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October 25, 2012Leadership

Thursday is for Thinkers: Jennifer Tharp

This week, our Thursday is for Thinkers guest is Jennifer Tharp. Jennifer is the Director of Student Services at The King's College in New York City. I've always had a fascination with the school, so I am glad to host one of its staff here at the blog, particularly one as thoughtful as Jennifer. Her article on mentoring is worth your time.

Mentoring Souls: Stewarding the Wild Potential of Conversation

If you have ever been a mentor, you know these relationships often begin with simple questions: "Hey, can we get coffee sometime?" In the spirit of altruism, you return a simple response: "Sure, that would be great." It's straightforward enough.

You meet, both with coffee in hand, sitting across the table in a room full of people doing the same. It's a normal situation. Following the introductory exchange of facts, you've established comfort and an initial kind of trust.

Then the conversation begins.

It is in this moment, at the beginning, that we get to decide what kind of mentors we will be. We can start with our expertise and life experience, which are certainly valuable to someone younger and less practiced. We can share lessons "learned the hard way."

"When I was your age, ________," fill in the blank.

But I suggest there is a better--though harder--approach to the conversation.

Learn to ask good questions

Recall the way Jesus frequently taught the disciples: He told them stories, He performed miracles, He responded to their questions with questions.

He had all understanding and wisdom, being both God and man. He lacked no understanding. And yet he posed question after question. Rather than satisfy the disciples with a direct answer, often Jesus stoked their curiosity. He positioned them to ponder.

In doing so, he models the role of a mentor in two ways. First, Jesus' interactions are attentive to the soul.

To have a soul is a sacred way of being. We often go about our days and check off the items on our lists as if life is a mundane obligation. Yet, on occasion, something flickers in our hearts, and we remember the dazzling truth that human life is more. It is made of miraculous, intangible things like thoughts, words, and actions. Like a fingerprint, each soul is unique. Consequently, everything on our to-do list--every human interaction--is far from mundane.

The thoughtful questions I ask students factor into a holy, life-long curriculum. It's not up to me to decide which pieces of wisdom she needs in that hour. Rather, it's my privilege to discover (prayerfully in our time together) the bit of wisdom she's already wrestling with that day and to help draw it out through reflection and conversation. I get to, like Jesus, identify the curiosity of the soul in a single moment and help it to grow as she enters the next.

Become comfortable with the unresolved tension good questions bring

Secondly, Jesus was willing to let questions stand.

It's true, the mentee came to you for a reason. Maybe they want to learn about your work or from your life experience. Maybe you shared an experience in life that drew you together. Regardless, your credibility does not hinge so much on your expertise as it does the fingerprints of God upon your soul. To take on the role of expert would surely be easier than the role Jesus modeled (though He certainly was an expert).

The better way is in asking questions that engage the soul rather than satisfy it. Jesus didn't use His perfect understanding to create formulas for the way ahead or outlined responses. He didn't use His authority to be the answer to all the questions. Instead, He taught the disciples a way of interacting with questions. He taught them to ponder, reflect, converse, and discover.

Jesus knew all along that He didn't plan to stay on earth and rule as king or judge. He prepared them for the time that would come when they needed to learn without His physical presence. They needed to learn to seek answers as part of a process of learning, a process of coming to know. For this greater purpose, He was willing to let questions stand. Your goal should be to work yourself out of a job, not create an unhealthy, unsustainable reliance on your "expertise."

Are you asking the right questions?

Let's re-enter the bustling café scenario. The mentee is explaining a situation. She's experiencing conflict in a relationship. There are many personal experiences you could share as examples of ways to resolve conflict. Instead, you pause and think. You ask open-ended questions. What led you to this point? How have you resolved conflict in the past? Why do you feel the way you do? How have you seen God at work in the past in this relationship? How does the Bible instruct you in this situation? To what end are you praying?

If you're like me, you might wonder if you're asking the right questions. But this is where Jesus' attentiveness to the soul is helpful. It isn't my responsibility to shape the perfect curriculum or to answer their questions. God has already done that by initiating an intricate plan of sanctification, spearheaded by the Holy Spirit. My responsibility is to prayerfully ask questions, reflectively listen, occasionally share a story or bit of wisdom, sip coffee, and repeat.

In the words of the American poet Mary Oliver:

"This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness."

By opting into a mentoring role, we carry this sentiment with us. There is no formula. But there is One to guide the process. It is our privilege as mentors to participate in His holy intentionality, and by doing so, let the wild potential of a coffee date characterize our contributions to the Kingdom.

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Thursday is for Thinkers: Jennifer Tharp