12. Passive Mentoring on the Mission Field

Before my wife, Karen, and I went to Pakistan in 1985 we learned the LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical) method of language learning.  Although I often wished the course had been better tailored to suit my ability (perhaps LAMPSSSSS – Language Acquisition Made Perfectly Smooth Sailing for the Simple minded and Slow of Speech), the skills taught were invaluable in enabling us to achieve proficiency in the language.  This method focuses on enabling and equipping language learners to be in control of their language acquisition through the help of a tutor.  Rather than depending upon a language teacher who is responsible for setting the course content, methods and levels of proficiency, a relationship is established with a mother tongue speaker who is not a teacher but a source with the skill the language learner seeks to acquire.  The language learner assumes the responsibility of establishing and guiding the process which will ensure successful language acquisition. I was recently challenged with a similar model to provide mentoring for the missionary intern.  Is it possible for the intern to develop cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural ministry skills through a mentor tutor?

A Challenge to Field Mentoring Models

In preparing a program for cross-cultural ministry here at NBS@ACTS, I struggle with the means of providing a mentored environment on the field for the student.  I assumed that trained mentors on the field would be required who could provide time, experience and oversight to help a missionary intern adjust to a new culture and ministry environment.  However this assumption was challenged through an email from Paul Sadler, an FEBInternational missionary to Japan. He speculated on the possibility of mentoring missionary interns through a procedure similar to that of acquiring a new language.  Rather than setting up programs in which experienced missionaries or qualified nationals spend time overseeing and guiding missionary interns, the burden of responsibility lies with the intern who has been trained in a general philosophy and procedure for culture and cross-cultural ministry acquisition. In this paradigm the intern relates to a national tutor mentor who is a passive expert on how to live and minister in that specific culture.  The tutors do not direct the process nor are they expected to be skilled in passing on their knowledge. Instead the intern has been trained to draw out from that tutor those aspects of culture and ministry involvement that need to be acquired.

Because the student comes prepared and trained to be the initiator and motivator in the learning experience, the expectations and demands upon missionaries on the field are lessened.  Greater independence from expatriates and greater dependence upon nationals can also provide a deeper and fuller experience within the culture the intern has come to learn.  Additionally, the challenges of a different perspective on ministry and life in general will stretch the intern further than the more comfortable setting of relating primarily to a mentor from the same cultural background.

It is not my intention to devalue the mentoring relationship nor to discount the importance of experienced missionaries’ involvement with interns. Supervisors sympathetic to the interns’ cultural background are important to provide encouragement, resolve difficulties and give advice concerning issues of which the tutor may not be aware.  However when those new to a culture learn to address their inquiries to a national rather than to a fellow expatriate, they more rapidly become proficient as students of culture and in the process develop that appreciation for the culture which is necessary for effectiveness and contentment in ministry.

The Dynamics of Passive Mentoring

In the book Connecting: The mentoring relationship you need to succeed in life, the concept of passive mentoring is explored and certain necessary dynamics are outlined. The relevant skills, character, knowledge, influence, experience, values, commitments, wisdom and position must be evident in the life of the passive mentor so that they can be discovered and profitably explored by the mentoree.  To ensure that an appropriate tutor is chosen, those present on the field would need to do the preliminary work to find someone who exhibits the necessary attributes.  The tutor mentor must be willing to respond positively to the mentoree’s questions, presence and time commitments.  Accountability will also need to be provided through another source.  A missionary supervisor would be the most likely candidate for this.
            The intern or mentoree will need to focus on exploring the connection between the tutor’s values and beliefs and her / his actions.  The goal is not to merely ask questions and gain answers because this limits the experience to a cognitive process. Holistic exposure to models in the midst of life is perhaps the most effective tool in culture acquisition. The goal is to seek to understand the values and beliefs, the worldview and cultural perspectives that have precipitated the actions observed.  In addition the response of others to those actions needs to be analyzed and understood. The connection between action and expected results as opposed to the actual results can reveal much concerning the beliefs and values of a culture.

The intern will also need to determine the steps or experiences required to emulate the skills and values that have been observed. There will be times when the tutor’s actions will clash with the intern’s perspective concerning appropriate conduct. Any questionable activity needs to be discussed to determine meaning, purpose and impact within that cultural context. Only by openly exploring the issue can effective evaluation take place resulting in suitable cultural adjustments. 

One of the best lessons I learned in Pakistan was how to be a mediator in resolving personal conflicts.  Sindhis do not resolve conflict through direct confrontation, but through third party mediation.  By observing the skill of one of my friends in this process and discussing the implications with him, I gained insights that have been invaluable in dealing with conflict situations.  The intern that is equipped to take proactive steps in observing and accessing underlying assumptions may be able to progress further than the one who is dependent upon the direction of a mentor.


  • (1) Brewster, Thomas E. and Elizabeth S. Brewster. 1976. Language Acquisition Made Practical. Pasadena, CA: Lingua House.
  • (2) Clinton, J. Robert & Stanley, Paul D. 1992. Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships You Need to Succeed. Colorado Springs: Navpress.