Linda Zagzebski suggests that there is an illuminating analogy between the way a detective solves a mystery in a classical detective novel and the way scholarly research programs are designed and executed (Zagzebski 1996, 226-227). The detective clearly has a set of skills necessary to solving the crime, including a good memory, good reasoning skills, knowledge of valid deductive reasoning, the probability calculus, and the looser rules of inductive logic. Solving the crime, however, depends on much more than these skills. The detective also exhibits the ability to recognize the critical facts, insightfulness into the character of potential suspects, the ability to form explanations that relate complex sets of data. No algorithm exists that directs these abilities. They are virtues. Nor does a procedure exist which allows virtues and skills to be coordinated to get to a single conclusion. This requires wisdom, and wisdom comes in unlikely detective heroes. Miss Marple does not look like a detective, but she has the necessary skills and the foundational virtues, especially the virtue of practical wisdom.

In the classic detective novel, many other characters in the novel, as well as the reader, have access to this same information as the detective hero. But they frequently do not have the ability to figure out the identity of the murderer. A good detective story will explain how the detective came to his or her conclusion and will do so in a way that shows the reader that he should have figured it out if he had the requisite intellectual traits. Clearly the detective’s ability is something other than a set of rules or procedures that can be codified in a policy manual. Indeed, not infrequently there will be an official in the story who obsessively follows police procedures in what amounts to a display of ineffective, comic folly. Of course, readers of detective stories might be able to learn how to be a good detective by frequent and intense exposure to good detectives. But sharpening intellectual skills and following a book of procedures is not the way to become a successful and excellent reader of detective fiction, to say nothing of a successful and excellent detective.

If this account of the intellectual virtues is correct, it follows that good thinking, like good living, is socially based. “We learn from others to believe rationally just as we learn to act morally” (Zagzebski 1996, 228). We need to be exposed to the people who have the best judgment on the matters we seek to understand, people, not only of skill, but also of virtue and, above all, of practical wisdom. This analysis suggests that a mentor who exhibits the intellectual virtues, and especially the virtue of practical wisdom, but makes no profession of Christian faith, will be very valuable to a Christian student. Indeed, many of us have learned to thank the Lord for such teachers and mentors, for their contribution not only to what we know, but to who we are. But the best of circumstances for Christian students and scholars, however, is to be connected to a virtuous mentor whose virtue is consciously centered in the fear of the LORD. Just here, mentoring as an intellectual practice shows its great promise and power for breaking “the scandal of the evangelical mind” and bringing the next generation of evangelical faculty into the secular academy better prepared and equipped for their vocations under the triune God.

Mentoring and Flourishing

4. Mentoring can support the development of the discipline needed for flourishing in academic vocations.

Caroline Simon’s work, which focuses on a church-related college, speaks eloquently and informatively to women and men in the secular university. We suspect this is so because all Christian faculty share a common desire to be like Christ. All are drawn by grace to a life marked by hospitality, conviction, humility, and practical wisdom. Further, all college and university faculty share significant vocational commonalities. One way to think about this commonality among academics is to consider the important role of discipline in academic life. By “discipline” we refer not to the various academic disciplines with their distinctive modes of inquiry, teaching, and service, but to discipline as the independent self-control required for success in one’s vocation. Academic life involves a blessed minimum of external control by supervisors and authorities. It contains a wonderful degree of freedom to pursue intellectual interests and activities. What comes with this self-directed vocational privilege is perhaps a heightened demand for internal self-control.

Consider three areas that cry out for discipline in the academic life. First, academic life is often an ambiguous, dizzy whirl of activity that requires a careful discipline of time. Long gone are the days when faculty life could be viewed as “leisured reflection.” What often seems to many faculty to be in shortest supply is time, some margin of silence in the daily din and background noise of teaching, research, committee work, family, community, church. Alas, our list could easily be extended. When this din of activity becomes the sum of an academic’s life, however, foundational spiritual realities and space for creativity are completely consumed.

In his book, The New Faculty Member, Robert Boice identifies the characteristics of “QuickStarters,” faculty who easily join the moving stream on campus (Boice 1992, 45-49). What makes these faculty successful is that they come to campus with the tactical, intuitive knowledge of success, identified priorities and ways of practicing them. Once on campus they develop relationships with colleagues and ask for advice in teaching and research projects in the first year. Going forward, they develop a work regimen, which allows them to achieve balance among the competing demands of their appointment. This balance includes three aspects:

  1. Setting limits on classroom preparations of no more than two hours for each class hour. Interestingly, nothing else, not even writing for publication or coming to a new campus with few social supports, consumed nearly so much time and well-being for new faculty as classroom preparation.
  2. Identifying time to do scholarly writing, typically 4-5 hours per week in brief, non-fatiguing sessions.
  3. Forming a social network on and off campus (roughly one hour a day) with colleagues or students who were stimulating and supportive.

The role of mentoring in supporting new faculty seems clear. Few faculty come to campus fully equipped to be successful. They need to know what makes for success and they need relational support and encouragement to act on that knowledge. Mentoring seems not only hospitable but also an act of justice toward young colleagues.

