Be Careful Who You Choose As A Mentor

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Imagine the following hypothetical scenarios:  

Scenario 1: Nick is a young pastor who deeply admires Charles, a much more seasoned pastor. Through a series of encounters and to Nick's surprise, Charles takes an interest in Nick and they enter a formal mentorship relationship. And yet, what began with great hope begins to take a strange turn. Nick experiences an unidentifable strangeness to their relationship and is surprised to feel relieved when their usual scheduled meeting gets canceled. 

Scenario 2: Jen is a college student who recently begins to attend a church after a tough breakup . Jane, an older small group leader invites Jen to participate in her small group, which becomes an oasis for Jen. Jen begins to trust the small group and routinely confides in Jane. One day, the tone of their relationship changes when Jen shares that her ex-boyfriend has reached out to her. Jen feels pressured to follow Jane's step-by-step instructions. 

Scenario 3: Sarah is a young working professional who has known Anna for years. Anna is an older woman, married with kids, and has been an older sister figure for Sarah since Sarah was younger. When they talk, they talk like sisters yet when they have disagreements, they argue more like parent - child. 

While these scenarios are completely hypothetical, it's not difficult to imagine these scenarios being just as real.

And they remind us that mentorship relationships are a bit more complicated than what they initially appear to be. 


No one should walk without guidance. We all need input. 

And so it's unsurprising to see the concept of mentorship so widely and readily accepted in Christian circles.

I'm very glad for this. I would highly recommend all Christians to find some type of mentor, someone who is a little further along than where we are, who can point us to get a little closer to where God wants us to be. 

But at the same time, I would also encourage all Christians to consider more carefully who they ask as a mentor and more intentionally explore why they want to ask that particular individual.

I recommend this, not out of a spirit of distrust towards authority, or to be overly pessimistic, but because of relationship dynamics in play which are in play in every human relationship, especially between a "guide figure" (mentor) and the "sponge figure" (mentee), but are rarely considered. 

The following are a few of these dynamics at play. 


Dynamics to Consider

1. Most things aren't taught but caught. 

We often choose a mentor because of a very specific reason. 

We're drawn to a certain quality (ex: approachability, relational demeanor, or work ethic). Or we're drawn to a particular skill-set  (ability, talent, strength). Or we want to glean from their season of life (ex: family, work role, ministry role). 

It makes sense. Our minds think, "This person has knowledge in this specific area that I want to grow in, therefore I want him/her to speak into my life so that I can grow in that specific area." 

The problem is that while our want and desire is specific, most mentorship relationships rarely play out with such specificity. A mentorship relationship that may start specific will soon become more generic and broad, encompassing more than just the particular issue of quality, skill-set, or season.

This doesn't happen by chance or by anyone's negative motives, but mostly out of the mentor's sincere desire for holistic contribution. 

Think about it, if you were a mentor to someone, would you relate with that person just for their particular desire? No. You'd want a more holistic relational approach since you know growth in any specific area is often predicated by growth in other areas. 

But hereinlies the issue - while a mentee approaches a mentor for a specific desire, he or she will end up absorbing other qualities of the mentor, even bad ones

Why? Because when we view someone as an expert in one area of life, we unknowingly tend to defer to their views in other areas of life. We assume, "Well, he or she must know what they're doing."

This is where mentees can be taught good things while unintentionally catching bad things. You can be taught to work hard, be humble, be more expressive, while catching the bug to gossip, look down on others, and use people. All these things can happen at the exact same time. You can leave your mentorship session feeling like you gleaned so many things good things, yet you unknowingly have also caught a bunch of bad things. 

Mentors cannot help but teach. Mentees cannot help but catch. 

2. The road to transformation can become the road of transaction. 

We've all heard of those parents right? You know, the ones who feel like they're owed something from their adult child? I mean, they poured out their entire lives for their child, so now that their child is grown and successful, they kinda want something back? Even a small token of appreciation? A trip to Europe? Or maybe take on the mortgage? 

You know who these parents are? I think every parent. Even if they never admit it, they all feel this way. Why? Because there was so much investment into their child. I'm not saying it's right, I'm saying it's a reality. When they see the successes of their child, they cannot help but see their own labor. 

You can see where I'm going with this. 

I think a lot of mentorships start with sincere motives (notice, I didn't say "all). In most cases, when an older figure is asked to be a mentor, I think they're surprised, flattered, and have a deep desire to see his or her new mentee flourish and succeed. 

But when the mentee does flourish, the mentor will not be able to help but feel like he or she was a part of that. He or she will feel owed. It could be something as small as a "Thank you" or an Instagram shoutout (you'd be surprised), and they'll never admit it, but I think it's there. 

