Christian mentoring is a relationship that typically takes place within the context of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s direction as a younger believer pursuing spiritual maturity absorbs the experience of an older believer seeking to impart their wisdom and experience. OCF’s new Mentoring Program is a fresh reminder that biblical community can be transformational at every waypoint in one’s military journey.

LCDR Rocky Ward, USCG

SHORTLY AFTER HE arrived at flight school in Pensacola, Fla., Rocky Ward’s wife filed for divorce—a move he never saw coming.

“[It] kind of sent me for a tailspin, if you will,” said Ward, a USCG lieutenant commander. “God used that to help me realize that I hadn’t really been walking with the Lord.”

Ward wanted to change that, so he attended a Tun Tavern Fellowship gathering in Pensacola, where Col Chet Arnold, USMC (Ret.), came to speak. Ward recalls that Arnold offered to meet with anyone who wanted to talk through questions about God or life.

So Ward took him up on the offer. In that initial meeting, he shared with Arnold what was going on in his life with one goal in mind: save his marriage. What ensued was a weekly mentoring relationship, with discussions about flight school, marriage, and God taking place over cups of coffee, bowls of soup, or sandwiches.

Ward and Arnold’s mentoring relationship is an example of what OCF calls Christian mentoring, which is the trusting relationship between an often older, more spiritually mature believer and a younger believer, that focuses on fostering the spiritual maturity of both individuals. This relationship typically takes place within the context of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s direction as a younger believer pursuing spiritual maturity absorbs the experience of an older believer seeking to impart their wisdom and experience.

However, Ward and Arnold’s weekly meetings at Starbucks and Panera appear to be the exception, not the norm, when it comes to mentoring among practicing Christians. According to the Barna Group, a market research firm specializing in studying religious beliefs and behavior, as of 2015 only 17% of practicing Christians said they meet regularly with a spiritual mentor. That means that 83% of Christians either aren’t imitating Arnold and helping out someone struggling through a difficult phase of life or aren’t copying Ward and actively seeking wisdom and advice from an older and wiser believer.

It is this need—specifically as it appears within the Christian military community—that OCF has sought to address with the mentoring program it is developing. The intent is that this program will become a larger mainstay in the OCF ministry apparatus in the near future.

“OCF’s new Mentoring Program is a fresh effort to remind ourselves that biblical community can be transformational at every waypoint in our military journey,” says LTC Todd Plotner, USA (Ret.), Spring Canyon Conference Center’s director of operations, who is involved with the team setting up the OCF Mentoring Program. “At the end of the day, our goal as a ministry is to help ‘one another’ grow in Christlikeness within our unique context as military and family members.”

According to Plotner, the OCF Mentoring Program will focus on building relational connections among fellow officers that emphasize a mutual encouragement to be more like Christ. In addition to developing more helpful resources online for those seeking to start and develop mentoring relationships within the OCF community, Plotner says OCF plans to host several Christian Mentoring training programs at active-duty installations across the country and at its two conference centers throughout 2022.

A biblical basis for mentoring

LTC Ted Davis, USA (Ret.), who’s also involved with the team setting up the OCF Mentoring Program, says Christians have two main resources they can utilize when they’re trying to grow in wisdom and their ability to live out their faith practically—the Bible and the body of Christ.

“As a person grows, they can either go through, obviously, formal education in formal training such as on the job training—getting out there, doing it themselves, learning through the school of hard knocks and so forth,” Davis explains. “But one way to learn not only knowledge, but some wisdom as well—in other words, wisdom being how to apply that knowledge—is by working with someone who’s got great experience and who wants to share that knowledge.”

In other words: a mentor.

Davis says mentoring isn’t new, and it’s a tried-and-true formula for achieving spiritual growth. He explains that “mentoring” is just a contemporary term for a practice that has existed since biblical times.

“In the era of the Old Testament, New Testament time, someone is going to learn from a rabbi—it included what we would now, in contemporary language, say is mentorship,” Davis explains. “We’re using a contemporary term to describe a pattern of behavior that we see in Scripture. We see evidence of mentoring-type relationships.”

But does the Bible explicitly command us to mentor others?

“We sometimes are resistant to mentoring because we think we’re called in the Bible to make disciples, where nowhere in the Bible does it say, ‘go and mentor,’” says LTC Jim Harbridge, USA (Ret.), the OCF Field Staff Rep at Leavenworth. “But inherent in discipling is also mentoring; they’re not different things and they’re not mutually exclusive.”

Davis adds that “we should only be doing it if there’s a biblical reason.”

“I think there’s one exhortation in the Scripture for an elder to provide wise counsel to the younger,” adding that, “there’s plenty of Scriptures throughout Proverbs and other places where we’re told to seek wisdom.”

