Do you have a mentor?
My guess is that many of us in academia would quickly respond with, “Yes.” I think we’ve grown accustomed to using the word “mentor” as a way of talking about our advisor, our professor, our dissertation chair, or even our boss.
An advisor may help you decide what semester to take Calculus I and make sure that you’ve fulfilled all of your general education requirements. A professor may open your eyes to Max Weber or 18th-Century British Poetry. A dissertation chair may help you determine whether you need to use a qualitative or mixed methods design. A boss may introduce you to the organizational culture and give you feedback on your job performance.
All of those roles and responsibilities are important. We need them to advance in our studies and our careers. But is all of that help actually mentoring?
At the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, we have been conducting research on mentoring. In December and January, we interviewed 19 individuals identified as exemplary mentors. Based on this research, we developed the following definition of mentoring:
Mentoring is a relationship in which one person intentionally comes alongside another for the purpose of helping them flourish.
Taking the right courses and completing your degree on time can help you flourish, as can writing an amazing thesis and doing well at your job. But have the people charged with helping you do that actually mentored you?
When I started college, the powers that be at Vanderbilt University assigned me an advisor. I remember his office was in a lab in one of the Stevenson buildings, but that’s it. I can’t recall his name or any life-altering wisdom he imparted. My major advisor was nice. I think she was the chair of the math department, but I can’t remember many conversations beyond ensuring that I had taken all of the classes I needed to graduate. I wouldn’t call either of these advisors my mentors.
In graduate school at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, students were assigned to advisee groups that met weekly, often sharing a meal and conversation. I definitely hit the jackpot in terms of advisors, but some of my peers in other groups didn’t feel so fortunate. My advisor happened to be an excellent mentor, and he continues to be a trusted mentor to this day, nearly twenty years later. Those of us who have benefited from his wisdom and care joke with each other saying, “Peter loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
What Makes a Mentoring Relationship Work?
What made the difference between my college and graduate school advisors?
First, I didn’t want to be mentored by my college advisors. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the desire to learn from them. To be honest, I probably wasn’t very teachable then. I’ve since learned that mentoring is a mutual relationship. The mentor and the mentee have to contribute to it, to invest in it. One must have a willingness to give, and the other, a willingness to receive.
Second, my graduate school advisor had certain qualities that I wanted to emulate. He had a deep, abiding walk with Jesus and was so gracious with everyone he met. Something about his life was attractive to me. In our research at the De Pree Center, we learned that good mentors are first and foremost role models. Mentees are observing them, watching closely. Sometimes, the mentor is a role model to the mentee before the mentoring relationship begins. This attraction to the mentor, this desire to learn about their way of life, to be like them, is the catalyst for the relationship to begin.
Third, I could tell that my graduate school advisor cared deeply about me and wanted me to grow and flourish. He always seemed to know how to ask just the right question, and he listened so intently as I rambled through my response. It takes a special type of patience to wait for a verbal processor to make a point or discovery.
Analyzing Your Relationships
Let me ask you again. Do you have a mentor?
If your answer is, “Yes,” I rejoice with you.
If your answer is, “No,” I feel your pain. I have had seasons of my life in which I desperately wanted a mentor but sensed there were none to be found.
I’ve also learned that maybe I’ve overlooked some people who have been walking alongside me to help me flourish, just not in my career. They’ve helped me flourish as a follower of Jesus, a young wife, a new mom, and an independent consultant.
Some of the most fruitful mentoring relationships develop out of other types of relationships. We learned from our research that sometimes bosses, pastors, coaches, and even friends can turn out to be our mentors. Plus, those relationships can evolve over time. I met with my graduate school advisor in a group setting weekly for three years. Since then, it’s been the occasional breakfast or lunch if I’m on campus, or a phone call, perhaps an email.
The same has happened with my dissertation chair, whom I met nearly 10 years ago. During school, I needed to learn from him to pass my classes, comps, and dissertation. But, at some point, I found myself really craving his wisdom and insight. I think I can trace it back to the moment when he challenged me to read Scripture as voraciously as I read journal articles.
Now, we connect maybe two or three times a year. We may talk about career choices or networking. Sometimes he’ll recommend a new book to me or encourage me to check out a particular theoretical framework. Recently I met with him over Zoom to pick his brain about a writing project, and we ended up spending more time talking about some frustration I had encountered in my work. At the end of the call, he said, “I’m happy to keep talking about this.”
His posture toward me–his availability, his desire to see me flourish–makes me eager to set up that next call, to receive the mentoring that he offers.
Help Us Learn More about Mentoring
I want to be mentored, and I want to be a mentor. How can I find a mentor? What does it take to be a good mentor?
These are some of the questions we’re trying to answer with our research. In particular, we’re interested in using what we learn from our research to expand our understanding of mentoring, help us imagine new possibilities for mentoring relationships, and be both good mentees and good mentors. We intend to do that through cultivating valuable resources like articles, digital downloads, devotional guides, and courses on mentoring for leaders across industries and seasons of life. That includes emerging scholars like you and me.
Would you help us learn more about mentoring? If you’re a Christian between the ages of 18 and 49 and do not work in pastoral or organized ministry leadership, we invite you to complete our survey on your mentoring experiences. Whether you have a mentor, don’t have a mentor, or aren’t sure, your perspectives can help us. The survey should take about 5-10 minutes to complete. At the completion of the survey, you may enter a drawing to win one of three $100 Amazon.com gift cards or one of ten copies of Make Work Matter.
We hope many of our ESN members and readers will help Dr. Herr with her research. ESN also wants to learn more about mentoring and we are looking forward to seeing her research results!
About the author:
Dr. Meryl Herr is a Senior Researcher at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. She also owns The GoodWorks Group, LLC consulting firm and teaches research methods as an adjunct professor at Cornerstone University. Meryl completed her M.Div. and Ph.D. (Educational Studies) at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She lives with her husband and two sons in Watkinsville, Georgia.