When we develop metaphors for ministry relationships, we must be careful to discipline our language by biblical frames of thought.
I think we need to be especially suspicious of metaphors and images that portray ministry relationships in terms of “leader-follower,” or “patron-client.”
Contemporary assumptions about discipleship (“I, the expert, show and tell you things.”) often leave the impression that ministry flows only in one direction—from the expert to the learner.
But this isn’t how Paul understands his apostleship nor how he arranges his ministry relationships.
In Romans 1:1-15, Paul takes pains to set himself alongside the Roman Christians in a relationship of mutual blessing:
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (vv. 11-12).
His greeting in 1 Corinthians 1:1-10 functions in much the same way. In Ephesians, Paul reports on his praying for his readers (1:15-23; 3:14-19) and requests prayer from them on his behalf (6:19-20).
There may indeed be times when exhortation or some other ministry effort is flowing in one direction, but it seems that Paul configures ministry as relationships of mutuality. In the Kingdom of God, siblings in the family of Jesus bless one another and take on postures of mutuality, giving and receiving gifts.
Ministry gets perverted and invites corrupted dynamics when the relationship becomes one of “patron-client” (“I have the knowledge / power / character, and I impart it to you.”).
I cringe when I hear metaphors and images that call to mind ministry relationships that have an imbalanced power differential.
I’ve heard in several different places the language of “pouring into,” which strikes me as bizarre and just plain weird. I’ve also come to doubt the helpfulness of “mentoring” language.
I think the image of a mentor can be fruitful, so long as it’s explicit that the mentoring is mutual. There is no one who doesn’t need others, their blessing, love, and service.
It’s instructive that “family” is the dominant image for church life in the New Testament. It calls to mind vital connection, intimacy, belonging, permanence, mutual care, and the range of responsibilities and privileges that go with those relationships.
Another image we ought to exploit is “friendship.” I think this is better than “mentor,” even when there’s a vast difference in age and experience. It calls to mind the mutuality that Paul exhibits and joins people together in ways that resonate with Scripture’s portrayal of how God’s people enjoy God’s blessing along with one another.