CAPT James Baca, USNR, OCF Field Staff Rep at USNA, holds a different perspective. He points to Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

“So is that mentoring or discipleship? What are we talking about here?” Baca asks. “Well, it can be both, and I think that verse is applicable to both.” He explains, “while I think there’s some overlap, I think that mentoring and discipling do work in tandem together, but they are distinct.”

“God will use us, it seems, in ways that are connected to the experiences He has allowed in our lives.”

—Col Chet Arnold, USMC (Ret.)

Harbridge further elaborated the difference between mentoring and discipleship, saying that the difference lies in the focus of each. Discipling, he explains, is focused only on spiritual growth. Mentoring—in the secular sense—is focused only on professional development. Christian mentoring, at least as OCF defines it, is a blend of the two: a relationship that’s dedicated to crafting the mentor and mentee into more spiritually mature Christians who then apply that spiritual maturity throughout their daily lives.

“I think you see an extraordinary mentoring relationship between Paul and Timothy,” says Baca. “Paul is definitely discipling Timothy, but at the same time you get the impression through the letters that Paul wrote to Timothy that Timothy is asking the questions, and Timothy has set this chart before him and he’s saying, ‘Hey this is the path that I’m on, these are the goals I’m trying to achieve. How do I do that, Paul?’ And so you can see, even though it’s still in the spiritual domain, you could qualify those things as mentoring.”

Col PK Carlton, USAF, OCF Field Staff Rep at USAFA, says that regardless of what we call it, we are certainly called as Christians to mentor younger believers. “Discipling, teaching, growing people are certainly concepts that come out in Scripture. Whether we call them explicitly ‘mentorship’ or simply ‘development,’ we’re certainly called to mentor the younger [men and women].” Carlton explains, “That’s how a synagogue works, all those different areas together, this is how that older generation pushes thoughts and ideas down to help them [the younger generation] grow and mature, again with the intent of keeping them from having to repeat the mistakes the older generation had made.”

Davis says Christianity isn’t supposed to be a solo endeavor. “I’m in the body of Christ. That means I’ve got to be working with others. So, you know, there’s both a sense of independence—I’ve got to do my part—but my part is in conjunction with others, because Christianity definitely is a team sport.”

One might ask, what is the objective of mentoring? Arnold says it is pursuing God, and that “you do that in His Word, prayer, walking in obedience. And that God intends us to do those together, in the body of Christ.”

So if the Bible commands us to mentor younger believers, how do we go about doing that?

According to CDR Carl Crabtree, USN (Ret.), OCF Field Staff Rep at USCGA, this involves sharing your life with someone. He points to 1 Thessalonians 2:8, which says, “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (NASB).

Arnold added that in biblical times, “One of the blessings someone would give to someone else is, ‘May you be covered by the dust of your of your rabbi.’ The idea is, as you’re walking along, your rabbi—or your mentor—is leading the way. And as he kicks up the dust on the path, you know, you’re covered by it because you’re close to him and spending time with him.”

Davis explains that Christian mentoring is focused on helping an individual to grow both intellectually and practically in their faith. This idea of taking faith out into the real world undergirds the “spiritual maturity” that is the objective of Christian mentorship. “Spiritual maturity is the goal of spiritual growth, and spiritual maturing is the process of learning to walk in obedience to God in all dimensions of life, spiritual, physical, intellectual and emotional,” says Davis. He explains that this extends to “all our roles, whether it’s a professional role or a personal role… spiritual maturity is the fundamental basis upon which we want to have Christian mentorship.”

Practical applications for mentoring

Here in the 21st century, what might it look like to be “covered by the dust of your rabbi” as Arnold said? For LCDR Ward and himself, mentoring meant meeting regularly at a coffee shop where the mentor and mentee can talk about life issues.

For others, mentoring looks entirely different.

Tami Waring recalls her relationship with Jenny Woodruff, who served with her husband Rob as the OCF Staff Couple at USAFA during Waring’s time there. Woodruff mentored Waring throughout a large part of her time at the Air Force Academy and for several years afterwards. This mentoring relationship began with Waring coming over to the Woodruff residence once or twice a week for dinner and a Bible study and developed to where she was basically at the Woodruff residence whenever she could be. Throughout this time, Woodruff shared her life with Waring.

“I didn’t just spend small segments of time, I spent a lot of time with Jenny,” Waring says. “So not just being able to see her when maybe she was at her best, I saw her in all different circumstances. And, to me, that was mentoring.”

MAJ Liliane Delva, USA, found a couple of married tactical officers, the Maddoxes, speaking into her life as she tried to navigate West Point after arriving there as a former enlisted soldier. Delva found herself struggling during her time at the academy—to the point where she considered quitting altogether. She found herself drowning in what felt like a pervasive negativity and hostility among her peers.

“When I joined the Army as an enlisted soldier, I was used to a very different way of people engaging with others,” Delva says. “At least for me, the enlisted community was one where a lot of people took care of each other and help[ed] each other.”

