Mentoring vs. Counseling: What’s the Difference?

Mentoring vs. Counseling: What’s the Difference?
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“What is the difference between counseling and mentoring?” This was an excellent question posed to me recently that I thought merited a more thorough examination.

First, let’s start with a few things that are not the defining mark of what is different in these two types of relationships.

  • Topic of Conversation: You can’t make a list of subjects that should be “mentored” and a separate list of subjects that should be “counseled.” Any life struggle that could benefit from counseling could also benefit from a mentor (if a good fit can be found).
  • Quality of Impact: It is not that mentors are more effective than counselors, or vice versa. Either mentoring or counseling can be very effective (or non-effective).

Second, what are some important differences?

  • Type of Relationship: Mentoring is an informal relationship. Counseling is a formal relationship. You meet with a mentor in a variety of settings (i.e., meals, phone calls, planned meetings). Sometimes there is an agenda (i.e., goal to set or problem to solve), while other times you meet just as friends. You meet with a counselor by appointment, in an office, to discuss the next phase of accomplishing a particular goal(s).
  • Duration of Relationship: Mentoring is intended to be a long-term relationship. Counseling is intended to be a short-term relationship. You select a mentor because you value their character and want their perspective on a variety of life challenges (both small and large). You select a counselor because they have a background in a particular area of life struggle. This difference accounts for the varying duration of the two relationships.
  • Focus of Relationship: Mentoring tends to be more holistic. Counseling tends to be more problem-focused. Due to the duration of the relationship, mentoring tends to focus on character formation represented in the challenges and choices discussed.
  • Basis of Advice: You value the advice of a mentor because of their character. You know them personally and, therefore, admire how they care for their family or manage their professional-personal life balance. You value the advice of a counselor because of their training and the number of individuals in similar situations with whom they have worked.
  • Cost: Counseling, in most settings, requires some form of compensation because it is the vocation of the counselor. Mentoring, as an informal relationship, is free.
  • Ease of Access: You can get a referral to a counselor. It is harder to find a mentor. This may be the biggest reason why people elect to pursue counseling over a mentor. If you wait until a crisis hits, it will feel impractical to try to identify a good mentor. Finding a mentor tends to be either preventative care (before a crisis) or after-care (solidifying progress and preventing new crises).

Third, how would someone find a mentor and create a good mentoring relationship?

  • Socialize Cross-Generationally: Peers that you respect can be excellent accountability partners and encouragers. But mentors are not usually from your same generation. Find settings in your church where you can serve alongside older believers. Mentoring also requires that two people “click” as friends if the relationship is going to endure—essential to benefits of mentoring.
  • Define the Relationship: Once you’ve found an older believer, respect their character and “click” with a friends, ask them to be your mentor. Tell them you value their experience and friendship, and that you would like to commit to meeting regularly if they would be willing. Mentoring rarely happens by accident.
  • Be Intentional About Growth Goals: If mentoring is going to be more than having an older friend (it should not be less than this), then you are going to need goals. What are the challenges you commonly face? What does the next season of life hold that you are uncertain how to handle? What areas of your faith are weak? What roles are you in that you want to fill with greater excellence?
  • Supplement Mentoring With Educational Material: Your mentor doesn’t have to be an expert in all of these areas. When your mentor doesn’t feel proficient in an area you want to grow, find a good resource to study together. Your mentor knows you, and you value their character. These are immense assets in discerning how to make good application of even the best resources.
  • Be Consistent: The value of a mentoring relationship exponentially grows the longer the relationship lasts. Even if you don’t have “a reason” to meet, continue to get together. There should always be an answer to the question, “Where do I want (or need) to grow next?”
  • Don’t Lose the Friendship: If mentoring becomes too purposeful, it can begin to feel negative. This is one of the problems with counseling—the conversation always focuses on a problem. Stay invested and interested in one another’s lives as friends. Take time to share memories, stories and interests that are meaningful simply because of the shared relationship.

I hope this post helped you understand how mentoring differs from counseling and how to form a good mentoring relationship.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on the Church and Counseling” post which address other facets of this subject.

This article originally appeared here.

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Brad Hambrick
Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in  Durham, NC. He also serves as Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends and God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles.

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