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Principles of Mentoring

by David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)
Today's Christian Doctor - Summer 2011

My dad, a superb mentor himself, suggested I spend time with Dr. Ernie Steury, a medical missionary to Kenya, the summer after my junior year at Asbury University. I had felt God’s call to medical missions as a high school student. I was doing well in my pre-med studies but had no exposure to clinical medicine. I still remember Dad’s words, “Of all the missionary doctors I know in the world, Ernie is the finest. Your mom and I have supported them as our missionaries since they went to Kenya in 1959. You should spend some time with him.”

Mentoring Principle #1: Find a mentor you respect.

We want you living in a way that will command the respect of outsiders . . . (1 Thess. 4:12, The Message).

It was an unforgettable summer in 1972. Ernie and his wife, Sue, moved two of their children out of their bedroom to the living room couch so I would have a place to stay. On my arrival, one of his young sons took me on a compound tour describing the birds, fauna, and introducing me to nationals and missionaries alike. I was impressed with his maturity and knowledge.

I was part of family devotions in the morning around the table. I followed Ernie around the hospital, watched my first delivery, and learned to hand instruments in surgery as Ernie’s newly trained scrub tech.

The recorder of my memory was in HD mode. I can still replay scenes — Ernie’s hand on the shoulder of a woman laying on the operating table as he prayed with her before a C-section; his head buried in the hospital generator helping a national mechanic with repairs; his sweet spirit as we got up again and again, night after night; a wife grabbing his hand to say, “Kongoi mising, Doctari,” after he had saved her husband’s life who had a gangrenous sigmoid volvulus; Ernie leading a dying Masaii man to Christ; going on their family vacation, an unforgettable hunting safari, to kill meat for the hospital patients.

As I boarded the plane back to the US, not only was my call confirmed, I had a new goal. I wanted to become a doctor just like Ernie Steury and to come back to help him carry his tremendous workload. His skill, servant mentality, and passion for the gospel had captured my imagination and moved my heart!

Mentoring Principle #2: Let someone “follow you.”

. . . and immediately they left . . . and followed him (Matt. 4:22, NIV).

My heart moved me to action. I immediately made application to World Gospel Mission, with whom Ernie served, and was put under preliminary appointment the next year. After my third year of medical school, my wife, Jody, and I went back to Kenya to stoke the fire of our call. I spent more time with Ernie during a month’s rotation overseas the last year of my family practice residency, but my real in-depth mentoring started once I arrived at Tenwek Hospital as a full time missionary physician in mid-1981.

I had graduated AOA and was chief resident during my training, but I was in many ways starting a whole new specialty as Ernie taught me missionary medicine — mastering new diseases, adjusting to seeing seventy-five or more inpatients a day, learning how to work cross-culturally, and so much more. He did almost all the surgery and needed help, so he started my missionary surgery residency teaching me general anesthesia, orthopedic procedures, how to remove a prostate the size of a grapefruit, and many other techniques. Ernie’s spending time with me went way beyond work. He was at my children’s birthday parties, took our family on a camping trip with his family, and he and Sue regularly invited us over for dinner. Ernie delivered our third child, Stacy, in 1984, and I still remember Sue sleeping all night on our couch holding Stacy on her chest to keep her quiet until Jody woke up from her sedation.

Mentoring Principle #3: Make your mentee part of your daily life.

. . . his disciples were with him (Luke 9:18, NIV).

Mine and Ernie's relationship was much deeper than teacher/student. Ernie made it an increasingly intimate one as time went by. He shared his feelings, frustrations, problems, dreams, ideas, and advice. He began to ask my opinion in difficult situations and when appropriate, take it. I became his confidant and he mine. He encouraged me to be open with him about all aspects of my life. To learn to lead, I needed to wrestle with the problems that he faced, develop coping methods, learn how to communicate well with national staff and fellow missionaries, and develop a joint vision with him of where the ministry should go and what goals it should prioritize. Ernie was letting me know who he was at the deepest level.

Mentoring Principle #4: Build a “questioning” relationship.

