Elisabeth, the Duchess of Brabant, happens to share my name. But that’s where the similarities end. A real-life princess and heir to the Belgian throne, she’s poised and stylish, articulate, multi-lingual, lovely — and she just turned 18.
In contrast, I was an awkward teenager: baby-faced and skinny, with oversized clothes and untamed hair. And I was shy. So shy and introspective that I frequently walked head-down, immersed in the world of my mind.
At home, I knew I was loved. I was slowly blossoming at school. But it only took summer camp every year to leave the lasting impression: I was without question not one of the cool kids. I was, perhaps, invisible.
But one day at camp, a counselor startled me out of my own little world.
“Hi!” he said as he passed. And he used my name.
It was the first of several times he would greet me, and though the gesture was small, the implications are still unfurling today.
A couple times a month, there’s a knock on my door, and two preteen girls bounce into my apartment. For 90 minutes, we chatter and sip tea, bake, sing, play hide-and-seek or dress-up, color or paint pictures. Though this is part of my ministry to the local church, I’ve decided not to give any Sunday-school style lessons. Instead, I model what my camp counselor modeled to me: You are seen. You matter. You are welcome here.
The impact of that simple greeting so long ago helped transform how I view my own influence today: What if others feel invisible as I did? What if my invitation and welcome matters to them, too?
Perhaps that’s why, when I think of mentoring, I think of this passage: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:1-7) This Greek word for welcome means to lay hold of someone with initiative and strong personal interest. It might mean taking them into friendship, granting them access to my heart, or simply receiving them into my home.
With this definition in mind, there’s never been a time when I wasn’t being mentored. Common sense is not innate to my personality; my mother patiently instilled it in me. My father modeled leadership that admits mistakes. My younger siblings shaped my listening skills. (“Can you please take off your Mr. Fix-it hat?”)
When in Bible school I had no clear concept of time management, Don and Ellie coached me tactfully. When I was afraid of cooking for a crowd, Julie exuded confidence that I would succeed. When I was in emotional and spiritual turmoil, Sharon provided wise and steady counsel without getting caught up in my drama.
Despite how lavishly I’ve been welcomed, I shrank from returning the favor of mentorship. I kept choosing hidden helping roles, moved not by humility but by fear. Fear of stepping into leadership. Fear of rejection. Fear of being seen as a failure.
Facing off with fear
The details may differ, but don’t we all have vivid mental pictures of how failure in mentoring could play out?
- I’m supervising a room full of unruly two-year-olds, well aware I’m not truly in command
- A couple of students chat disruptively in my English class as I’m trying to teach. For a moment, I’m that invisible, uncool teen again.
- A friend is crying on my couch, and I’m anxious about what I said. What if I’m really the “goody two shoes” who’s unable to relate to the problems of others?
Whether or not my fears play out, there really are reasons why I’m not the best choice to mentor. I really have failed to lead well. What in the world could call me out of my hermit-crab shell?
Looking back, I see now that it was love, every time: Love for something, someplace or someone. God (who is Love) gently inviting me out of my fears.
And it started when Jesus convinced me that it’s inevitable: I will be seen for who I am. (Luke 6:43-45) And as terrifying as it can be, this exposure brings me life.
I learned that if I’m going to grow, if I’m going to make a difference, I’ve got to live authentically. Not by blurting out every thought and feeling, but by accepting the truth about myself, allowing God to do His messy work on me in His timing, and not attempting to project a different persona.
And so (tremblingly) I began to teach English as a foreign language. Surprisingly, my greatest asset was the freshness of my own fears as a recent language student. As a teacher, I learned to create an atmosphere of safety in which students could learn more rapidly by risking — and making — many mistakes.
Invited to love
When my teaching job ended, God still patiently nudged me toward my fears. I was invited to join a discipleship program as a kitchen manager, training a small group of college-aged women to cook for 12 to 20 people. I knew I wasn’t gifted as a leader, and I was hesitant to get involved in the messy parts of people’s lives, but seeing His invitation, I took the job.
Here, too, love has held me steady: love from Jesus himself, and from my coworkers. Love for “my girls,” whom I long to see rooted and grounded in God’s love. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
Some of my mentees struggle with anxiety; some have learning disabilities. Who knew that my early lack of common sense would position me to be patient and understanding as their mentor-manager?
In the 12 hours a week we share a kitchen, real conversation naturally arises from our side-by-side, hands-on activities. We could be talking baked beans or bullying, romance or rolled oats. Even discussing a lost appetite can veer toward talk of lost trust. In our kitchen, I try to create a safe environment where my girls can develop a growth mindset, something I hope will benefit them spiritually and practically for the rest of their lives.
I’ve had to apply to myself the things I’m always saying to my girls. For example, when I watched our guests struggling to eat the extra-spicy mac and cheese that I failed to prevent, I had to accept that sincere effort won’t guarantee the results I want. (I also learned that cayenne pepper is just too strong; you can’t multiply it normally.)
Even when the lessons we’re learning aren’t the same, I’m just as much “in school” as my girls are. For example, when JJ said she hesitated to make requests because past leaders hadn’t been for her, I made a special effort to have her back. I learned that her rare meltdowns could be opportunities to show her unconditional love, which I was honored to do.
But at one crucial season, I really let JJ down. As I went to apologize, I thought, I don’t want to eat humble pie. But part of the privilege of leadership is modeling a calm and humble response to mistakes. From that experience, I also learned to get mentoring about my mentoring: to invite mature outside perspective on the way I lead.
I tell my girls that I accepted the position just so I could spend time with them. But I really had no idea how much they would mean to me. I’m refreshed by their cheerful response to my leadership, and by their hunger for God’s Word. I’m fulfilled by watching God grow them in wisdom. I’m honored by having a front-row seat to JJ discovering what an artist she is with food as well as with her pen, bubbly Ashley opening up her spiritual life, and Kaileigh blossoming into her hilarious, affectionate self.
Who’s the real mentor here?
While terrifying at times, accepting the responsibility of mentoring might be the surest means of my own growth — and a serious reason to rely on God. In spiritual terms, that’s solid gold.
Mentoring is an ordinary and necessary part of being the body of Christ. It means making people part of my life, and sharing what God and others have shared with me. I’m not the pastor or the parent, the life coach or counselor. I’m simply a fellow pilgrim, able to pass on what I’ve learned, from just one or two steps ahead in life.
And I’m not the only mentor to the young women in my circle; I’m one of many. The Bible says that Jesus is the Word made flesh. (John 1:14) It seems to me that each person and their unique giftings and experiences also reflects an aspect of who God is, embodying biblical concepts in a way our hearts can understand. Every believer supplies some of the picture, and we need them all.
Ultimately, the mentor is the Holy Spirit himself. I work with Him, but He carries the responsibility. He’s the heart surgeon. I’m just a catalyst. As an older sister and a believer gifted to help, I instinctively want to fix my loved ones’ problems. When it’s not God’s time, or when He’s using someone else, I’ve had to accept: I don’t always get to help. But you know — when I stop attempting to do God’s job, I discover more courage to invest in others in the simple ways I can.
Mentoring is never a one-way relationship. We welcome others; they welcome us. We ricochet the love of Jesus back and forth, and walk on wiser and richer than we could ever have imagined.
Copyright 2020 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.