Edward L. Smither, Ph.D., associate professor of Church History and Intercultural Studies at Liberty Theological Seminary, has authored a book on Augustine of Hippo that offers a fresh new perspective on the concept of mentoring. Most authors approach Augustine as a subject in regard to his contribution to theology and philosophy. Never has there been an in depth look at Augustine the mentee and later, the mentor. Smither’s point of concentration is to assist pastors and leaders in their roles as mentors as well as leaders who need and desire to be mentored. By analyzing the details of Augustine’s life, Dr. Smither is able to present a workable and relevant mentorship model for today’s leadership.
Augustine as Mentor
Chapter one sets the book in motion by exploring the role of the mentor and discipleship in the first century. It offers “an early Christian model for mentoring in the church prior to Augustine’s ministry [Smither, 4]. The biblical accounts of early Christian mentoring give strong evidence for the basis of the eight principles presented in this chapter. These principles were very important to Jesus and Paul within the context and purpose of their ministry.
The first is the group. The mentoring of early Christian leaders took place within the context of a group [Smither, 13]. Jesus and Paul understood its importance and provide the most skillful examples of this principle. According to the author, mentoring in a group setting meets the inherent rational needs of the disciple [Smither, 15]. This eventually led to monasteries that focused on peer mentoring.
The second principle is that of mentor as disciple. It is here that Smither illustrates the life of the mentor as ever evolving, growing, and learning.
He has never “arrived” and is therefore always a disciple [Smither, 16].
The third principle is selection. This is the time in which the disciple or group of disciples is called to join the mentor in spiritual growth or collaborate in community service. In essence, the person or persons are called to discipleship. This principle is necessary to becoming a disciple.
This is followed by mentor-disciple relationship. It is a calling into a close personal relationship with the mentor that is signalized by grace and discipline [Smither, 17].
The final four principles included sound teaching, modeling and involving in ministry, releasing to ministry, and resourcing leaders. It must be noted that some of these principles can be seen not only in the mentorship strategies of Augustine, but also in those who served as mentees of the Bishop of Hippo.
Chapter two focuses on mentoring in the third and fourth centuries, as well as highlighting the lives of those men who served as models to Augustine. This intense study by the author of men such as Cyprian of Carthage, Pachomius, Basil and Ambrose served to illustrate the way that each incorporated the principles from chapter one in order to mentor others. They provided examples from which Augustine would develop his own mentoring techniques.
The central point of chapter three is on exactly who mentored Augustine. His first and closest mentor would be his mother, Monica. According to Smither, in the period before his conversion, she mentored him in four ways: through her holy example, her practical faith, her commitment to sound doctrine and practice, and the early Christian education that she provided [Smither, 93]. Augustine shared a friendship with Alypius, who he referred to as “my heart’s brother” [Smither, 101]. Alypius was his peer and there was mutual support and encouragement between the two. Nebridius, who was also a peer of Augustine’s, was instrumental in Augustine’s decision to leave the Manichean sect. Both men mentored Augustine in a unique way, helping him to remain single minded. Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, mentored Augustine through his holy example, the primacy of properly interpreted Scriptures, the “language” of preaching, and preparing him for baptism [Smither, 103]. There was also Simplicianus, who modeled that the mentor is still a disciple and most importantly, Valerius who was Augustine’s pastor. He mentored Augustine by selecting him for ministry, maintaining a personal mentor-disciple relationship, by involving him increasingly in ministry, and by releasing him in ministry [Smither, 112]. It was the mentorship of Valerius that prepared Augustine for the final forty years of his life. Each mentor added a matchless piece to the mosaic that would become the life of one of the most highly regarded church fathers in history.
Chapter four looks at Augustine as mentor. It is here that you find that the bulk of Augustine’s mentoring took place in the monastery. He was drawn to Christian monasticism because of his experience with the false asceticism of the Manicheans [Smither, 135]. Through his letters, sermons, and other writings it is evident that Augustine’s mentoring style included the monastery, letters, books, church councils, and personal visits.
Because of his strong belief in the importance of the Scriptures and sound teaching, Scripture reading and memorization, and sound teaching were the foundational building blocks at the monastery. Time was devoted each day to Scriptural reading, along with any other spiritual works from their library. Augustine mentored the group by serving as its primary teacher. His most important form of mentoring involved learning through dialogue. It is in this chapter that the author uses numerous examples from the works of Augustine to demonstrate his mentoring style.
Chapter five, the final chapter of the book, sheds light on Augustine’s thoughts on mentoring. Here, it obvious that his mentoring principles are the same as those introduced in chapter one.
Augustine mentored in a group context. He lived his life as the perfect example of the mentor as a disciple. With all of his recognition, Augustine always remained humble and under the authority of spiritual leadership. Augustine’s selection of disciples, according to Smither, paralleled his thoughts on Christian friendship [Smither, 232]. The mentor-disciple relationship played a very important role in Augustine’s mentoring. Through his letters, he offered encouragement, sound doctrine, and shepherding. Sound teaching was at the heart and soul of everything that Augustine did. His love for the Scriptures was the motivating force for all his work. His modeling and involving in clergy in ministry was commonplace for Augustine, who worked along side his clergy. The desired outcome for all clergy who were fortunate enough to serve under Augustine was to be released to ministry,
After which Augustine always remained available as a valuable resource.
The epilogue of the book is an encouraging word to today’s leadership to embrace the model of mentoring set forth by Augustine. It lays forth the evidence of the relevance of the model. Smither states that the theme of the book has been that a mentor must still be a disciple [Smither, 258]. Augustine used a proven model for mentoring that incorporated proven principles. What his mentors used, Augustine used to mentor. His invaluable lessons in mentoring are just as relevant and applicable today. Augustine was himself a disciple who sought out potential that would be able to outshine him. Will today’s leadership be able to mentor in the same way?
Dr. Smither has written a book that is not only informative, but his analysis of the life of Augustine helps to make him more of a three dimensional person. Until this book, the bishop of Hippo is portrayed simply in terms of his contributions to church history and ministry. This book portrays him as a person who has struggles, shares friendships, abhors gossip and cares deeply about people. Smither has somehow made Augustine a “whole” person. It was refreshing to see that Augustine brought this side of himself into ministry. It is possible that his struggles aided in his humility.
This book is easy to read and very well documented. Although the documentation serves as a positive, it also serves as a negative in some places of the book. In some places where Smither writes about the use of letters as a tool for mentoring, he presents listings of those letters and/or examples from those writings in the book. This information in some way becomes redundant and tiresome. Even so, I still would highly recommend this book, particularly to those in leadership. It provides an opportunity for modern day leadership to improve their mentorship skills while addressing any personal needs to be mentored. This book would be an asset to any personal library.
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