Discipleship: Women Mentoring Women

MentoringPicThere are many instructions in the epistles regarding church structure that have created controversy. These have led to various denominations and varying forms of church organization. But there are some instructions that no one seems to disagree about, yet are still largely ignored or treated as unimportant. One of those is found in Titus 2. Paul instructs that the older women in the church be taught sound doctrine in order that they may teach younger women how to live. In its historical context, the passage focuses on living as godly women at home, yet easily transitions from its context into ours if we understand Paul’s point. He desired that older women disciple the younger, whether the younger women are married or single, mothers or childless, stay-at-home wives or working full time, to be “self-controlled and pure” as well as “kind” (v. 5). Older men are instructed to do the same for younger men. We often call this discipleship (although the term covers a wide range of spiritual growth), but it might be better understood as “mentoring.”

What is it?

In Paul’s day, families often lived very close to one another. The church was more unified, and Christians came together not only to worship but to live life together as well. Even outside of the church, history indicates that families were close knit–at least physically closer than many families are today. When a woman had a baby, the women of the village moved in to help. When there was a loss of a loved one, the community mourned together. This is still the case in many parts of the world, but in the West, women are often left alone after marriage to figure out married life and post-partum depression and isolation during maternity leave on their own. If she’s lucky, her mother will be able to take off work for a week to help her with a newborn, but it may be argued that for most women, child-rearing is governed by popular opinion on the internet, and counseling is left to professionals.

In a church well in tune with the true meaning of discipleship, perhaps there are one-on-one gatherings of women to encourage a younger one, or at least small, intimate Bible studies where real discipleship happens. But even so, “life” interferes, and many older women are busy with their own children, their own jobs, their own after-school activities. Those women who are committed to discipling are often put in charge of leading large groups because no one else wants to do it.

Perhaps the church does a reasonable job of leading small groups of youth under a caring older woman. Perhaps the church does a reasonable job of connecting women of similar life stage together to grow and encourage one another. But what of connecting older women to younger women who can meet for coffee and engage in one-on-one mentoring?

Why it doesn’t happen

It may here be argued that it is not the job of the church to facilitate this. That older women should themselves be reaching out to the younger. This is probably true, but it behooves the church to remind its congregants that this is an expectation. Particularly in a modern society where it’s all but forgotten.

The problems that arise from these attempts may truly be that between the two busy women, there’s no time available. But if we as a Church encourage Christians who desire to grow to “make time” for prayer, church, worship, Bible study, and fellowship, why do we not do the same for mentoring? I would gladly forego a year of Wednesday evening Bible studies to take that time to meet once a week with an older woman who would listen, teach, and convict me one-on-one. Another solution is to meet in person only once a month, and exchange a phone call or email one a week on the off weeks to address concerns and pray for one another.

My Mentoring Status:

In my own personal experience, I began mentoring five years ago. The first was a woman who was only two years younger than myself. We hit it off, however, with a great friendship that did draw from my slightly greater experience with life and slightly greater knowledge of all things spiritual. She was no fool, either, yet humbly listened and grew under my encouragement, which speaks highly of her wisdom and willingness to be mentored by someone only slightly older.

After a year and a half together, our lives took us to different states. Then, two years ago, God brought into my life a young lady 12 years my junior. I have had the privilege of seeing her grow from a young lady who was just beginning to find herself to someone who has poured back into me the grace and hope of Christ when I myself had forgotten. (This is of course how mentoring works; the mentor grows and is blessed just as much as the mentee. But more on that elsewhere.)

I remain, however, without a mentor. I had one for three years from 2009 to 2012. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me spiritually. To have an older woman seek you out to lead you to a better understanding of Christ and to probe into the painful parts of your own sinful state is deeply gratifying and ultimately life-changing.

I will here insert a point about mothers. Some women may argue that they can get all the mentoring they need from their own mother and give all the discipleship their daughters need themselves. Perhaps this is true. But consider: the perspective of a mother is limited by family. Conversation can often lead to discussion of family rather than of the daughter’s individual needs. The mentoring may take on a more casual, “talk to me when you need me” attitude. And for heaven’s sake, some women have no mother or their mother lives on the other side of the world. I love my mother, but she grew up in a rather stoic and taciturn southern Baptist family where feelings were not mentioned at all, let alone discussed at length.  By the time I was a teenager, I desperately wanted someone to walk me through spiritual growth and life and my future. My mother tried, but it is not in her nature to probe into my deepest spiritual thoughts or help me examine my spiritual disciplines. I relied primarily on Christian girl magazines and books. We are better able to discuss feelings and spirituality now, but we remain limited by our familiarity and our singular perspective. (Mother, I love you dearly, but oh how I wish you had let that youth leader who wanted to meet with me one-on-one for coffee do so, without feeling usurped.)