Delva says she found West Point to be the exact opposite: everyone viewed her as competition.

She recalls that at one point during plebe year she was running back to the locked door of her barracks, carrying a bunch of books in her arms while wearing a heavy backpack filled with even more books, in a rush to drop them all off in her room before she rushed off to get to lunch formation. There was a male, upperclassman cadet at the door, and she expected that the cadet would extend her the courtesy of holding open the door for her, seeing as she was loaded down with books and all.

“Thank you so much,” she said, preemptively expecting the courtesy of him holding open the door. He closed it in her face. “Did you think I was going to make it easy for you here?” he asked.

She was left to pry open the door with whatever digit or toe she had available and run up to drop off her books by herself.

“I think he interpreted this situation in a negative way and saw me as a threat,” Delva explains. “But I wasn’t. Plus, he was senior to me by two classes, so I really was not a threat to him at all. But that’s his perception.”

It was this attitude that made Delva want to leave West Point. The Maddoxes, however, reminded her that first, not every cadet was like that, and second, there would be no reason to persevere if it were just going to be a cakewalk. That, and the encouragement from her mother that whatever she did, she should “finish strong,” encouraged Delva to stick it out at the academy.

MAJ Liliane Delva, USA, found a couple of married tactical officers, the Maddoxes, speaking into her life as she tried to navigate West Point after arriving there as a former enlisted soldier.

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For PK Carlton and 1st Lt Bobby Ubelacker, USAF, their relationship developed out of a more formal mentoring program. The two initially found themselves matched up as a mentor-mentee pair through a mentoring sign-up program the OCF team at USAFA employed in 2016. An e-mail went out to the cadets at the academy offering them the chance to find a mentor who’d done what they were hoping to do with their military career. Ubelacker wanted to be a pilot, and Carlton had spent time as a pilot, and they soon found themselves paired up.

“We would meet maybe one or two times a month for an hour or an hour and a half and just talk about different subjects,” Ubelacker says. “It was all biblically founded, even if it was like, talking about finances.”

The relationship developed to the point where Ubelacker ended up having Carlton commission him. The two then kept in touch during Ubelacker’s time in flight school. Carlton and his wife are now providing some pre-engagement counseling to Ubelacker and his girlfriend.

At the same time, Ubelacker has found himself recently thrust into the position of being a mentor to someone else. His cousin lost his father, Ubelacker’s uncle, early in 2020 and then his mother died only a few months later. At the funeral for his uncle, Ubelacker bonded with his cousin over the fact that he was in the military and his cousin one day wanted to be. They exchanged phone numbers, and a long-distance mentoring relationship developed in which Ubelacker and his cousin would talk on the phone from one to five times a week.

“It’s not easy. It’s not,” Ubelacker says. “Many times, I feel like, ‘Wow, Lord I’m not prepared for this,’ or ‘I don’t have the right answers.’ And a lot of times I just want to say, ‘We need to pray, we need to go to the Word’.… For some reason, God put me in this position. God gave me the opportunity to be in a relationship with my cousin… and I don’t have to know the answer to that. I just have to trust Him.”

Nonetheless, Ubelacker has seen the work God’s done in his cousin’s life. During their weekly Bible studies, he’s seen his cousin’s engagement evolve. “We would just meet up and go through a chapter of John once a week or a couple times a month, and we introduced the practice of you read a paragraph then I’ll read a paragraph… and then Adam came up with the idea of, ‘How about whoever reads will then summarize what they just read?’ So there’s just a little bit of ‘Oh, this is awesome! He wants a little bit more of a share in what we’re talking about.’”

Pitfalls of mentoring

As Lt Col Kathryn Veseth Toms, USAF, learned, not every mentoring relationship will succeed. As a cadet at USAFA, a colonel decided to take Toms under her wing.

“I said yes, because I was flattered and, given the power differential between us, it seemed to me the only proper answer,” Toms explains. “We met maybe a dozen times over 18 months. It became evident early on that she was not someone after whom I wanted to pattern my life—though I don’t think I could have articulated that at the time.”

These meetings devolved into her mentor complaining about bad behavior among cadets and expecting Toms to agree wholeheartedly with whatever she said. When her mentor did offer advice, it was exclusively instrumental in focus—what worked best for getting what you wanted.

“There was never a mention of doing good for others, nor of doing good for its own sake—virtue is its own reward,” Toms explains. “Rather, motivations, it seemed, took an exclusively instrumental appeal to gain some self-interested end.”

At the end of her time at the academy, her mentor met Toms only to give her a manila envelope with a printed copy of the AFI that governs the promotional process. She assured Toms that she, too, could make 0-6 and informed her that the way to achieve success in the military was to know what the criteria for promotions were. The focus, Toms says, was on getting the promotion, not being the sort of officer the system strives to promote.

