Editor’s note: We are continuing our blog series on mentoring using the Mentoring Pillars written by the late Jim Feiker, a former member of SEND International. This eighth pillar explains the importance of establishing a grace-filled environment in the mentoring relationship.

To my daughter Susan, the ambiance is everything. Even as a child her favorite way to help was to create a beautiful table, or to make welcome signs when friends were coming over. To her the atmosphere set the mood for loving relationships. It gave signals to those who entered our home that it was okay to be yourself, that you would be accepted there. She wanted people to feel that they could be at home in our family, that they belonged there. This desire of Susan for a loving environment flowed from her gifts of mercy and hospitality. To this day, this is still a vital part of Susan’s ministry.

Environment of grace

She was right! An environment of grace does release a positive response in people leading to powerful outcomes. In it, people sense the freedom to be transparent and vulnerable. They feel safe to express themselves, they trust each other and they learn to speak truth to one another. They forgive each other and often walk out of their darkness into light, revealing and confessing their sins to each other. Mutual acceptance and forgiveness are given, as is the freedom to fail and disagree.

In this environment, learning is made fun, and people celebrate each other’s lives with laughter and joy. A grace atmosphere pours through them to others, fostering creativity and hope, and nurturing the learning process and growth. It attracts others into the Kingdom. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in a healing power and to experience the presence of God. Grace sets the pitch for the music of the mentoring relationship.

Relationship, truth and grace

Our past articles on mentoring have dealt with the significance of following biblical principles and cultivating healthy relationships to promote healthy mentoring. But along with those, it is essential that we cultivate a healthy grace environment. All three of these ingredients are vitally important in seeing mentoring flourish and grow and are interdependent on each other. To focus only on truth leads to coldness, business-like formality, and lack of warmth in the relationship. To focus just on relationships leads to sentimentalism, lack of mutual accountability, or not speaking the truth. Truth, love, and grace are all essential in the mentoring process. But it has been my observation that a healthy environment of grace is probably the most neglected ingredient in mentoring.

In this pillar of mentoring, we will focus on cultivating such an environment, primarily through the ambiance of our life character. We will be investigating the biblical basis of a grace environment, and identifying some of the essential elements of this environment.

Biblical basis

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:5-6, 17).

Since the Cross and the coming of the Spirit, we are ministering in a new way, under a new grace covenant, no longer law-keepers spreading legalism, but his channels dispensing grace. Under this new covenant, we can go directly to God for power and revelation, and the indwelling Holy Spirit teaches us and brings freedom. As ministers of this covenant, we partner with God in what He is doing in people’s lives. We point people to Christ, helping them unpack God’s graces, promises, resources, gifts, and their inheritance in Christ.

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:1, 2 Pet. 3:18).

We are to be both strong in them and growing in them. Biblically, there is “saving grace” (Romans 5: 1-6) in salvation and “sustaining graces” (Hebrews 4:14-16), available now to us living in Christ. We can now go boldly to the throne of grace, his resource of help for our needs. We are to learn how to continually grow in receiving or appropriating God’s divine resources and our inheritance in Christ. Only then are we able to demonstrate and dispense God’s grace freely to others.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you (Romans 15: 7).

We are to unconditionally accept people as God does. Christ’s blood has erased all sin and guilt. Because of the cross, we now stand justified, totally accepted and approved by God, in Christ’s righteousness. We now stand as righteous as Christ is before the Father. We therefore cannot hold a higher standard for people than God does. If we focus on what to do and not do, we easily foster an attitude that performance is necessary for acceptance. This is lethal in a culture where many have been harmed by guilt and shame. We need to focus on grace, values, character, worldview and things of the heart.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet (John 13: 14).

We are to minister to people as Christ did to His disciples, as a humble servant. Jesus was graceful in serving the Twelve with unconditional love, even when He knew Judas would soon betray Him. Jesus knew that it would take a relational grace environment for truth to become transformational.

Why we need a grace environment

Unless people feel safe in a non-judgmental environment, they will not open their hearts to us, revealing their real needs and challenges. Why do we often feel so fearful in disclosing and opening our lives and being completely transparent with some people? Perhaps we fear being judged, criticized, or censored, rather than being affirmed and forgiven. We may fear being misunderstood and not being really listened to. Maybe we are afraid that we will get a quick answer to “fix” us without understanding us first. We may fear rejection – not being accepted and approved. Sometimes we fear that people will not keep the matter confidential. We may also fear emotional abuse and hurt from others.

Deep connections to the heart

A grace environment produces deep connections to a person’s heart. The environment of grace allows people to give mutual permission to enter each other’s hearts. Unless there is mutual transparency and authenticity, we will hear people’s symptoms and not get to the root causes. People will not step out of the darkness into the light without a grace-filled, healing, forgiving community atmosphere. Sin grows in darkness when we hide it. It stays in the darkness if we do not confess it to God and to others. But by bringing sin into the light in a safe, loving community and confessing it, we stop its growth and find forgiveness and healing.

Because people have often experienced harmful guilt or shame in past relationships or in their family of origin, they will only experience healing in an environment of grace, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Watching for God

A grace environment will reveal the presence of God in the mentoring experience as the mentor is alert to God’s showing up, where God is working, and what God is saying. As we said in the fourth pillar, looking for where God is at work in them is the mentality of an effective mentor. The mentor and the mentee are alert and watching for God in the relationship together.

