Learning from Elephants

Learning from Elephants

The rogue elephant, which they had darted from the helicopter, fell to the dusty ground. The ground team rushed forward to put on the GPS collar and carry out their medical procedures and scientific measurements. Just before giving him the reversal drug, a sponsor, who had paid for the intervention, had a few moments to approach the majestic beast. Just afterwards, with tears in her eyes, she said,

‘I have seen many pictures and videos of elephants in my time supporting this project, but nothing can give you a true sense of this remarkable creature like getting up close and personal.’

This woman was confirming what we know innately as human beings – that nothing can replace physical presence for true understanding in a one-to-one encounter. This factor has been brought home to the global community at a time of pandemic and resultant lockdown. Families grieve over the loss of contact face-to-face, and while technology affords people the benefit of some contact, it is not able to replicate the benefits of being present in the flesh. Why is that?

I believe that it is because God made us to be like him; he is a triadic, or three-way, community of persons:  God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in perfect, continuous relationship. The only time that that harmony of presence was broken was when Jesus cried out in anguish on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt 27.46 [NIV])

In Christian mentoring and coaching we also experience a triadic relationship: the mentee, the mentor and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus himself, by reason of his incarnation – the literal ‘being present in the flesh’ – shows that it is God’s desire to be physically present with his people. Evidence of this desire for communion was in the Garden of Eden and flows through the Scriptures to the pages of Revelation. Pastoral care practitioners and theologians talk of the ‘ministry of presence’, a term describing the literal therapeutic and spiritual benefits of just ‘being there’ with and for others who are suffering in any way. So, considering this evidence, why do we still do distance mentoring and coaching?

Well, we live in an imperfect world and sometimes we must make compromises. We do our best within the constraints of practical considerations, even when it is not the best. Distance, time, cost and accessibility are all determining factors. Over the years, I have mentored people in person, and at a distance of many miles; I know the undoubted value of distance coaching and mentoring. For example, a struggling missionary in Borneo will be extremely grateful for a mentor who checks in once a fortnight for a coaching or mentoring session. This contact will be life-enriching and may even be lifesaving.

Distance mentoring has the potential to change lives in the same way a book or autobiography can impact us profoundly. Elizabeth Elliot, wife of the pioneering missionary Jim Elliot, who went on to minister to the Auca Indians who murdered her husband, has shared how the writings of Amy Carmichael – a courageous, single, female missionary in India at the turn of the 20th century – mentored her through life. No one can deny the wonderful impact for growth and development distance mentoring has had on the lives of many. So we minister on, confident that where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is there in the midst of them (Matt 18.20) – even when the ‘gathering’ is facilitated electronically and not in person.

Notwithstanding, let me conclude by sharing another lesson from the life of elephants. The rogue elephant at the start of this blog was being monitored as he was straying from the protection of the huge wildlife enclosure and into the fields of mango farmers, creating chaos and risking being shot in the process. He was exhibiting the rampant behaviour typical of adolescent bull elephants during a hormonal period known as the Musth cycle. Scientists have discovered that if a mature male elephant is introduced to the herd it biochemically impacts the younger males and brings a swifter end to the Musth cycle, restoring harmony and enabling the young males to mature. Stable adult physical presence and all that is communicated through vocalisation, body language etc., has a maturing impact among the younger element of this species. Might it also have a similar impact among humans?

I encourage you to take every opportunity to coach and mentor in person, but when this is impractical, know for sure that you are still doing valuable and vital Kingdom work. Continue until that day when we will meet our King in person.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13.12, ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.’ (NIV).


Dr Sharon Heron is from the seaside town of Bangor, Northern Ireland. Having studied at The Queen’s University Belfast and at Belfast Bible College she is now the Administrator of Hamilton Road Baptist Church and Co-ordinator of their women’s ministry – Women Together. Sharon’s PhD was on the Definition and Evaluation of Christian Mentoring and at one point she was the Director of the International Christian Mentoring Network, which was based in Denver, Colorado. Sharon is also a speaker and retreat leader and enjoys creative writing. She is mother to son Peter and Grandma to two young boys Reuben and Ethan.

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