In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, famed Greek soldier Odysseus is off battling in the Trojan War. Meanwhile, his son Telemachus is left with the warrior’s trusted friend, Mentor. For 20 years, Odysseus’ military campaign kept him away from home. Upon his return, he found his son a grown and mature man—thanks to Mentor’s wise and careful tutelage.

During the years, Homer’s mentor has become synonymous with teaching and leading. It’s a badge given to those who serve as role models and human standards.

Today, mentor is a word in vogue, a big-ticket item, stylish in any language. It’s as common in the corporate world as it is in the church. For example, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch spent the bulk of his last 10 years in office finding and grooming his replacement. He said, “It was the most important decision I ever made for GE.”

Though numerous books have been written on the subject, each chock-full with success stories, mentoring is just plain hard work. It’s shooting for the moon during an eclipse. It’s digging for diamonds in a rhinestone world; but oh, the wonderful payoff.

Mentoring is never easy. Just ask yours; he or she will tell you. When others gave up on you, he or she didn’t. Somewhere, somehow, they saw something, felt something, believed in you when you didn’t believe in yourself. Today, your life is a confirmation of his or her vision and tenacity.

Like you, my mentors are with me every day. Their words ring in my ears. Their lessons flash back as I lead others. The pages of my Bible are covered with their fingerprints. We never outgrow their counsel. As consultant Bobb Biehl says, “Theirs is the only funeral where we never look at our watch.”

Mentoring is professional sacrifice; magna cum sweat. It’s parenting without a license, building a ship in a bottle, counting your money in the wind.

It’s also giving back—ensuring that the next generation of protégés will be equipped with your tools. It’s donating a sturdy wall on which to lean their ladder. Though not every candidate qualifies, a good protégé is never difficult to find: no endangered species here. Because of their abundance, some easily are overlooked; they just don’t fit our preconceived model.

Who, for example, would want to mentor an unreliable, foolish and cynical slacker who preferred the confines of a bar over the stimulation of a library? Of whom even his friends said, “Jaywalked through life.” To pass on him would be to walk away from a young Winston Churchill.

Not many would recruit an anti-social, nonverbal, arrogant yet mediocre student as a protégé. Especially if that student threw tantrums and chairs with ease and regularity; but that’s what Albert Einstein’s teachers endured.

Who in their right mind would mentor a blind and deaf 7-year-old girl. More than one person had called the young Helen Keller an “animal-like idiot”; but because of Anne Sullivan, Helen blossomed, graduated from college with honors, mastered five languages and was applauded by kings for her contributions to the world.

Ministry is mentoring. Mentoring is ministry. Jesus did it. Moses did it. David did it. Solomon did it. Paul did it. Barnabas did it. And so do we. It’s homework that’s spread over a lifetime. It’s the assignment which counts most in the classroom of leadership.

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