This is a review by Pastor Jerry Drebelbis, who has the dubious distinction of being my pastor.
Take a moment and peruse the number of books written by or about Aurelius Augustine, or Augustine of Hippo, 354–430 A.D. One reason for the numerous volumes is, in part, because Augustine, himself, was a prolific writer. More than 100 books along with sermons, letters and notes to friends and fellow church compatriots are attributed to him. So it is no wonder the copious number of books written about Augustine. Among these writings Edward Smithers, assistant professor of Church History and Intercultural Studies at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, brings us another perspective—Augustine as Mentor, A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders1.
Mr. Smithers believes that “many pastors today . . . are struggling in isolation without a pastor to nurture their souls” (p. v). He is not alone in this concern. Anderson and Reese emphasize this same problem in the forward of their writing. We live in a world of “disenchantment with ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake.’”2 If this spiritual isolation impacts church leaders today then what is the solution to escape the dilemma? Augustine as Mentor attempts to address this issue looking back at the beginning of the Church and one of its giants as a leader.
The book divides into six chapters. Chapter one examines biblical examples of mentors in the first century. While the author admits that the word “mentor” is not in Scripture he does recognize the discipline can take other forms, such as that of discipling. He uses Jesus and Paul as primary examples of those who mentored/discipled those around them. Numerous New Testament references are given to support the position.
Chapter two unpacks mentoring as it appeared in the third and fourth centuries. The author, with copious references, details the lives of men like Cyprian of Carthage, Pachomius of Egypt, and Basil. These men and others formed in the author’s view a backdrop and example from which Augustine developed his own style of mentoring.
Chapter three asks the question, who was Augustine’s mentor? Obviously some time is spent examining the way Augustine’s mother, Monica, influenced his spiritual development. Her example of holiness and practical faith are featured with numerous references to Confessions. The reader is then given a look at several of Augustine’s friends and companions. Alypius, Evodius and Ambrose were not only close companions to Augustine but also mentors. Smithers convincingly argues that while he finds that Augustine wrote very little about Valerius, Augustine’s predecessor, Valerius was his most “significant mentor.”3
Chapter four, the longest chapter—88 pages, brings the work to a climax. How did Augustine mentor others? The author draws from Augustine’s forty years in the ministry, 391–430, with citings from his numerous letters, books and preaching and supervisory method as examples of how Augustine discipled both subordinates and fellow bishops.
Chapter five gives us Augustine’s thoughts on the subject. Once again from abundant references, the reader is given Augustine’s perspective of how a mentor should live and work. Five principles are mentioned as the framework of a mentor’s life. This leaves the reader wondering if Augustine, himself, adhered to his own ideals. The author answers the question by quoting Possidius, Augustine’s friend and biographer; “I believe, however, that they profited even more who were able to hear him speaking in church and seeing him there present, especially if they were familiar with his manner of life.”4 In specific, Augustine lived what he preached and proclaimed. As great a man as Augustine was the author does admit that one failure, if we can consider it such, in Augustine’s life was that few, if any, of his disciples followed in Augustine’s example to defend the church from heresy or to supply others with theological thought and exegesis (p. 257).
The final sixth chapter is a short exhortation for leaders today. The author reminds the reader that a mentor must always be a disciple at heart, always learning, always growing in the faith, as did Augustine. He was disciple, mentor, leader, releaser of other into ministry, but most of all follower of Jesus Christ. The author leaves the reader with the question; “will today’s church leaders intentionally look at leadership potential around them and search for able people to outshine them?” (p. 259).
The reader can be assured that Mr. Smithers is very familiar with the subject. The book is well documented referencing many sources both from early church writings to more recent analysis. One easily moves through the author’s thoughts as he presents his arguments for discipleship and mentoring. His style, easy to follow, often opens with a question. For example, “How Did Augustine Mentor?” (p.134). The author then supports his answers by partitioning Augustine’s life into various elements to demonstrate how Augustine mentored in each one, the monastery, books, letters, councils, etc.
While the book is well documented and thoughts expanded in an orderly fashion, progressing through the book becomes almost tedious. One wants to say, “Alright, I get the idea; let’s move on.” Unless the reader truly wants to know more about Augustine, for the average, sometimes overwhelmed, busy pastor, the book has too much detail. And while the book is true to its title, Augustine as Mentor, one wonders if Mr. Smithers is writing for the average church leader or his own colleagues.
The last chapter, “Shepherding Shepherds Today” is only two pages. While there is benefit in knowing about mentoring in the early church, more thought and space could have been afforded to application today. Many pastors are, like this one, interested in not only the what but even more so, the so what. In the final analysis the reader wants to know what the author’s suggestions are that he has gleaned from his study. What from the author’s perspective, in twenty-first century culture, does he believe the pastor can and should pursue in depth? With this question always in mind there is a disheartening realization that the reader is given 257 pages of information but only two pages of application. The reader may have been more ably assisted if the author had balance the work more evenly.
For example, one theologically prominent subject today is that of spiritual formation. Using Augustine’s writings the author could easily have moved into this realm of current significance. After all, is this not what Augustine was attempting to do with his contemporaries? In other words Augustine, who relied upon his biblical and theological premises, challenged heresies like Pelagianism, Arianism. How could those thoughts apply to our relativistic postmodern culture? How could Augustine’s thoughts have been organized to enhance one’s growth in spiritual formation? Answers to questions like these would have greatly enhanced the work.
1 Edward L. Smithers, Augustine as Mentor, A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders, B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, 2008. ↑
2 Keith R. Anderson and Randy D. Reese, Spiritual Mentoring: A Guide for seeking and Giving Direction (Intervarsity Press, Dowers Grove, 1999), forward. ↑
3 Ibid, p. 112. ↑
4 Ibid, p. 229. ↑
i Jerome Drebelbis has pastored Grace Evangelical Free Church in Beulah, North Dakota, for ten years. He is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with a Masters of Divinity. ↑