Finding Mentors Who Share Your Faith

Mentoring Conversation

Last week, I gave some general thoughts on finding good mentors as an undergraduate. This week, I’ll talk a bit about finding mentors who share your beliefs. This is not in any way to minimize the value of mentors who have different views about life. I’ve learned valuable skills, knowledge, and virtues from mentors who had completely different assumptions about the way the world works. It’s often quite helpful to have a mentor who will challenge your deepest  beliefs about the world. But, as in most things, it’s also helpful to find some mentors who see things from a similar angle and can deepen your understanding of how your faith and your field interact. And it can be a difficult task.

Many professors are hesitant to talk about their own epistemology in class, in the commendable desire to give students room to express their individual viewpoints. And as a student, it can be intimidating to ask a professor what he or she believes, even in an individual conversation during office hours. Leaving those issues aside, it’s simply hard to build community in the rush of managing course schedules and extracurriculars. Here are a few ways to look if you’re trying to find mentors who share belief in Christ. Some of these thoughts are easier to apply in graduate school (the suggestion about going to conferences, for instance), but I hope that they’re helpful to think about in undergrad as well. If you are interested in graduate school, applying some of these suggestions will help to prepare for that as well.

1. Ask campus ministry leaders.

Often campus ministry leaders will have a good idea which professors believe and are also interested in mentoring. Sometimes they may even be able to introduce you or set up an event at which you can interact.

2. Get involved in a local church.

Often professors or grad students who might be willing to mentor you are attending churches close to campus. Sometimes a professor may even be teaching a theology class or a study group at a church. If you’re involved in a church and you’re working to cultivate relationships with people there, you’re more likely to meet mentor figures.

Dorothy Sayers. Photo included in a short biography posted by the Marian E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter/Authors/Dorothy-L-Sayers.

3. Pay attention to course topics

Even if professors in your department aren’t announcing their epistemological preferences, you may get some clues from the kinds of courses they teach. Is the literature professor who teaches a course on G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers necessarily a Christian? No. But it’s a reasonable guess that she might be. Does your philosophy professor who loves St. Augustine necessarily agree with him? Of course not. But it’s quite possible that he does. And even if he doesn’t, if you take the course you’ll get to read St. Augustine and learn about him from an expert.

4. Join Christian professional organizations, or at least read their websites.

There are a wide variety of professional organizations for Christians in various fields, and if you join them or at least check out their websites occasionally, you’ll often find out about scholars who may live in your area. Groups like the Conference on Christianity and Literature often publish journals or have articles on their websites. You may find out that one of your professors wrote one, and you’ll definitely get a better sense of who is exploring your field from a Christian perspective. Mentioning the article may be a way to ease into deeper conversation about your field and your faith. On top of that,  many of these groups offer inexpensive student memberships, as well as awards or sources of funding.

5. Join email or mailing lists of Christian Study Centers and Residential Houses

There are a growing number of Christian study centers near university campuses, some of them affiliated with Christian residential houses. If your campus has one, you may be able to attend events and meet mentors that way. If it doesn’t, consider joining the email or hard copy mailing list of a study center somewhere else. You may learn who’s working in your field and find a mentor nearby. Groups like Chesterton House (http://www.chestertonhouse.org/) near Cornell University post articles related to many of their events on their websites. Chesterton House also has a long list of links to Christian Professional Organizations: http://www.chestertonhouse.org/resources/organizations.

G.K. Chesterton House

 6.     Follow the work of Christians writing in your field.

If you’re reading about your field anyway, you can work toward identifying writers who bring a thoughtful Christian perspective to their study of engineering or history. Reading George Marsden in history or Francis Collins in science will broaden your perspective and give you something to talk about with potential mentors. On top of that, it’s possible that you’ll meet someone whose work you admire at a conference, or feel comfortable sending a letter or email and trying to begin a correspondence. If you don’t know where to start, you can read a general interest publication aimed at thoughtful Christian readers, like Books and Culture (http://www.booksandculture.com/) or First Things (http://www.firstthings.com/). Both publications engage with books published across a wide range of fields, so it’s likely you’ll find a review or comment on something that interests you. Mars Hill Audio (http://www.marshillaudio.org/) is another good resource. In NPR style interviews, Ken Myers discusses a variety of topics with authors across a wide spectrum.

7. Go to conferences addressing the interaction of faith and learning, especially in your field.

If you’re following readings in your field and you’ve joined a Christian professional organization or two, you’ll probably come to know about conferences addressing your field from a thoughtful faith perspective. I know it can be intimidating to go to these, but they’re a great place to meet potential mentors. You may find people who will be willing to correspond with you, and it’s often easier to strike up an email conversation if you have met someone in person. On top of that, sometimes you’ll meet people you didn’t know about who actually live nearby. I once flew to a conference in Texas, and one of the first people I met turned out to live 30 minutes away from me in my midatlantic home state.

8. Explore ESN’s offerings.

And of course, don’t forget the Emerging Scholars Network’s own mentoring program (http://esn.intervarsity.org/mentor-directory) and campus presence. While much of ESN’s work is targeted toward graduate students and faculty, a significant amount of energy has been given to the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies. If you’re at this juncture, I recommend reviewing the Getting Ready for Grad School Curriculum (http://blog.emergingscholars.org/gradschool/) and ESN blog posts such as:

Futhermore, many members of ESN are happy to connect with undergrads and give advice and support. Some fellowships, such as Johns Hopkins’ Graduate Christian Fellowship, even offer graduate student mentoring programs for undergrads (http://blog.emergingscholars.org/2012/05/resource-grad-mentoring-undergrads/). If you’re looking for additional help, I encourage you to drop a note to Thomas B. Grosh IV, ESN’s Associate Director designate via this form (http://www.intervarsity.org/contact/1445).

9. Be open to mentoring from outside your field.

While it’s wonderful to find mentors within your field who also understand your faith, it doesn’t always happen quickly. But you may find people who aren’t in your field, but can still help you grow in your understanding of it. I’ve gotten good advice on navigating the field of English literature from mothers, lawyers, scientists, artists, and others. Many people who may not know all the ins and outs of your field will still be glad to support you and offer generally wise advice. It’s great to keep looking for someone who knows your field as well, but those outside it are often able to help and support you as well.

So those are a few suggestions on finding mentors who share your faith. Any comments on other ways to find mentoring from a thoughtful faith perspective? Any stories?

Mentoring Conversation

Also in this series (7/18/2012 update): Finding Mentors as an UndergraduateThe Art of Being Mentored, The Art of Learning Wisdom from MentorsThe Art of Maintaining Relationships With Mentors.

Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is a writer/editor on staff with InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature, and she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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