I am no Augustinian scholar, but as a pastor and church planter, I have greatly enjoyed looking into his mentoring philosophy. Much of the content in this article is gleaned from Edward L. Smither’s book, Augustine as Mentor. If you find this article helpful, you can check his book out here.
There are no words in the NT that perfectly equate with the word mentor or mentoring. However, associated words certainly convey the concept. For example, we are commanded to make disciples which would include a mentoring relationship. Jesus’ call to discipleship, “follow me,” implies a mentorship. There are other verbs like teach, be sound, train, and imitate; and nouns like teacher, imitator, and training that communicate that mentorship is vital part of what we are all to do as followers of Jesus.
Unfortunately, I feel that mentorship is something that is greatly lacking in the church today- especially when it comes to raising up and developing elders. As the Lead Pastor of CityLight Church and the director of our church planting network, I am seeking to learn all I can about how to mentor the next generation of elders and church planters. I found Augustine’s philosophy of mentorship both simple and refreshing.
How did he mentor the next generation?
He mentored through preaching
He not only mentored through his careful teaching and preaching ministry, but he also mentored through training men in the mechanics of teaching. He would start the development of his elders by putting them on an intense daily scripture reading program. He would then instruct them on how to interpret the text and how to teach the text to others. In the Life of Augustine, Possidius give ample evidence that Augustine had a robust and regular teaching program to help develop his elders.1 The primary focus of his training regimen was to give focused attention to precise exegesis and careful exposition of the scriptures. One of the greatest joys Augustine had was to see his elders overcome with passion and zeal to preach and teach God’s word to all.
He mentored through rigorous training
Intellectual training was also a key element of his mentorship. Augustine developed his elders not just to shepherd the flock of God, but to be deep theologians and well-trained philosophers. According to Smither, African church leaders were poorly prepared to teach the scriptures and inept at defending Christianity.2 Augustine believed they could not afford to have men be intellectually weak. They needed to be prepared for the areas they would serve and the growing hostility they would face as ministers of the gospel. Possidius made the claim that the ministry of apologetics and debate led to a gospel renewal of the church.3
He mentored through conversation
A staple of Augustine’s mentorship was the ongoing practice and encouragement of dialogue. He would not only do this with fellow believers but with non-Christians as well (e.g. relationship with Alypius). He loved to talk about the things of God. He enjoyed working through difficult subjects and fielding questions whether philosophical, theological, or exegetical. Augustine would often have these conversations around a meal. Possidius noted that “Even at [the] table he found more delight in reading and conversation than in eating and drinking”4 These “table talks,” as Smither calls them, would involve reading spiritually nourishing books and discussing them. Typically one would read a section of the book aloud and then they would spend time talking through the content. At the end of their discussion, “they would reflect on the day by sharing victories and failures while finding renewed courage and vision to carry on in the work of ministry.”5
He mentored through hospitality
Smither said that “Augustine’s hospitality ran the risk of welcoming the unworthy or disruptive visitor into the monastery.”6 He said this because Augustine was committed to showing biblical hospitality. Augustine said in his own writings, “In receiving unknown guests, after all, we usually say that it is much better to put up with an evil man than perhaps to turn away a good man through ignorance.”7 Augustine viewed hospitality as an opportunity for modeling Christlikeness and what it looks like to be the servant of others.
He mentored through correction
If an elder agreed to be mentored by Augustine, the elder was required to demonstrate a lifestyle that was in keeping with sound doctrine. Augustine was known for being very strict about personal holiness and walking in humility. If sin was discovered, he would not procrastinate; he would rebuke his brother immediately. If there was no repentance he would no longer continue to mentor that individual. He intentionally committed himself to faithful men who could teach others and would be faithful to the teaching (2 Timothy 2:1-2).
He mentored through delegation
Augustine would assign his elders different responsibilities and would use these service opportunities as segues to discipleship. If you examine his correspondence, you would discover that Augustine very much disliked the administrative side of the ministry (boy, I can relate!). He would often delegate areas like administration and finances of the monastery to help train his elders in leadership. Augustine not only delegated tasks, but he would also empower his trainees by giving them the necessary authority and tools to accomplish the work.
He mentored through releasing
Augustine did not try to hold back any of his elders in Hippo. He released many men to gospel ministry all throughout North Africa. He was more committed to seeing the church as a whole expand than his local church. Smither said that Augustine’s most significant legacy was numerous clergy, the men he sent out as leaders for the North African church.8 After Augustine released these men into the ministry, he would often write letters encouraging them to remain faithful to God’s calling on their life. There are 252 surviving letters written by Augustine, and they provide a good picture of church life in the fourth and fifth century, as well as insight into the mentoring habits of Augustine of Hippo.
1. Possidius, Life of Augustine, 22.6.
2. Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing 2008), 152.
3. Possidius, Life of Augustine, 7.2.
4. Ibid., 22.6.
5. Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing 2008), 153.
6. Ibid., 154.
7. Zumkeller, Augustine’s Ideal of the Religious Life (New York, NY: Fordham University Press 1986), 43.
8. Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing 2008), 156.