“I understand I was supposed to feel grateful. And I was grateful—she had, after all, amidst her busy schedule, taken a vested interest in my (mere) cadet life,” Toms said. “But nonetheless, even as a young cadet (somewhat mesmerized by her rank) I detected something woefully awry about her words of ‘wisdom.’ She consistently appealed to and advocated for self-aggrandizement. It seemed her only goal was self-interest, and she was all too eager to share with me ‘industry secrets’ on how to achieve it. In the end, this mentoring relationship did teach me something valuable: the kind of officer I did not want to become.”

Tami Waring recalls an experience when a woman she met with regularly as a mentor didn’t care to change. “She was not willing to do anything to change and she was not even trying,” Waring says. After circling through the same problems over and over, Waring explains that it “became really evident that she was in the relationship to see what she could get out of it, not to change herself.” Eventually, Waring had to call the woman on the carpet about her motives and explain that she couldn’t keep meeting with her if there wasn’t going to be a real change.

Arnold says another potentially big pitfall for mentoring relationships is mentoring across gender lines. “Mentoring across the sexes—men and women entering into that kind of a relationship—is pretty dangerous, I think because of the vulnerability needed in order to develop a good relationship,” Arnold says. “That can lead to a lot of temptation that, you know, you tend to want to avoid. So, we encourage folks ‘If you’re looking for a mentor, and you’re a woman, look for a woman.’”

“It seemed her only goal was self-interest, and she was all too eager to share with me ‘industry secrets’ on how to achieve it. In the end, this mentoring relationship did teach me something valuable: the kind of officer I did not want to become.”

Lt Col Kathryn Veseth Toms, USAF

However, sometimes these situations can’t be avoided especially in the workplace. In those situations, Arnold encourages that accountability and reasonable boundaries be put in place.

MAJ Delva added that busyness and time restrictions shouldn’t be a reason to not be a mentor or have a mentor. “Despite our busy schedules, and all that we have going on, you can always take time to invest in one,” Delva says. “And if we focus on that, then we won’t feel so overwhelmed about mentorship.”

As Crabtree points out, “I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years: I probably have more examples of people who have failed than people who have succeeded, and more program examples of those that have failed to succeed. It’s not about personality. It is about ‘Am I being vulnerable?’ ‘Am I being safe?’ ‘Will I share about a real person, and a real Jesus?’ That’s the key, and where it [mentoring] fails is where people don’t do that.”

“To be able to be vulnerable and to share that may not come easily at first,” Crabtree adds.

Still, he insists: “You can be a mentor. If you just received Christ yesterday, you can be a mentor to somebody today. ‘What do you mean by that, Carl?’ Well, there’s somebody out there who doesn’t know Christ, and you can share, ‘Hey, look what Christ did for me.’”

It was that real testimony of a real person and a real Jesus that existed in Chet Arnold and Rocky Ward’s mentoring relationship. Arnold said he could resonate with Ward’s grief, since he had lost a child when she was just seven years old. He could also resonate with Ward’s marital struggles because he and his wife, Michelle, had nearly gone through a divorce themselves.

“God will use us, it seems, in ways that are connected to the experiences He has allowed in our lives,” Arnold says. “I would say, yes, that our [Chet and Michelle’s] experience, played a large part of my being able to understand, at least to some degree, what Rocky was going through.”

“Those two specific examples, I remember really sticking out to me and finding incredibly encouraging,” Ward says. “And also [Chet] sharing his testimony of God’s faithfulness through those, and getting them through those difficulties, I found just really, really encouraging through struggles I was going through at the time.”

Although Ward’s goal was to restore his marriage when he first started meeting with Arnold, the divorce ended up becoming finalized. About a year into flight school, Ward found himself single once again. Nonetheless, he continued to meet with Arnold and continued to grow in his faith.

This wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut process. Arnold explains that it could be difficult to be the one “to sit across from somebody who you can see is struggling and to be the one who tells them they have to choose to stay centered on Christ and they have to choose what they’re going to do with their thoughts, and the words and their actions to bring every thought captive to Christ…. Rocky has to choose. I can’t make that happen.”

After about two more years of weekly meetings, Ward met a girl—the college roommate of his brother’s wife (“long, long story there,” he says)—and they started dating. Arnold and Ward picked up the book The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller and started working through that in an effort to prepare for Ward’s upcoming marriage.

Arnold and his wife, Michelle, ended up serving as the premarital counselors for Ward and his fiancé after they got engaged. The couple are happily married now.

“I don’t think I would have grown and healed nearly as much as I did had God not used Chet and a few other people to help develop and grow me in His Truth,” Ward says. “I suppose God could have used anyone to do that growth and development, and speaking His Truth into my life, but He definitely chose and used Chet to do it. Apart from Christ at work in our mentorship relationship I would not have grown as I have.”