“This includes an idea of what a person could do, but it always centers on who that person could become, and on jumping up and down with delight over the uniqueness that God has stamped into the person’s soul…” 

Larry Crabb, Connecting: Healing Ourselves and Our relationships

A grace environment enables us to discern by the Spirit what God is doing in a person’s life and releases the energy of Christ in us to affirm and bless them. It means calling out the champion in a person’s life. When we enter into another’s life, we enter as a companion, not as a heroic or expert rescuer. It is not the job of a mentor to change people; only the Spirit can do that.

Our primary task in mentoring is not to fix problems, discover sinful issues, correct weak issues, uncover past baggage, or deal with negative behavior. We deal with these as they come up in the relationship, but that is not our focus. We are not junior Holy Spirits for God, revealing people’s sins and shortcomings. Wise spiritual mentors have a vision of God’s flow of grace to us and through us. They go with that flow. A wise mentor, therefore, will reflect a generosity of spirit, a love for mercy, and forgiveness.

A graceless environment

To better understand this concept, let’s look first at what an unhealthy, graceless environment looks like. It is marked by approval, acceptance, and love being earned by performance. Motivation to grow or change is dealt with by guilt, dishonor, or shame. Maintaining the external behaviors and rules is highly valued, enforced, and monitored. This breeds mistrust, unhealthy conflicts, rigidity, decreased joy in learning, and fear of failure.

The primary focus is what we must do, and not do (our part in the Christian life), rather than God’s role, the resources He gives, what He has already done and is now doing in our lives by His power. This environment leads people to believe that performance is also the way they earn God’s acceptance, love, and approval. It’s a lethal form of legalism that will produce loss of hope, bondage, and a distorted view of reality since one cannot meet the standards.

A healthy grace-filled environment

In contrast, a healthy grace environment has a profoundly different basis for acceptance, approval, and motivation. It is based on God’s acceptance and his divine resources (grace) that he gives us for living. He now is living in us to motivate us and to give us His power (Phil. 2:13). He accepts us, not because of what we do, but because of what Christ has already done. God sees us now in Christ and our true identity and unconditional acceptance is found in belonging to Him.

People feel safe

As our relationships mirror these truths, people feel safe and open with us. We respect and guard confidential information and do not share it with others. Instead of using sarcasm, gossip, and slander, we build up one another. So, this environment allows people to fail, to “blow it” without judgment. It gives freedom for people to be themselves and to sense God’s healing together.

Grace environments celebrate success, transitions, and milestones in people’s lives. They motivate by grace and love, not guilt and shame. Grace environments unleash freedom, creativity, vulnerability, unconditional love, forgiveness, healing, and the feeling of being safe.

Our life in relationship is the primary channel of God’s grace to others. Our life sets the tone for the grace that frees people to sing their unique songs and to play the music of their lives. Therefore, we are not only the products of our environment. The environment we bring as mentors is a product of our lives. Our character of life sets the ambiance or atmosphere for learning and growing.

Cultivating a grace environment

First, bring a transformational mentality – to know Christ and to be conformed to His image. The focus is on revealing the Father to them and helping them to know Christ intimately. In the process of knowing and beholding him, they are changed and transformed into the image of Christ by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

Divine resources

Secondly, utilize, rely on, and connect people to God’s resources and power. As the Spirit of God is now in them, we empower them to connect to His divine resources, His motivation, and His power to live and minister to others.

Listening

Thirdly, make mutual listening a paramount value in the relationship – to understand the heart, not just the words. To be understood is to feel loved. To understand we must listen to and take others seriously. When ministering to people, why do we often jump into answers and talk rather than listen and allow them to struggle and discover on their own?

Authenticity

Fourthly, grow in authenticity. It is in ministering out of authenticity that connection and influence are the greatest. Authenticity involves two major components – open transparency and vulnerability. These two must act in sync or we will easily come across as a hypocrite and lose our credibility. Transparency is the heart to reveal my life openly with another the way it really is, with all the cracks. Vulnerability is the willingness to let other people into our lives and to let them help us.

“Jesus is our example. He possessed a remarkable force of personality and character and was secure enough that he could be remarkably open. (Jesus) showed His emotions and concealed neither His tears nor His anger. He enjoyed people and allowed them quickly to establish intimacy with Him. He was approachable even though He was God and man.” (from Transforming Leadership by Leighton Ford).

Leighton Ford, Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values & Empowering Change

Humility

Fifthly, grow in humility. There needs to be a commitment to mutual humility in how we perceive final understanding of the Scripture, saying, “I believe this is what the Bible says,” rather than “This is what the Bible says.”

The mentor needs to remember that we are all in process, not fully mature and perfect. We are not finished products yet, and won’t be until Heaven! In other words, we are all limping to maturity. People are not looking for mentors who are perfect but who are in process, moving toward maturity in Christ (1 Tim. 4:15).

Mentor in community

Sixthly, bring community, not exclusivity, into the mentoring process. It is better to mentor in a triad, while still giving personal time to each person. Grace always demonstrates itself in a healthy community, not just through one person. So a person flourishes through many mentors, while also experiencing grace through a community of believers. Both are essential for their healthy learning and growth.

Learning together

Lastly, encourage interactive learning and discovery – discovering things like what lies are binding us and what God’s will is for our lives. Active learning focuses on worldview, character, and values rather than external behavior.

Focus positively on their gifts and strengths, identifying together and strengthening their God-given design while spotting what they excel in and helping them develop it. We help them assess opportunities, matching what He is calling them to do with the best ministry context.

 This is the kind of environment that best nourishes mentoring, empowering people to function, flourish, stay fresh, be free, and remain fruitful.