Mentoring: A Non-Negotiable Toward Empowering Women in Ministry
The Book of Ruth provides an excellent DNA model for intentionally mentoring other women. Her story provides nine character traits of intentional mentoring.
BY KAREN YANCEY
The 10-day missions experience went well, with opportunities for humanitarian and compassionate ministry leading to numerous children, women, and entire families accepting Jesus as Savior.
Amid friendly laughter, warm hugs, and heartfelt tears, the team of women said a final goodbye to our host missionary. We boarded the plane and arranged our belongings for the lengthy journey ahead. As the plane left the tarmac and began its flight toward home, my mind raced over the past week and a half.
I marveled at how God allowed 20 ordinary women, with individual personalities and varied strengths, to minister tirelessly for 10 days without one word of complaint. I scanned the plane and counted team members. Most had already fallen into a deep sleep brought on by sheer exhaustion.
I positioned myself for some rest, not realizing the life-altering God-moments about to transpire in row 39, seats E and F. Just as my head hit the airline pillow, a team member sitting next to me asked if we could talk. I’m so thankful I shook myself out of my blurry state of mind and said, “Of course!”
She confided, “I feel called to ministry. Would you be my mentor?”
That one question many years ago changed the trajectory of her life — and mine. She gained a mentor, and I experienced a revelation God had built into me — in spite of my flaws — an innate desire to connect intentionally with women experiencing uncertainties in ministry and hungering for continued spiritual formation.
While the recent resurgence and unfortunate influence of Calvinism in the United States propagates the idea that full ministry leadership is open only to men, current statistics reveal a growing number of women receiving credentials with the Assemblies of God. We must ready ourselves to prepare, encourage, and mentor these young women who are new to vocational ministry.
Mentoring is an opportunity for younger women in ministry to tap into the reservoir of experience, empathy, maturity, and spirituality that tested women in ministry can often provide.
In the past three decades, the concept of mentoring has gained acceptance. Yet it remains somewhat ambiguous in practical application. Is mentoring formal or informal? Is it structured or unstructured? Is it intentional or organic? For me, the answer is yes to all.
I did not grow up in vocational ministry, and because of regulatory bylaws, my father never served as a deacon or elder. However, my parents’ significant devotion to God, participation in church gatherings, and loyalty to our pastors provided a healthy foundation for my spiritual walk.
God called me into the ministry when I was 16. I married at 18. I gave birth to my first baby at 19, and I served as first lady of the parsonage at the ripe age of 22. These milestones occurred long before the idea of mentoring blipped on my radar. In reflection, I credit my ministry survival and any significant contribution exclusively to an all-sufficient God and a remarkable husband.
I gradually matured as my years in ministry advanced. Now, as a more seasoned credentialed woman, I look back and speculate about potentially different outcomes in my ministry if a mentor had come alongside me in those days. Would I have more quickly conquered the sabotage of self-loathing born of unhealthy comparisons and unrealistic expectations I placed on myself? Would I have dealt better with the surprise that Christians don’t always behave like Christians? Would I have been equipped to release the pain and aggravation that swelled within me when people unjustly treated my husband? I wonder whether I would have understood I could say “no” from time to time without guilt or explanation. Perhaps a more experienced woman in ministry could have intentionally helped me navigate these unknowns in my life.
What about accountability in a Bible reading plan, study habits, and the ability to correctly exegete Scripture? Would I have handled the criticism about women teaching men differently if a mentor had journeyed with me? Absolutely!
Mentored From a Distance
A few years into ministry, I vividly recall God challenging me to focus on seasoned women ministers who exemplified desirable qualities. I intentionally observed the way these notable women carried themselves. They taught me to seek God unreservedly with my heart and my intellect — not just with emotion. They taught me to live holy and wholly, disregarding unfounded criticism while remaining kind and loving. By example, they honored their husbands, sought out dynamic balance in family and ministry, and served selflessly. They dressed modestly, used a sarcasm-free vocabulary, and attentively listened to people around them. These imperfect women leaders unknowingly mentored me from a distance. That same substantive mentoring now looks unstructured, informal, and organic. Though subtle in context, this informal mentoring created lasting fruit in my life.
Nevertheless, informal mentoring does not exclude the need for an intentional and structured approach. Intentional mentoring holds promise of inoculating women ministers against the dangerous virus of isolation.
Relational connection provides the most meaningful pathway for ministry to follow. Somehow in modern society we have lost the spontaneity we find in the Bible where a more experienced person helps another gain skills or understanding. Computers and the Internet open a treasure trove of information but eliminate the relational aspect of learning in face-to-face encounters. In a world where the seemingly omniscient Google can provide endless information, some knowledge comes best through relational experience.
Mentors Create a Culture
Mentors establish a kind of relationship DNA. In John Ortberg’s book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, he cites a study on relationships that tracked 7,000 people over nine years. Researchers found that the most isolated people were three times more likely to die than those with strong relational connections. People with unhealthy habits (e.g., smoking, making poor food choices, staying overweight, or consuming alcohol) but strong social ties lived significantly longer than people who had great health habits but were isolated. In other words, it is better to eat Twinkies with good friends than to eat broccoli alone! The point seems clear: We need strong, intentional relationships. Trying to make it through life without them is detrimental.
In the Book of Ruth, Naomi provides an excellent DNA model for intentionally mentoring other women. Her story provides nine character traits of intentional mentoring.
