Mentoring Part I: Introduction
Mentoring is one of those things that is a little difficult to define, but we usually know it when we see it. As Christians we can think of mentors in the Bible such as Elijah, Paul, Naomi, Priscilla and of course Jesus. Many of us long for someone to come alongside us in our personal lives as well as in our academic and career settings who can help us navigate our world, assuring us that we are on the right path, yet challenging us to push our spiritual, personal, and vocational boundaries.
This post is the beginning of a five-part series about mentoring as we look at what it is and how we go about being part of this kind of relationship. The focus is on the menteeâ€™s perspective so that we can articulate what we are looking for and discern those who may be able to serve as mentors in different areas of life. Iâ€™ve had the privilege of being on both sides of these relationships as mentee and mentor in both formal and informal roles. To begin, letâ€™s look at briefly describing mentors and mentoring relationships.
What Mentees and Mentors Are and What They Are Not
When we think of mentors, we may have an image of someone older or more experienced than we are who can impart sage wisdom into our situations; someone we can go to for advice and guidance. Although friends, colleagues and advisors can be mentors, the connection is not quite the same as friendships or workplace and academic relationships. As mentees, we look to those who have more experience in an area than we do. They may be older than we are, but that is not always the case. The relationship is about growth and discovery and the mentee should realize that this is more in-depth than a student-professor or employee-supervisor relationship.
As mentees, we should also not consider ourselves â€œless thanâ€ those we are seeking as a mentor. We all have unique sets of gifts and experiences and our desire for a mentoring relationship is based in our need to grow in a certain area. The same is true for our understanding of a mentor. They may have more experience in some areas or have lived a little longer than us, but we also need to see the commonalities that we share with them. Thinking of ourselves as subordinates may create a barrier to the relationship and interfere with honest communication and growth.
In my own experience with mentors, I have been concerned that I am imposing on someone I look up to by asking them to be in this kind of relationship. My best mentors have been available and created an environment that downplayed any superiority, which built trust in our relationship. Mentors are there to encourage, challenge and assist mentees in their growth personally, spiritually, vocationally, and academically, like a guide who has already been on this path. A relationship that focuses on the superiority of the mentor may dampen honest conversations and limit discoveries.
Why Mentors are Important Personally and Academically
As we think about the importance of mentoring relationships, we may question the need for them, as it takes time, a precious commodity for all of us. Questions that surface include why is it important to work with a mentor? What does mentoring do for us personally, spiritually, academically, or vocationally? Is there value to having a spiritual mentor within our Christian faith context?
As mentioned, mentors may function as a trusted guide who knows the path ahead and is willing to share their knowledge. This is an important point to remember as a mentee. Personal, academic, and vocational mentors can help us avoid pitfalls and offer alternative viewpoints that we may not recognize. Their encouragement can get us through difficult circumstances, knowing that they have been in similar situations and have survived! Trusting your mentor is a big part of the selection process. Knowing that you can have honest conversations with them without the fear of losing a friendship or workplace position is essential to the relationship.
The value of mentors, no matter what role they have in your journey, is that they can validate your struggles, help you to navigate through them and celebrate your successes. This is important personally and academically as it helps us to feel like we matter. Difficult situations are part of life and mentors can help us separate what is important to focus on and what is not. This is also vitally important for those of us who are Christians working in secular environments. We can easily get discouraged, especially if we do not have colleagues who share our faith. A mentor may help with that perspective. Mentors also hold us accountable to the personal and academic growth and goals we have set for ourselves.
The mentors we choose should be receptive to seeing areas in their own lives where growth may be necessary and recognize that their mentees have deep and rich experiences as well. They should also be comfortable with the idea of accountability with compassion.
One caution about having a mentor is that this is not a counseling-type relationship. If there are deep issues, a trained professional should be consulted. Mentors may not have that kind of training and should not be offering counseling unless qualified to do so.
Mentee/Mentor Relationships; Personalities and Seasons
When we begin to think about finding a mentor, we often feel like we donâ€™t know anyone who fits our description. Or if we do, we feel as if we are imposing on them by asking for their time commitment in a mentoring role. We will need to recognize and acknowledge that our mentors will have different personality types, so even if they are very different than we are, that does not exclude them as an effective mentor. However, some level of compatibility will be necessary for the relationship to grow and thrive. Remember, mentors are there to guide and help us grow in various areas of our lives, personally, spiritually, educationally, and/or vocationally. A positive relationship is key to the health of the mentee/mentor connection.
Another point to keep in mind is that we may engage different mentors for different seasons in our lives or careers. We may begin working with one mentor who can give us some insight in a specific area and at some point, one or both parties may decide they have reached the conclusion of the mentoring relationship. This doesnâ€™t mean we completely disengage, but the need for their expertise may change as we move on to another person for the next season.
Both mentee and mentor will see their differences as positive aspects of the relationship which will foster learning and growth for each other. Compatibility is an important part of this relationship realizing that a mentor may be with us for a short or long time depending on our season of growth. These relationships can be formal or informal again, depending on our needs in a particular season.
This introduction scratches the surface on the topic of mentoring relationships. Much of what I discussed here and will discuss in future posts are based on both my own experiences as well as the many resources available on the subject. Throughout this series the focus will be on the mentee’s perspective as there are important things for us to know and do when we consider working with a mentor in various areas of our lives.
Future posts will address some other important traits about mentoring relationships with some references to the Christian perspective. As I mentioned above, we can see mentoring relationships taking place in the scripture. The community of faith used these relationships to train new leaders and instruct those less experienced in the faith how to move forward. Future topics include getting started, what mentees should think about and expect from the relationship, trouble shooting and a short list of available resources.
One great example of mentoring is Moses and Joshua as each were chosen and prepared by God to lead the fledgling nation of Godâ€™s people, Israel. Moses had mentors in his life in both the secular and sacred environments. He then became a mentor to Joshua, a mentee who would carry on the work. My hope is that as we learn something about being a mentee, we will gain insight and be willing to pass that on as mentors to others.