The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?” (Matt. 13:10, The Message). . . . he asked his disciples, saying, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” (Matt. 16:13, KJV).

I learned much more about healthcare my first three years in Kenya than I did in my excellent residency program. Ernie encouraged me to ask questions, and he asked me questions as well. He was always learning on the job as well, whether it was from working with a visiting specialist or even a young guy like me fresh out of residency. I can still hear him saying, “What did they teach you about this during your training?” His openness and inquisitiveness gave me the green light to ask questions about everything. In a good mentoring relationship, both the mentor and the mentee are stimulated, and that is manifested by a freedom to ask questions.

Mentoring Principle #5: Develop an intimate relationship with a mentee who holds promise.

Now Jesus wept (John 11:35, The Message). Filled with compassion, Jesus . . . (Mark 1:41, NIV).

Iron sharpens iron. Ernie was doing more than creating an assistant to help him carry his heavy load. He was preparing me to fill his shoes. He was doing more than educating me with knowledge and helping me to develop skills. He was building my integrity and grounding my virtues as he shared, encouraged, and helped me to become the man God designed me to be.

Mentoring Principle #6: Teach, train, and coach your mentee not only in what they need to do but who they need to be.

But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves (Luke 22:26, NIV).

As a good coach knows, it is important to continue to stretch each player. The best way to do that is to continue to give each team member more challenges during practice and games. Ernie did that to me. He understood my eagerness to bring positive change, solve problems, and make a difference. Within two years of my arrival, he asked me to start the community health outreach program for the hospital. He turned me loose but was there to encourage, advise, empower, and to assist as needed. When I had success, he was the first to applaud. When I made mistakes, he gently corrected me. He did not feel threatened by my accomplishments, but instead found great satisfaction in them.

When I returned from my furlough after our first three years of service, he took me to a whole new level of responsibility as he went on his home assignment. He put me in charge of the whole hospital.

Mentoring Principle #7: Steadily increase the mentee’s opportunities and challenges as they develop.

. . . he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick . . . (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).

Ernie had prepared me in many more ways than I realized. He worked hard to make me known by his network of government officials, local tribal leaders, and church officials. He knew that, in order to lead well, I needed to know and have the respect of the local Member of Parliament, the Provincial Medical Officer, the Moderator of the national church, and many others. If they visited the hospital, he always made a point to introduce me and laud my accomplishments. He would take me with him on business trips to meet key individuals and teach me how to get things done. He opened the doors to important relationships that had taken him years to develop. It was an invaluable aid to me when my year of leading the hospital turned into a much longer period than expected when Ernie was diagnosed with colon cancer. Nothing had to be put on hold, waiting for him to return.

Mentoring Principle #8: Open doors so your mentee can access your networks.

. . . a local official appeared . . . Jesus got up and went with him, his disciples following along (Matt. 9:18-19, The Message).

When Ernie finally returned after a long delay, the mentoring continued for the many years that followed. Even after I came back to the US to lead World Medical Missions and then CMDA, Ernie was always available to answer questions, give advice, and encourage me. Mentoring may wax and wane depending on the circumstances, but the relationship is on-going and can be intensified whenever needed.

Mentoring Principle #9: Leave the mentoring conduit open for the long term.

And surely I am with you always . . . (Matt. 28:20, NIV).

The best way to learn to mentor is to be mentored yourself. What Ernie had done with me, I began doing with new missionaries, visiting residents, and students, as well as national staff in varying degrees. As my dad said to me, “The greatest investment of a man or woman’s life is to invest it in the lives of others.” I found my greatest satisfaction came through influencing people and watching them grow to heights they never thought possible.

Ernie died from a brain tumor a few years after he retired from the mission field, but his legacy lives on in me and many others. More important than the healing he brought to hundreds of thousands of people, are the people whose minds and hearts he touched. I was privileged to be one of them. Whether you call it mentoring, discipling, or coaching, it boils down to some simple truths.

  • God works through people to affect people.
  • God designed us for deep relationships.
  • Everyone needs at least one person who is deeply investing in them and someone they are investing in.
  • Outside your family, mentoring will be your most enduring legacy.


David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)