by Edward L. Smither
Twenty-first-century Christian leaders ought to consider seriously Augustine’s thoughts on mentoring in a trinitarian community of Christian friends. The peoples of the Western world are largely in a hurry to accomplish and pack more into their schedules. This race, aided by the speed of increasing technology, tends to squelch human relationships. The church, particularly evangelical Protestants, seems to be in a similar hurry; and discipleship ministries, though well programmed and efficient, are often entirely lacking Augustine’s notion of community.
Though his monasticism should not necessarily be imposed on the modern church, the church would do well to slow down and place more emphasis on quality relationships in which there is spiritual depth. Would it be too radical for mentors and disciples to eat an unrushed meal together and talk about their spiritual lives? Could two peers shut off their cell phones and pursue theological dialogue over coffee? What about pausing at some point in the day and praying with a fellow disciple?
A resounding theme of this book has been that a mentor must still be a disciple. Nothing is more attractive or inspiring to a student or disciple than to see his teacher continually learning. What is the ongoing plan for spiritual growth for modern pastors and spiritual leaders? Will these leaders accept a “brother at heart” as Augustine did Alypius, or will the busyness of church business push them into unnecessary isolation resulting in burnout or moral failure?
Augustine and the church fathers were deeply committed to sound doctrine based on the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. In America in particular, with the emphasis on marketing the church, we are in the midst of a Bibleless Christianity. Will we allow an ever-changing culture and the uncertain foundations of its values determine how we lead the church and disciple believers? What about a revival of biblical and theological study among pastors and the laity? Could we envision training new believers as Augustine encouraged Deogratias to do in On the Instruction of Beginners—with passion, joy, and theological soundness?
In the context of the “burden” of ministry, Augustine was aware of his shortcomings but committed to putting capable leaders to work where he was weak. He deliberately involved men in ministry on an increasingly difficult level and happily released them to their own ministries. Will today’s church leaders intentionally look at the leadership potential around them and search for able people to outshine them? Will they recognize potential in others and encourage them to step out in faith despite their hesitation? Will they happily entrust others with ministry responsibility or possessively retain it, believing they are the only ones able to carry it out?
As Augustine wrote mentoring letters and visited disciples, he deliberately stayed in contact with these friends. As encouragement was a key value in his mentoring approach, it was not without verbal communication. Putting a pen to paper is now rare, but spiritual leaders might well follow Augustine’s example with e-mail, voice mail, or text messaging. Or they might invest time in an encouraging phone call or a personal visit. Again, resourcing and encouraging requires a sacrifice of time, which will surely take one away from other tasks and accomplishments. Yet, since the church is a body of people, this Augustinian value of friendship and community should take priority over all other work.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders.
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