How to: Ask Questions; Don’t Make Assumptions

April 11, 2022

by Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University and David Woolverton, Kairos Affiliate Professor


One of the most common misconceptions about theological education is that those who enroll in a theological program plan to serve in pastoral ministry within a local congregation. For the seminaries in the United States and Canada that are members of the Association of Theological Schools, however, the fact is that the majority of students who enroll in a program are not planning to pursue congregational ministry as a career (even a bi-vocational one).

This is true for Kairos University, as well. We have the privilege of working with students who serve in the military and ones who work in finance or real estate. Yes, we have students who serve as missionaries, church planters, and pastors, but it is unhelpful to assume that every student engaged in theological education is doing so for the purpose of engaging in congregational ministry.

This reality is one of many examples of why it is important for mentors to listen first, then ask questions, then listen some more. Mentors across the Kairos community might describe this reality in different ways. David Woolverton, Kairos Affiliate Professor, describes it in the following way: listen—look—acknowledge—reframe.

  • Listening and looking are tools for gathering information about the student’s experience. When we are looking and listening as a mentor, we need to gauge not only words but also body language, emotional undertones, and even the intuitive sense of the listener.
  • As part of the listening process, it’s important to let the student know that you’ve heard them – so acknowledging what you’ve heard becomes critical. It’s especially important to assess whether the student is expressing or demonstrating a pattern of thinking or behaving, or whether what’s being shared is an obstacle or stumbling block to their learning goals. Acknowledging it out loud – whether one-on-one or in the mentor team group, depending on the nature of the issue – is actually a critical part of the mentoring process.
  • Then, we can look for ways to reframe what was shared in order to keep the student’s educational experience holistically moving forward.

One of the best ways to engage in this process is to ask questions first, then listen, then acknowledge, then listen and ask questions. Rinse and repeat.

Too often, the educational paradigms that have dominated modern theological education insist on someone providing content or sharing expertise rather than inviting the student to engage in self-reflection and critical thinking. In the “content-and-expertise-first” paradigm, mentoring tends to devolve into one-on-one teaching. When that happens, we run the risk of letting our assumptions about the student guide our work. We may, for example, let our conversations be guided by the assumption that the student enrolled for the purpose of engaging in congregational ministry.

One of our faculty mentors commented on how this very thing was a learning experience for him. He tended to assume he knew why someone had enrolled in a program. When he turned off that assumption (and assumptions in general), he found that by asking questions and listening to the Spirit in concert with the team as a whole, the conversations, learning, and discipleship journey of the student was dramatically more transformational.

If you are new to mentoring, however, you may find it difficult to know which questions to ask. With the help of some of our mentors, we gathered a few that might be helpful.

As students are beginning their programs, you may ask:

  • Other than obtaining a degree, why did you begin this program?
  • Where do you feel you need to learn and grow? Why?
  • How will you know when you have learned what you needed to learn?
  • Who in your vocation or community of faith do you respect and why?
  • What does it look like to be “successful” in your vocation? How does your understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world impact that understanding of success?
  • How can I help? How can we help?
  • You have a lot of prior learning. What are one or two things that you wish you knew more about? What would you want to know if you were going to teach this to others?
  • How would you like to be confronted by me/us when I/we see something that’s not consistent with who you are?
  • What specific areas of your life do you want to grow in?
  • What skills do you want to develop?
  • What do you consider to be your top 1-3 strengths?
  • In what areas of your present ministry or vocational context do your weaknesses hinder you?
  • What are some of the typical excuses you give yourself (and others) when you: don’t want to engage in tasks, procrastinate, or fail? How would you like me/us to respond when you use those excuses on me/us?
  • What–or who–inspires you?
  • When facing an obstacle, how do you typically respond? What have you tried in the past when you needed to overcome challenges to meet your goals?

When students are working on various outcomes within the program, you may ask:

  • Can you help me to understand why you chose to do that?
  • Why this…and why now?
  • It sounds like you have really strong opinions about ___. Can you share with me/us why that perspective is so important to you?
  • Do you feel comfortable sharing a little more on this topic?
  • You shared that you don’t really know why you haven’t been able to get started on your assignments. What would you say if you did know?
  • If you were going to teach me the most important aspect of this assignment, what would that be?
  • What do you want to do with what you’re learning in this outcome/learning experience/conversation?

Asking questions is a valuable tool when engaging in the work of mentoring. It is a wonderful way to learn about the student with whom you are walking through a journey of discipleship. As you engage in your work, you will discover other questions that are useful for you. These are just a few to help you get started!

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