Mentoring Part IV: What if it doesnâ€™t work out?
So far in this series our focus has been on identifying what mentoring is and how to go about getting started. Part III explored some things that the mentee might do to prepare for the relationship and some of the personal formation that may be needed. These are important points to consider as we often look for mentors to suit our needs without considering how we can respect our mentor and the time they have graciously agreed to spend with us.
I used the relationship between Moses and Joshua to illustrate some of the initial points about a bond between two leaders as they worked together to fulfill Godâ€™s purposes for his people. From their story we see the transfer of leadership take place, which seemed to complete the mentoring relationship between the two. While no relationship is perfect, it seems as though these leaders were able to work through difficulties to reach their common goal. We can learn a lot about mentoring and leadership transition from these two, but what do we do when the relationship we had hoped for does not go as we had planned?
When is it time to move on?
Deciding to end a mentoring relationship is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there may be some very good reasons to move on. As I have said before, mentoring relationships can be formal or informal and can be short-term for a specific purpose or a life-long connection. We often have seasons in our lives where it is helpful to have a mentor to come along side us as we navigate a particular situation. We may decide to end a mentoring relationship when we have reached the goals we had in mind when it began. The conclusion might be initiated either by the mentee or the mentor. A mentee or mentor may feel as if the guidance that has been given has reached its limit. While the relationship is still positive it may end or move into a different role such as friend or colleague.
But what happens if the relationship is not going well? This is where honest and open communication is essential between mentee and mentor. At first there may be a great connection but as the association progresses, different points of view arise, maybe even conflict over certain issues. We do not have to have mentors who agree with us on everything; in fact different viewpoints can challenge us to grow. However, if there are significant differences that end in conflict, arguments, or unhealthy comments and feedback, it may be time to move on. These situations are not easy, but self-care and self-awareness are essential for the mentoring relationship to remain positive.
As I discussed in Part III of this series, part of a mentoring relationship includes being specific about what we need from our mentors. This may also include being clear about our expectations and reasons for working with our mentor. The more we define what we are looking for up front, the more likelihood that the mentorship will succeed and even thrive. It may also be helpful to set a time limit for how long you are looking to work with your mentor. Setting a specific period of time will help the mentor decide if they can commit to the request or not. Then both parties have an idea of the expectations and adjust if necessary. When the completion time is reached, the mentee and mentor can renegotiate whether or not to continue.
Trusting your Instincts
Hopefully the mentoring relationship will be positive, and the communication will be honest and open about expectations, time commitments, etc. There may come a time when we start to feel as if working with a mentor is no longer fitting with our goals. It can be unsettling as we become close to our mentors, and we feel obligated to continue with them because they have already done so much for us. This is why setting a timeline for the relationship is helpful. Evaluating the need to continue is an important part of this process. We may be feeling as if the mentor has been a great help, but our needs and goals have shifted. If this happens, it is important first to pray for discernment and then trust our instincts and the wisdom God has given us. Open communication about what you are feeling is important. The mentor may be feeling the same way.
The same thing applies to listening to those we ask to be our mentors. Many of my students say that their mentors feel as if they have nothing to offer and are not sure they could be any help to the student. Trusting our instincts, especially after spending time in prayer will help us to affirm our reasons for wanting to work with the mentor and that they do add value to our journey. The same holds true if at some point we are uncomfortable with the direction of the relationship. As noted, unhealthy comments and feedback that causes conflict is a red flag that it might be time for a change. If the issue can be resolved through prayer and clear communication, it can be part of the growing process. If not, there is no reason to continue. Trust your instincts and the wisdom God gives.
We often come into relationships with some hesitation. None of us wants to face rejection, especially if we were hoping to work with someone and it doesnâ€™t work out as we had planned. When a mentor either declines our request or decides they can no longer work with us it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we have failed in some way. We donâ€™t like conflict and hope to avoid any uncomfortable circumstances that may come up from parting ways with a mentor. Again, we will need to be honest with ourselves about why we are feeling that itâ€™s time to move on from a mentoring relationship. It may end in a way that we did not expect or hoped for however, we need to accentuate the positive things we have gained from the relationship.
Another mentoring relationship comes to mind from the New Testament in the story of the apostle Paul and his trusted friend Barnabas. All went well in the beginning. In fact Barnabas was instrumental in introducing Paul the disciples and the early Christian community (Acts 9). They traveled together teaching new believers about Christ and there seems to have been a mentoring relationship taking place for both. But then something happened, and it all fell apart. Acts 15:39 says that their disagreement was so sharp that they parted company going on to minister in different places. We then read in 1 Corinthians and Colossians that they later reconciled with each other.
While it was no doubt unpleasant for all involved, each one had learned so much from their time together and were able to continue in ministry. They may not have been able to continue working together, but their respect for each other remained. The same thing may happen in our mentoring relationships. Whether itâ€™s a mutual agreement or and abrupt ending for either the mentee or mentor, it is important to look for the positives we gleaned from the time spent together. What did we learn about conflict? How did we communicate in the relationship, and could we have been clearer about what we needed? What did we learn about the other that increased our level of respect for them? Ending a mentoring relationship may be difficult, but we can learn from what we experienced and eventually see it as a positive.
There may be times when we find it necessary to step away from a mentoring relationship. Hopefully it is amicable for both parties involved. Sometimes we may need to give permission to a mentor who is having difficulty finding time to spend with us. The reasons that these relationships donâ€™t work out are varied including deep differences in personalities, theological perspectives, or unrealistic expectations. No matter why it doesnâ€™t work out, communicating clearly with your mentor about what you are feeling is always important. If it does end in parting ways, try to focus on the positive things you have learned and continue to pray for Godâ€™s discernment and wisdom.
About the author:
Jody Fleming is an ordained elder and endorsed chaplain in the Church of the Nazarene and is currently Affiliate Faculty with Kairos University and an Online Course Developer with Pacific Islands University. She holds an M.Div. in Biblical Studies/Teaching Ministries and a Ph.D. in theological studies with a concentration in Global Christianity and Mission and has published in the areas of the Holy Spirit and Missiology including her book Wesleyan Pneumatology, Pentecostal Mission and the Missio Dei. Jody has two adult children and lives with her husband in south central Pennsylvania.