Though it doesn’t come right out and label them, the Bible is full of examples of mentorship. Of course there are the stories of Elijah and Elisha, Moses and Joshua, and Paul and Timothy; in each case the elder bringing the younger under his wing. An apprenticeship, of sorts.
The elder teaching and guiding, and the younger eventually growing into the role modeled by his teacher. Elisha becomes one of Israel's greatest prophets, Joshua leads the Israelites into the promised land, and Timothy continues the work of the Gospel that Paul started. There are many more.
Easily the most memorable - and downright adorable - is the story of Eli and Samuel. Eli, a priest, old and worn out, and Samuel a child in his custody.
We might not think to look to these two misfits - quite the odd couple - for insight on mentoring, but their story is ripe with wisdom.
Their story is set in the Old Testament, and written to tell the history of the Israelite people. It sounds like a Hallmark movie shot in three scenes, the audience bawling and cheering at the end. It leaves out all the details.
Eli, for example - mid-seventies at least - taking in a boy, probably three. A gift to the Lord from the child’s mother, Hannah.
Eli praises Hannah for her selfless act, but I imagine he was thinking, “What am I supposed to do with a child?” The shock of having life interrupted.
The follow up questions flow: “How should I structure his day?” “What does he need?” The quintessential follow up, “Where will I find the time?”
While most internship programs don’t start at such a young age, as a mentor you might be asking the same questions.
“What should I do with my intern?” “How should I structure their day?” “What do they need?”
Questions looming, the thought of fitting an intern into your already overflowing work schedule might be enough for you to shut down.
“I’d love to mentor, but I’m not sure how I’ll fit it in right now.”
“When we get settled into better rhythms, and things slow down a little, I’d love to think about hiring an intern.”
We get it. It’s something we hear a lot! You’re not alone in your concern.
Let’s look at Eli again.
Despite the unexpected twist in his story, Eli chooses his actions carefully.
Eli could have easily passed Samuel off to someone else. He is busy, and important, but takes this new responsibility seriously.
1 Samuel 3:1 tells us “The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli.” Further into the text in verse 15 we see Eli call Samuel his son. They are close because Eli invests in Samuel.
I can only imagine Eli’s irritation when Samuel wakes him up three times in the night. You can hear his plea - “Go back to bed!” The scene likely indicative of the many times Eli is interrupted over the years.
When teaching or mentoring, the process inevitably slows down. Showing takes longer than doing. Questions get repeated. Mistakes are made. Eli surely stumbles through the same dilemmas. Still, he chooses to be interrupted.
Left with the responsibility of this child, Eli could have focused solely on Samuel’s physical needs. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Education. Training. He doesn’t.
In the precious story unweaving in chapter three, Samuel waking the old man for the third time, it suddenly occurs to Eli that God might be up to something.
He doesn’t shrug the notion off, assuming the boy is just dreaming. He doesn’t push Samuel away, telling him to figure it out. He doesn’t play the victim, though he easily could - an elderly man desperately needing sleep, pestered by a restless child.
1 Samuel 3:8-9 says, "Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’"
He stops long enough to get clarity, and uses his wisdom to advise his young charge. A true mark of a good mentor. He chooses to guide Samuel’s spiritual awakening in the middle of the night, despite the obvious inconvenience. He pays attention to what the Lord is doing.
While the early chapters hint at the training Samuel is getting from Eli, it is not until chapter seven, long after Eli has died, that we see Samuel leading the people, and acting in the role of priest.
Eli could have chosen differently, and no one would have blinked. He could have put Samuel to work as a servant around the temple. He could have given him the odd jobs, the dirty work, the things no one else had time for. In fact, we can assume that he probably did. Much wisdom and experience comes from being the low man on the totem pole, and carrying out the jobs no one else wants. Humility and a servant’s heart, for starters.
It’s important to realize Eli doesn’t leave Samuel here. He brings him alongside, allows Samuel to watch his work, ask questions, and practice the craft. He cares enough to slow down and mentor Samuel, and these lessons become essential as Samuel goes on to lead the country spiritually and politically.
Mentors, remember that you can’t see where your mentee is going. We don’t get the foresight of knowing what our mentee will have to walk through, what experiences they will rise to, and what responsibilities will be laid on their shoulders. We only have today.
Today, though, we can pour into our “someone” knowing that God can use our efforts for His kingdom - whether we get to see that play out or not.
While the interns you mentor might not be chatty toddlers or energetic, sweaty young children, we can all gain valuable wisdom from the actions of this old priest.
As we look to honor the Lord in our day-by-day, we get the choice to be interrupted, pay attention to what God is doing, and invest in the next generation.
About the Author
Becky Nance is a mom of three girls, and wife to a worship pastor in central Iowa. She holds a M.A. in Ministry from Wesley Seminary with a concentration in Spiritual Formation. Becky spends much of her time mentoring young women, nurturing her babies, and crafting words to help shape the way we think about God.