Mentoring Myths

Aug 26, 2009 |Candice Watters

There are some misunderstandings out there about mentoring. Let's clear them up.

On Boundless and The Boundless Show, we talk about mentoring a lot, but what's that supposed to look like?

The last time I saw Phyllis, a dear friend 20 years ahead of me in life, it was an unexpected drop-in amidst the flurry of four children as eager to catch up with her as I was. After they ran through all their flash reports about books they were reading and their latest adventures, I shooed them away so we could talk. I'm not sure our conversation sounded much different. In the staccato pace of two friends eager to cover a lot of ground while aware of the ticking clock, we talked skin care, home businesses, homeschooling, nutrition, Scripture and more in the span of 45 minutes. It was exciting and exhausting all at once.

It occurred to me after she left that ours is a hodge-podge of e-mails, short phone calls, occasional visits and the rare, leisurely get-together. Yet it's among my richest and most treasured friendships. And I wonder, is this what mentoring is supposed to look like?

In case you (or the person you've identified as a good mentor candidate) are intimidated by the idea of "Having (or Being) A Mentor," or you want one but they're proving hard to find, I'd like to dispel some myths that may make the process easier.

Mentors are Easy/Impossible to Find

Proverbs says matter-of-factly, "He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm" (13:19-21). Identifying a mentor is the first step toward walking with them — living with the benefit of their observations and input.

But where are they? Sometimes it seems like no matter how hard I've looked, it's near impossible to identify a person who's spiritually mature, someone I look up to and someone with the time and inclination to spend time with me. It's true, they're not always easy to find. But they're not impossible either.

When I've felt the dearth of wise counsel and friendship, I've tried to press into God by getting up earlier and spending more time praying. And part of that prayer has been for mentors. And He's answered. It hasn't always been a person, at least not right away. Sometimes it's a book or passage of Scripture that "mentors" me. But He's always eventually provided real people who can provide modeling, feedback and the perspective from the road ahead.

If you're having trouble finding a mentor, consider the places you may not have looked. If you're a student, seek out a Christian professor. If you've already graduated, look around your office for other believers who are ahead of you in life experience. Look to the leadership at your church; they may be willing to mentor you themselves, or have ideas of other church members who are. And finally, you may be able to look to your parents. Which brings me to the next myth.

Parents are Always/Never Good Mentors

My Dad's always ready with an opinion (or five) whenever I call to catch him up on life in Colorado. He's always been a great sounding board. Sometimes I apply his passing comments, sometimes not, but occasionally, I'll want more than just his opinion or passing insights.

When I need a really thoughtful response to a serious situation, that's when I stop talking to him just as Dad and seek him out as mentor. For us, that typically means scheduling a meal together — just the two of us (or three of us since I've gotten married) — where we can talk and pray together uninterrupted.

Often parents can fill the role of mentor. Though not always. If they're not believers, they live too far away, or they're simply not interested (or are known for giving bad advice), your parents may not be a good place to look. But if they're up for the challenge and you have a common faith, it's worth cultivating that relationship — even if it's not ideal from the start.

Parents have more knowledge about you than anyone. Couple that with their love for you and desire to see you succeed and you can see why they're highly motivated to give you encouragement and counsel toward that end. If you're having trouble finding a mentor, your mom or dad may be your best overlooked resource. (Again, we're talking about godly parents who are living biblically here, I know not all fit that description.)

Mentors Always Have Advice

It's easy to assume she's older and wiser, therefore, she must know what I'm supposed to do in this difficult circumstance. Sometimes she does. Other times, she doesn't. I've heard a mentor say more than once, "That's something I've never experienced." But what makes her counsel so valuable is that she follows the "I don't know" with "Let's pray about it."

A Mentor's Advice is Always Good

I had a mentor in grad school who helped me figure out the whole dating-and-getting-to-marriage thing. But along the way, she suggested that Steve and I might want to elope. At the time, it didn't sit right with me. I wanted a public declaration and celebration of our marriage and though eloping sounded adventurous, I knew in my gut that I'd always regret it. I'm so glad I didn't take that advice.

It's essential to weigh the advice your mentor (and anyone else, for that matter) gives against Scripture. God has already revealed Himself — and His will — to us in His Word. We're charged with studying it and discerning it. 2 Timothy 2:15 says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." (See also 2 Timothy 3:14-17.)

