Help Wanted: Imperfect Mentors Only

2 comments Posted on April 1, 2020

by Michelle Van Loon 

More than a decade ago, I was working part time at a campus bookstore at a Christian college when one of my young coworkers, a student named Jennifer*, asked me to mentor her.

Her request took me by surprise. We’d worked side-by-side for months, sharing bits of our lives  as we shelved books together. I’d tell her about the ups and downs of parenting my young adult children. She’d pour out her heart regarding a guy she’d just started dating. We’d laugh over the antics of some of our customers, and occasionally grab a cup of coffee after our respective shifts were over. Though I was in the same age range as her mom, I was not in a position of authority over her. We were simply work friends of differing ages who shared faith in Jesus.  

My first response to her request for me to mentor her was to offer her a quick list of my failures and struggles. “A mentor should be someone more spiritual than me,” I said. 

She shrugged. “I already know those things about you,” she said. “That’s why I asked you. I’m not looking for someone to give me all the answers. I’m looking for someone with some wisdom and experience who will ask me some hard, honest questions, and tell me the unfiltered truth about her own life.”

At first, I imagined that this new responsibility would add a measure of formality to our friendship. I pondered reading a book or doing a Bible study together but quickly abandoned those ideas as she was a full-time student, immersed in a Bible study with some girls in her dorm, and was enrolled in a couple of theology classes. 

As I reflected on what the go-to passage in the New Testament on mentoring had to say, I realized that Titus 2:3-5 was focused on the natural “classroom” of healthy intergenerational relationships: “ Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”

Though this passage calls upon older women to disciple their younger sisters in faith, the relationship was never meant to be a one-way street. Older women were expected to be students, too. As they learned sound doctrine, they were able to work out its implications and applications in the living lab of their daily lives as they interacted with those they were discipling.

My experience with this student—and several others that followed over the years—helped me to understand that mentoring was a deeply formational expression of spiritual friendship. My mentees taught me some very profound lessons about the power of confession in conversation and shared prayer as they learned to walk with Jesus through the confusing first years of early adulthood. At midlife, I discovered new freedom to be more authentically myself before God and these young friends.

A few years later, I attended a church that tried a mentoring curriculum. A few of the relationships formed out of that program may have flourished, but most didn’t gain much traction. When rigidly prescribed roles, forms, and curriculum are superimposed on what is meant to be a relationship that reflects the way faith was designed by God to be transmitted—through His life shared together—discipleship starts looking like a project.  Or worse, a product.

Spiritual mentoring is rooted in friendship. And this kind of friendship is not limited only to those older women who appear to be spiritual success stories. Younger women like Jennifer are looking for mentors willing to be authentic about their failures and ongoing struggles to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

The good news is that this means imperfect people like me and you are perfectly, imperfectly qualified for the role.  

*Not her real name

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Discussion…

  • 05/13/2020
    Melanie Elrod said:

    Before my retirement, every year I taught a mentoring course for teachers to mentor new teachers. Some experienced teachers were always afraid or anxious, but I always shared that a good mentor is someone who has already walked the trail and can point out where the curves, stones, and broken limbs may be located. I explained that these young teachers needed someone to be a friend who would listen and tell them not to worry about test scores or crazy parents. Now the school system had some set things we wanted to accomplish – how to have a good parent conference, classroom behavior tips, etc. Most of the time when I would teach these veteran teachers these tips to share with their mentees, I would hear that they wish someone had helped them early in their careers, too. Most of the mentor relationships went well, but sometimes we would have a mentor and mentee who never bonded, but the relationships of some made friendships that have lasted for years.

  • 05/15/2020
    Jon Carl Lewis said:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am in training to be a spiritual director, but the first person who volunteered to be my guinea pig was someone who had refused to be my spiritual director and only wanted to be my friend. Funny, how God overturns all our notions of hierarchy and class and forces us into the very relationships which are most healing and generative for us–relationships we may not have even been able to conceive of without the Spirit’s gentle nudge.

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