Why does finding a mentor feel like dating? You look for someone who meets all the qualities you desire in a role model. You weigh the pros and cons of a long distance relationship over Skype and the classic coffee shop face-to-face. You wonder if the person will be into it or just say "yes" to be nice.
Then there is all the anxiety around popping the question, “Will you be my mentor?” This question is often just as nerve-wracking for the potential mentor as it is for the mentee. Do you have time in your life for this kind of commitment? What is this person expecting of you? How will this impact the other relationships in your life? And what if the person commits to this relationship and you find out he or she is convinced the world is ending in 2020 and storing up stock piles of Spam in their basement?
A New Paradigm
What if, instead of thinking of a mentor relationship as an exclusive partnership to secure our desired life and career benefits, we sought to be part of a nurturing community in which we have as much to invest as we have to receive? When mentoring is an act of hospitality within the Christian community, it takes the anxious expectations out of the equation and allows mentoring relationships to foster inclusion and discipleship.
When asked about my mentors I often draw a blank. I have only ever popped the mentor question under academic coercion. An assignment in my first class in seminary required that I find a mentor to meet with regularly. The early days of that relationship were awkward. I remember eating packed lunches in a quiet conference room, just me and Cindy, not knowing what to ask, feeling silly for taking up her time, trying really hard to be worth her investment.
Even without formalized mentor relationships, however, my life has no shortage of role models, friendships that give me room to wrestle with questions, or colleagues who are willing to share their favorite books and best practices.
I was recently reminded of these incredible relationship at a gathering of 40,000 of my closest friends and family. June 2017 was the denominational gathering for the Church of the Nazarene, my tribe of holiness Christians. Nazarenes from all over the world descended on Indianapolis, filling up Steak n Shake and Starbucks and occupying every table of the mall’s food court. That crazy week reminded me of three things:
1. There’s always room for one more chair.
Life is full of mentors, and these relationships are best when they are inclusive and not exclusive. At an event like General Assembly, there are too many opportunities to gather and meet up with wonderful people. Even the most extroverted among us find it a bit exhausting. Finding a small window in my schedule, I was able to join a coffee date with a few pastor friends whom I know I can call or text when I have hit a wall or need some guidance. I may have been the youngest member of this group, but not by much. I wanted to drink in each word from these colleagues I admire and look up. But in the midst of conversation when I had something to say, they leaned in to listen, too.
We began catching up, sharing stories, and asking questions. Too much to say, too little time. My mom happened to stop by our corner table to say hello. She was recently ordained and is still finding her voice and place as a servant leader in the church. “Pull up a chair!” was the natural response of the group.
One of the other pastors noticed a friend nearby who would benefit from the conversation and waved her over. We found another chair.
The conversation got loud and funny and passionate at a few points. We were off in a corner, but I’m sure we made enough of a ruckus to draw a bit of attention. At the end of the conversation one of us asked to get a picture. A young woman seated at the table next to us volunteered. In the process, she shared that she was sorting through a call to ministry and confessed she had been listening in to our conversation. We all agreed she needed to be in the picture, too, because there is always room for one more; we can always find another chair.
2. You don’t have to follow a model.
Too often, our lives and ministries are stressed by our attempts to implement all the best models. Mentoring is no exception. There are great models for mentoring out there, but for me, the richest mentoring relationships I have ever had have not been sought through a regular appointment on my calendar.
There have been seasons that I needed regular prayer partners to push me and pray with me when I just couldn’t do it on my own. These were sacred times when I needed a confidant to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of my storm. But seasons come and seasons go. So do mentors and mentees. And that’s just fine.
Cindy, the mentor I sought out in seminary, is now the Chaplain of Africa Nazarene University in Nairobi, Kenya. There’s an ocean between us so we don’t meet up for coffee often. We Skype once in a blue moon. But when we do meet up, our time together is sweet and life-giving. Now we are colleagues and friends. There is no more awkwardness, no expectations of one another.
3. Christian mentors are not career coaches.
They are hosts, creating space for others to come and see what life with Jesus looks like, inviting others into a shared space of welcome and intimate fellowship. Mentees, conversely, are not trainees but guests, entering the lives of their mentors with gratitude and anticipation—and hopefully bringing a dish to share.
I am grateful that academic coercion introduced me to my friend, Cindy. I love hearing that churches, districts, and regions are implementing mentoring programs and pairing up new Christians with seasoned Christians, connecting young clergy with more experienced clergy. These programs are fantastic! They might just coerce a relationship that saves a life or a ministry.
But if we don’t cultivate lively communities filled with ruckus table talk and more than enough chairs to invite one more to join the fun, even the best mentor models will become stale. You might even just become the couple sitting across the table from one another blowing on their soup with nothing to say.
I used to feel a tremendous amount of guilt that I couldn’t mentor all the wonderful students I get to serve. I was sure I couldn’t be all they wanted me to be. The more anxious mentoring made me, the worse at mentoring I got, and the more people I turned away (or just avoided altogether).
But I’ve learned that the best that mentoring has to give must be shared both ways and passed all around the table. I am learning to see my students as future friends and colleagues in ministry, people who I may grab coffee with in Indianapolis someday as I lean in and listen to what God is doing in their lives. When I think of it that way—even if I may not have room on my calendar for a weekly meeting—I can always find one more chair at my table.
Rev. Shawna Songer Gaines is university chaplain at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, TN. This article was adapted from her blog with permission. All rights reserved.