Mentors are often great at helping us do that. But not always. I'm sure I've given and taken advice based more on how I felt than what I knew to be true. That's why we need to read the Bible for ourselves and have the freedom to always measure counsel (whatever its source) against the truth of God's Word.

Often a mentor's advice gets me thinking in a new direction. But every so often, that direction is wrong.

You Should Do All, or None, of the Talking

Whether for nervous energy or personality bent, first meetings can tend to be one-sided. Either you do all the talking or your mentor does. Extremes are rarely helpful. Just because you're the one looking for advice doesn't mean you should spend the whole time together pouring out every detail of your love (or financial, spiritual, etc.) life. And just because you're hoping she'll (or if you're a man, he'll) have some wisdom, doesn't mean you shouldn't speak up.

I think the first time you meet with a mentor is often the hardest. You're not sure what to say. But let me assure you, often, neither is she. Many of those first conversations I've had with younger women start with chit chat and finally get to the point where I think, someone better dive in or we're never going to get past the weather.

This is why it's OK — helpful, actually — to come prepared with some questions you want to ask. Know what you want to accomplish; be open to the Spirit's seemingly impromptu leading, but have some questions in mind. Don't make your mentor carry the conversation.

Mentors are Always "Official"

I know from my own experience that sometimes a person is mentoring you without really realizing it. My favorite college professor is a great example.

I was telling a friend about him recently and realized as I was describing him that "he was my mentor." Yes, he had official office hours and that's often when we talked, but I never formally asked him to be my mentor. Still, that's what he was doing in the course of those conversations about campus life and what to do after graduation. He had a lot of influence at that point in my life, steering me in a good direction. I didn't realize just how much till much later.

Look around at the people you go to for advice. Who's your favorite sounding board? They're likely mentoring you, even if neither of you calls it that. And because those people do have such a big influence, it's important to make sure they're a good influence. Are they living a life you admire, following Christ, bearing good fruit? If so, they're likely a source to keep seeking out. If not, it's probably time to look elsewhere for input.

Mentoring is Forever

Relax, you're not signing up for life and neither is your mentor. Unlike diamonds, mentoring is seasonal. You may have a mentor in your life from the time you meet until one of you dies, but more typical is having a relationship that lasts a season.

Sometimes the seasons change based on geography, other times it's your life changes that call for new input. When I lived in D.C., I sought mentoring help from a Christian woman who was leagues ahead of me in her career. Later, after I'd married and had kids, I needed someone with a mom's advice and wisdom.

And our long-time mentors, the Morkens, have been far away since we left grad school. We connect occasionally now by phone and e-mail (not nearly as much as we did when we lived in the same town and worked on the same campus.)

Mentors are gray haired seniors

Sometimes. But I've had mentors who are younger than me (my photography mentor is the age of my youngest sister) and Steve and I have mentored singles who are older than we are. More important than age is life experience, maturity and wisdom.

One mentor can do it all

That would be nice, but it's unlikely. I have a friend I call when I'm trying to become a better photographer, another I turn to when I'm at a loss as a mom and still another when I need inspiration for homeschooling. Each of these friends mentors me in different areas because each is ahead of me, with more experience and more expertise. I guess they don't make polymaths like they use to.

Mentors are in your life a lot

When each of our two youngest babies were born, I had an injection of regular help from Beth and Phyllis. Thankfully, I saw them a lot more than I normally do. It was then that I needed the most help, wisdom and prayers!

But since those early weeks of sleepless nights and feeling overwhelmed, our times together have been much less frequent. Though I miss them, I know that my need for them is not as acute. God knew when I needed them to be more readily available and, thankfully, He supplied it. But it's not realistic to expect them to always be that available.

That fast-paced visit with Phyllis was at least four months ago. A lot of life transpires in the spaces between our times together. But those times are rich. Now I'm looking forward to an upcoming dinner with her and our husbands. No kids this time. It's on the calendar in September; fully eight months since we first started talking about doing it.

Mentoring isn't always as by-the-book as I'd like, but like small morsels of dark chocolate, a little can go a long way.

Copyright 2009 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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