I work for and attend a very large church. It’s not quite a “megachurch” but it is nevertheless easy to attend services without anyone knowing a thing about you until you get involved in other activities. You would imagine the scores of older, wiser women might be easy to come by, but there are no avenues to pursue this. My hope is that I will befriend an older woman through some activity, and strike up a communication that leads to this kind of investing in me. As I pour into family, into my mentee once a week, and into my sixth grade small group each Sunday morning, I have often felt depleted and in need of someone to fill my cup and convict me to the extent that Christian living books and Bible studies for women cannot do. Nor can the women my own age do so to the proper extent. Quite frankly, I both want and fear an older woman in my life telling me to let go control over when to have children and to stop discouraging my husband verbally and to stop swearing at bad drivers in traffic.

So the question remains: how can the church facilitate connecting women with other women in committed, frequent meetings to teach the younger how to live a Christian lifestyle? How can we as Christian women admit that even though we may not feel like we have all the answers, God can use us as vessels through which to pour into the younger, and then take ownership of seeking them out?

I don’t have the answer. But I plan to do my best to keep looking for an older woman to pour into me.

Thoughts?
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7 thoughts on “Discipleship: Women Mentoring Women

  1. I think the first thing I’d do is recognize that not everything the Bible says is a good idea remains true for two thousands years from one culture to the next – if it were we would all still be wearing head coverings to church and no woman would have short hair. One thing that must be repaired is the inter-generational communication barrier. There is this perception that old women are less trustworthy than younger ones. Can you relate to young women who do not share your life experience? Can you give them good advice while not making them feel guilty for not achieving various milestones, for example marriage? So many of the women at my church are broken records, every time we meet it’s “Why aren’t you married yet? You’re running out of time to have children.” At this point I’m tempted to say – “Why aren’t you dead yet? You’re so old you ought to be.” To see if they get the point that it’s just not yet time. There’s also the special relationship that is friendship – the thing that makes two people friends from the moment they meet that is a vital ingredient. Pairing off people rarely turns them into friends. My church tried a ministry to do just that and it failed miserably because everybody was paired up with people they just couldn’t get along with or be open to or be vulnerable in the way that friends are. Which means that there must be some degree of humility, for older women to be patient and even careful if the young woman they are able to mentor admits to having difficulties that go beyond their own experience or the boundaries of traditionally acceptable and young women will need to learn to overcome the barrier of years of age-segregation set up for them.

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    • Your first point is quite true. This is why my approach was translated through the historical-cultural lens but I think the broad intention remains. You’re completely right about the barrier. I’m glad you shared the real-life example you’ve seen. I haven’t even seen it tried. What do you think then? Should only those women who feel called to discipleship mentor? I don’t think the church should be involved in willy-nilly pairing women together. But again, there’s that barrier that keeps older women who want to disciple the younger from actually reaching out and vice versa. Perhaps it isn’t best to say older women and younger women, but stronger Christians with the newer. My hope would be that the church would serve to remind those women who have it on their hearts to mentor to actually do something about it.

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      • I remember reading about the Order of the Widows – in the early church, in return for the widows being taken care of (1 Timothy 5), the widows were expected to keep their part of the deal – it turned into a patron/client relationship. The patron was the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client and the client was expected to offer his services to his patron as needed. The widows would be expected to pray for their benefactors, to instruct younger women in Scripture, be a source of encouragement, offer rebukes when needed, and the heart of a relational ministry that sought to restore members, bring them together, and not drive them away. Today, when an elderly woman loses her husband, she becomes more isolated – but the Order of the Widows tended to draw women deeper into the community of believers and keep them connected to one another. It was viewed as a consecrated office, not unlike being a pastor. If we use this as a pattern, then the first thing would be to create women’s ministries that aren’t (as is often the case) for wives and mothers, but for women from the oldest to the youngest, where life status (marriage and children) isn’t the goal, but teaching each other the gospel as well as anyone, one the age barrier and knowledge barrier are destroyed, then being a friend sort of naturally develops. Who knows, it might result in bringing back deaconesses. Now that would be quite a church.

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      • I like it. I wholeheartedly agree with this method. That might also be a good focus of the church. Did your reading reveal how old these widows often were? I wonder if the likelihood of young widows in early church history makes the dynamic different now when widows tend to be older due to greater life expectancy.

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      • https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/women-in-the-early-church/
        Tertullian once complained of a widow being added to the list at nineteen – but I would expect most would be ten or twenty years older depending on their circumstances. It seems that younger women could qualify to be deaconesses where generally older women were in the Order of the Widows. Such a ministry made sense – it existed in a time of gender segregation where women could teach women far easier than a man could teach women especially if none of them were closely related.

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  2. Discipleship is so important! I consider my Aunt my mentor. She is also my pastor and has spoken so much into my life as a woman! I am grateful for all the woman in my family and life. We as woman need each other! A lot of young girls go to boys for the validation of their hearts. I would know because I was one of them! It is important to speak truth into younger girls today about what it means to be a woman and a Godly one at that.

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