1. Naomi honored authority in her life. She dutifully followed her husband to Moab (Ruth 1:1,2). The Assemblies of God holds an egalitarian position on women in ministry leadership (a belief that since men and women are all one in Christ, there are no gender distinctions when it comes to functional roles in the church), but that view does not validate either females or males who usurp authority and create discord in pursuit of their rights. Therefore, mentors must first model submission to authority.
2. Naomi valued relationships. She initially rejected isolation by maintaining important relationships, even while she endured life’s most difficult tests. Her husband and sons died in Moab (Ruth 1:3–7). She kept her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, close by, and they observed Naomi processing her unspeakable grief.
Mentors do well to understand their examples speak in all seasons.
3. Naomi trusted her historic roots for support. When the time was right, she prepared to return to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:7). Her roots represented the truth that mentors never outgrow the need for personal reinforcement.
4. Naomi was honest with herself and others about her emotions. At the border, she expressed her deepest internal pain and confessed her bitterness to the younger women (Ruth 1:11–13).
Healthy mentors strategically reveal layers of transparency. They recognize that mentees readily identify with a mentor’s pain. Naomi’s behavior contradicts conventional wisdom that leaders should never allow followers to get close. Naomi allowed it, and so did Jesus.
5. Naomi knew her own limitations. In her discouraged state of mind, she urged the young women to go back, knowing she could not give them a husband (Ruth 1:11,12).
At this point, Naomi misunderstood what the mentees most needed. Orpah clearly loved Naomi, but she left the mentor-mentee relationship because Naomi could not give her the husband she thought she needed. However, Ruth wanted what Naomi could provide, which included a true God, a chosen people, and a place in a godly lineage.
Mentors should recognize and acknowledge what they can’t do. But they can trust God to accomplish His purposes in spite of their limitations.
6. Naomi invested time in Ruth. Sheaccepted the request of her mentee and allowed Ruth to press close and spend time with her (Ruth 1:16–18).
Mentoring requires intentionally modifying personal boundaries but maintaining autonomy and personal identity (Ruth 1:19).
7. Naomi gave direct counsel to Ruth. She provided specific instructions, telling Ruth to go to the threshing floor and what to do there (Ruth 3:3).
Healthy mentors understand that hints, example, and self-discovery all have their place, but they also discern when the mentee needs clear direction.
8. Naomi enjoyed the reward of her investment. She received a unique blessing as a faithful mentor when she held a grandson, a child born in the lineage of King David and Jesus the Messiah (Ruth 4:13–22; Matthew 1:5,6).
Healthy mentors recognize the powerful potential of spiritual multiplication in the relationship.
9. Naomi bore fruit through the life of another person. Ruth 4:14,15 says, “The women said to Naomi: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ ”
Healthy mentors do not claim credit for their mentee’s accomplishments, but they bask in the joy of having contributed to the success of another woman in ministry.
Three Cords Convey Strength
Naomi and Ruth’s relationship demonstrates, “Two are better than one. … Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9,12).
Ecclesiastes tackles hard issues about life and the search for meaning in our daily challenges. The Teacher considers the emptiness of so many things we pursue. Yet the key concept, the strength of a three-strand cord, merits close study. Hope surfaces when the divine Third Strand enters the equation. God’s inclusion in a mentor-mentee relationship does not guarantee lifelong friendship, but when two hearts remain open to the Spirit, the mentor and mentee find mutual benefit.
Credentialed women need a three-strand cord of godly mentorship. When faced with trials, many people typically get a solo survival plan in place and move forward for a time. Eventually, new battles arise, and repeated trauma beats the person down. This reminds believers of the strong possibility that without the help and encouragement of others, they may survive but not thrive. Mentors, then, must step into the role of encourager. Leaders — women and men — need others in the trenches alongside them.
God has placed a new covenant in our hearts. His unconditional promise enables us to yearn for a life with dynamic balance instead of instability. Yet newly credentialed ministers may misunderstand the lack of predictability in ministry and face unexpected instability and angst. Anxiety often lurks in the shadows of our thinking. Disappointment, frustration, and anxiety flare when women ministers sense that God created them for more. Perhaps they feel unappreciated or stymied in their calling. As they face criticism and obstacles, these women need encouragement to produce fruit in the ministry leadership roles to which God has called them.
The founders of the Assemblies of God established an organization of men and women ministers and churches to function as a network. From the Fellowship’s inception, shared spiritual experience and relational devotion to each other was elevated, regardless of gender. Men and women in ministry need healthy relationships.
In a mentor-mentee relationship, shared burdens feel lighter and more manageable as participants encourage one another through authentic accountability and support that mirrors the stability of the Godhead. A woman in ministry standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two women, with God in the center, can stand back-to-back and overcome every barrier.
The woman on that airplane who requested that I mentor her remains a dear friend to this day. During the first five years of our relationship, she looked to me as her mentor. Due to proximity, we took many morning walks together and shared life. She asked multiple questions, we did Bible studies together, and the relationship grew into a cherished friendship. Years later, we stood at our local airport, and I waved goodbye with tears streaming down my face. I had mentored her to the point that she could lead the women’s missions team while I strategically stayed behind.
The final stages of mentoring include empowering and releasing. Truly, that day at the airport remains one of the most precious days of my life. It was the day mentee changed to peer.