Further, these challenges do not simply disappear as we begin to find our way into the life and work of a faculty member. The reality is that all faculty must continually choose an appropriate “pace” in their work that allows for both efficiency in completing tasks and peace for creativity and reflection. “Pace” here refers to the balance and moderation that come from living wisely under self-imposed discipline. The concern and friendship of a mentor is often our richest source of wisdom and the power and encouragement to act wisely.

Second, academics need to find the space to focus on their “craft,” the disciplines for understanding and discovery that shape the life of the mind and the particular academic disciplines. This means resisting absorption of faculty lives in the public world of institutional and scholarly guild demands. Commenting on the seductiveness of working to be recognized and accepted, C. S. Lewis observes:

“If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public, nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and cries which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which speeches and advertisements cannot maintain” (Lewis 1949, 104, italics ours).

The importance of wisdom and the perspective of a wise and trusted mentor in maintaining integrity in our approach to an academic calling could not be clearer.

Third, academics need to engage the practices that make for a virtuous life. We noted above that virtues are “acquired excellences” of the moral and spiritual life. In Christian understanding virtue in the life of a disciple of Jesus is the result of God’s gracious work. Discipline is a part of the fruit of the Spirit, a moral reality produced within us by the Holy Spirit. But virtue is also the result of intentional cooperation with God’s work enabled by the Spirit, of repeated practice that becomes a matter of spiritual habit. This repeated practice, this spiritual habit formation, is never easy. As the writer to the Hebrews notes,

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed (Heb. 12:11-13).

The challenges of spiritual discipline cry out for accountability and encouragement of a wise and trusted mentor. Again, in the words of Hebrews,

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Rarely are spiritual disciplines rewarded professionally or even noticed. What is noticeable, however, is the loss of virtue after these practices disappear. For example, the virtue of hospitality requires intentional discipline, requires saying no to important matters of personal concern to invest time and energy in relating to others who have little to immediately offer in return. To cite but one example among many, time invested in a ministry of hospitality to international students and scholars seems time lost from research or preparation for teaching. But when the particular deeds of care and welcome that arise from a hospitable spirit begin to disappear, what also disappears is the richness of a loving community. That loss then begins to gnaw away at the intellectual life in our laboratories and seminars or among our colleagues. And so it is with each of the disciplines of the mind embedded in the academic life.

Virtue demands self-control and personal discipline. For the Christian faculty member there is good news: the Christian intellectual tradition upholds the practice of spiritual disciplines that draw us near to God and make us more like Christ, the truly virtuous one.

Of primary significance is our vital union with God, our “new creation” in Christ, our immersion in the Holy Spirit. It is this union that purifies the heart. . . . Action follows essence. . . . It is true that virtuous persons will do virtuous actions, but it is not the actions that make those persons virtuous. Rather, those persons do the actions because they are virtuous. It is like the tennis star who consistently makes good shots; she makes good shots precisely because she is a good tennis player. By sheer luck I might make a good shot, but that would not make me a good tennis player, as the shots before and after the lucky shot would amply prove (Foster 1998, 86).

It would be our contention that all academics need to develop these three forms of discipline. Mentoring relationships are among our most fruitful sources of inspiration, empowerment, and wisdom in the daily grind of academic life.

Mentoring and the Christian Faith

5. Mentoring is a powerfully effective practice for the advance of the Christian faith in the secular university.

Significant historical and empirical studies demonstrate the foundational and powerful effectiveness of mentoring. Indeed, the research of Robert Boice, cited above, would be sufficient by itself to make the case for the power of mentoring as an on-going aspect of the scholarly life. Anecdotal accounts, however, capture something of the human warmth and depth of mentoring relationships along with the power of this practice. Consider the following reminiscences of C. Stephen Evans (University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor) about his undergraduate mentor:

I can remember very clearly the conversations I had when I was an undergraduate with Arthur Holmes, the professor at Wheaton College who was my mentor. Holmes told me clearly that I was called to be faithful, that I must not worry about results, but leave them in God’s hands. At the same time, he said that I had an obligation to think strategically about God’s kingdom in the world today. Was it possible that God had some important work for me to do? Was there a place that I could invest my life strategically, a way to use the gifts and opportunities God had given me for his purposes? Though Holmes himself had a great vision (that God would use him to train a hundred Christians to work as Christian philosophers), the key question he posed was not “Will you become a philosopher?” but, “How can you invest your life strategically for the kingdom of God?” Some of our students will indeed answer that question by choosing the career path of a teacher. But others will be called as pastors, physicians, lawyers, artists, musicians, engineers, or business people. Some will be called to public service, or to work with charitable organizations. Some will be called to foreign missions.

In any case, all of us who are Christ’s disciples are missionaries of a sort. And specifically, all of us who are educated Christians have the opportunity to represent Christ to other members of our professions. . . . Seeking to be faithful to his or her authentic Christian commitment, the Christian professor is called to be a double missionary, representing the life of the mind within the church, and the life of the church to the intellectual world (Evans 2003, 32-33).

Evans’ words indicate why members of the Society of Christian Philosophers have remarked to me that the mentoring influence of Arthur Holmes is as foundational to the flourishing of the Society as the exceptional scholarly production of its most outstanding leaders.