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So you can imagine how things can turn sour when a mentee experiences success and then moves on to a new mentor. In the mind of the initial mentor, he or she will feel slightly used. Why? Because he or she will feel like a true transaction never occured, even though the mentor never once stated that outrightly or intended to feel this way, it just began to morph during the actual investment process. 

Now, before we shame mentor figures for feeling this way, I think we have to be honest about the motives of the mentee as well. We have to remember that the mentee's initial disposition is far more transactional than the mentor's.

See, while the mentor begins with a desire for the mentee's transformation and ends up transactional, the mentee starts with transaction, but ends up with personal transformation. The mentee goes in to the relationship saying, "I want this from you. Pour into me." So the sword cuts both ways. Transaction is a reality for both parties. 

Where this gets sinister is when mentors go into the mentorship with an already thought-through transaction. "I already know what I can get from him." I hope for more from those who are sought out as mentors. People are not a means, and they're not something you wear on your belt to namedrop at social gatherings to demonstrate your influence. 

3. Life translation becomes blurred as life transitioning. 

I get nervous when I hear a mentor talk about the mentee in this way:

"Yeah, she didn't listen to me." "He never listens to anything I say."

Think about this objectively for a moment. What would you think if someone came to you and said, "Steve (that's me) is my mentor and he's counseled me on a few things and I think otherwise, but I'm really scared of not listening to him" ?

 You would say the relationship has gone completely out of bounds. You would think I'm a controlling megolomanic. 

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Yet, many mentors operate with this mindset. Compliance and obedience is expected when they give advice. They don't say that, but they expect that, but isn't that the wrong expectation? 

"But I don't want them make the wrong decisions." 

But isn't that all a part of the mentorship process? Don't we let someone walk in the direction of their choosing, even if it's to their detriment? Don't we find this in the story Jesus told of the younger son who left his father's house? He didn't prevent him from walking away, yet when he returned home broke and hungry, his father said something like "welcome home," instead of "I told you so?" Doesn't God relate patiently with us, desiring our deepest transformation, not mere behaviorial compliance? 

Why does this happen?

I think this happens when a mentor's heart goes bad, but the mentee has some responsibility too.

You can't blame a mentor for wanting to control a mentee's life when the mentee keeps opening up his/her life. "What do you think I should do?" "I"m struggling with this, any thoughts?" "I'm really hurting, can you help me?"

Mentors can become possessive when mentees aren't possessing their own decisions with conviction. It can become frustrating for mentors when someone keeps asking for advice, don't apply anything, but keep coming back for the same advice.

When this happens, the mentor not only can feel disrespected, but also feel like he or she is wasting time. 


A Few Things to Consider

For mentees: 

1. Depower your mentor. Find many mentors. You need to offset the authorial imbalance that can be created by having one voice that's too loud and powerful in your life. Have many voices. Allow the various voices to compete with each other in a healthy way so you can come up with the clearest views and ideas. 

2. Informalize the mentorship process. Instead of routinely scheduled meetings, meet whenever you have a particular question. Instead of calling it a "mentorship relationship" call it a mentorship conversation. Don't even refer to him or her as a "mentor" but consider them a "mentor figure." These small adjustments can be helpful.

3. Know the strengths and weaknesses of your mentor(s). Know what's gonna get taught, know what's gonna get caught. 

For mentors: 

1. Clarify your expectations from the onset. This is where the mentor can set the parameters, boundaries, and even timeline. But this is where the more mature needs to be more mature. 

2. Depower your own influence. Consider having a group session of two to three people, instead of one on ones. If one on ones are necessary but the nature of the subject is sensitive, remind your mentee that you don't control their life. Oftentimes, that will be a reminder to yourself more than anyone else. 

3. Do it out of desire, not need. We all want power and influence more than we care to admit. Be compelled by love and desire, not out of having to be needed. 


A Personal Hope

A few Sundays ago, I had a former collegian stop me in the hallway to ask me a quick question. After giving him an answer, he surprised me by saying, "Ok, I just wanted your input since you're my mentor." 

To be honest, I was taken aback. I had no clue I was his mentor. I made that stupid face I always make when I don't know what to say, thanked him and moved on. 

As I walked away, it made me think about what it would be like for the Christian community to function in a way where it was about a pure transferrence of knowledge, wisdom and love.

What would it look like if it wasn't about who was mentoring who, who's the best mentor, who are the people worth mentoring, and who belongs to who? What if it wasn’t about influence, power, and glory? 

What would it look like if younger people today said 10 years later, "I can name a few people for sure, but it was just a bunch of people who impacted my life at different times and seasons."? 

What if mentors didn't walk around saying, "Yeah, I mentor him/her" but "Oh, I didn't even know I was mentoring him/her." 

It's always more complicated in reality, but one can hope.