More significantly, Christians are characteristically convinced of the importance of mentoring because of the deep way it is embedded in their faith. Understanding God as Trinity presses on us the conviction that loving relationships are at the center of reality. We note that Jesus’ own ministry was centered on the mentoring of the Twelve, and especially the Three. This focus on the intensive formation of a “school of thought and practice” accounts in large part for the durable power of Jesus’ influence. Further, the maintenance of convictional and corporate identity in a minority movement also requires intensive and influential relationships. This is particularly the case for a minority not based in ethnicity or geographical concentration, but on distinctive beliefs that are not accepted and even arouse hostility in the wider cultural milieu. Finally, we are reminded of Jesus’ summary of God’s commandments. Unconditional love to God and love to neighbor of the sort we show to ourselves are the hallmarks of discipleship in the Kingdom of God.

The essence of the Kingdom is relational. Relationships are central to everything we do and everything we believe. If God’s greatest commandments are as inclusive as I believe they are, when life is over and we receive our report card, it will only have one category — relationships.
There will be three lines:

    How did we relate to God?
    How did we relate to ourselves?
    How did we relate to others?

We know God’s report card contains three categories because Jesus told us. When the teacher of the law asked Jesus, “ Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” the entire created order held it’s collective breath, straining to hear His answer. Jesus replied that the Shema was the greatest: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” However, he did not stop there: The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31). . . . This commandment must be the first guideline for all of life’s decisions and actions (Swenson 2004).

Small wonder, then, that the intellectual life and the life of academic collegiality are properly centered in and empowered by loving relationships. Mentoring as an intellectual practice shows its great promise and power for breaking the “scandal of the evangelical mind” and bringing the next generation of evangelical faculty into the academy better prepared and equipped for their vocations under the triune God.

Works Cited

Boice, Robert. 1992. The new faculty member. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

____________. 2000. Advice for new faculty nihil nimus. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Estes, Daniel J.. 1997. Hear, my son: teaching and learning in Proverbs 1-9. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Evans, C. Stephen. 2003. The calling of the Christian scholar-teacher. In  Faithful learning and the Christian scholarly vocation, ed. Douglas V. Henry and Bob R. Agee, 26-49. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Fish, Stanley. 2004. One university, under God?: What will succeed high theory and race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in academe? Religion. Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 51 , Issue 18, C1.

Foster, Richard J. 1998. Streams of living water: celebrating the great traditions of Christian faith. New York: Harper.

Lewis, C. S. 1949. The Inner Ring. In The weight of glory and other addresses. New York: MacMillan.

Morrison, Terry. 2004. The Future of Faculty Ministry. Faculty Newsletter, Spring.

Schwehn, Mark. 1992. Exiles from eden: religion and the academic vocation in America. Oxford: Oxford U. Press.

Simon, Caroline J. 2003 Mentoring for mission: nurturing new faculty at church-related colleges.Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Sire, James W.. 2000. Habits of the mind: intellectual life as a Christian calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Swenson, Richard. 2004. Overload and relationship: building margin for joyful leadership. Leadership Academy Report.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 2004. Educating for shalom. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Woods, Jay. 1998. Epistemology: becoming intellectually virtuous. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Zagzebski, Linda T. 1996. Virtues of the mind: an inquiry into the nature of virtue and the ethical foundations of knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Photo credit: aesop


Tom Trevethan was one of InterVarsity’s most gifted Bible expositors and he authored the books The Beauty of God’s Holiness (InterVarsity Press) and Our Joyful Confidence: The Lordship of Jesus in Colossians (DILL Press). Tom earned an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and served as a Campus Staff Minister at the University of Michigan for many years serving both students and faculty throughout his career. Tom most recently served on the InterVarsity Faculty Ministry Leadership Team as an Associate Director for Research and Publications, writing many resources for faculty and grad students and contributing to the Lamp Post faculty newsletters for several years (now Campus Calling). Tom retired in 2014 after 47 years of service with InterVarsity. He lived in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife Barbara, where they enjoyed many years of singing with their church and with the local Choral Union which won two Grammy Awards in 2005. Our hearts go out to Barb and their family upon learning of Tom's passing in October 2023. His voice, in both writing as well as singing, will be greatly missed.

In the GFM Resources, Tom's Bible study on Psalm 90 remains a wonderful resource for both students and staff. Tom's writings on the InterVarsity blog in 2014 include, On the Dangers of "Using" Scripture, part 1 and part 2. His research and thoughts on the InterVarsity Doctrinal Basis might have been shared with you during your Orientation to New Staff years ago. You can access the seven part series, Studying InterVarsity's Doctrinal Basis here. Tom worked with Nan Thomas on the Faculty Ministry booklet, Taking Time Apart.

We value the contribution of writers who are not employed by InterVarsity, some of whom may not necessarily agree with all aspects of InterVarsity's ministry, doctrine, or policies. These writings are the words of the writers and may or may not represent InterVarsity. The same is true of any comments which may be posted about any entries. Submitted comments may or may not be posted at the writer or the editor's discretion.