An Introduction to Mentoring

“You cannot lead people a place you have not already been.

You cannot accompany people to a place where you are not going.”

What is the value of mentoring?  A mentoring relationship is established by mutual recognition and consent, with both parties agreeing to enter into the learning experience together. This may be done informally, or may include a formal mentoring covenant that outlines the commitments and expectations. Rarely do we encounter an untraveled road. Even Robert Frost states, “I took the one less traveled by…” suggesting that it had, nonetheless, been traveled by some. (“The Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost, 1920.) Among other things, Frost’s poem is a wistful reflection that we can not take every road, but rather must make some choices which then eliminate others. The title refers to the road that the narrator did not take, the one, “left for another day.” Mentoring puts us in conversation with others along the roads of life, giving us the opportunity for companionship and insight that they may offer from their experiences. As a Mentor, Frost could come along side another and talk about why he made the choices he did, thus illuminating the path ahead. Frost does not say, but it is likely that he had mentors as well, those who helped him gain the wisdom needed at such moments of decision.

The difference between mentoring and coaching: A mentor leads someone in her/his own journey, by virtue of the mentor’s insights gained from personal experience in a similar journey. A coach, by contrast, does  not need to have walked that path before, but rather brings more general insights and principles to bear on the journey of the individual being coached.

How to find a mentor: Typically your mentor will be someone you respect, whose company you think you will enjoy, who has demonstrated abilities and approaches to work or life from which you wish to learn. It will also be someone who is willing to give energy and time to the relationship. Look around in your circles if relationship for such a person. If you do not find one, then ask others who they might recommend. When you approach the prospective mentor, ask for a brief conversation to gain wisdom or insight into a particular situation about which the prospect might have something to say. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time, and you don’t want to ask for a big commitment up front. A series of brief conversations to establish the relationship will be of benefit, and will answer many of your questions regarding whether this person would be a good fit as your mentor.

How to be “mentorable”: Be teachable. Listen to your interactions with others. How often do you respond to someone with an observation that contradicts what has been said? Are you able to receive challenging information without anxiously needing to figure it out immediately or sweep it away? Be dependable. Do what you say you will and more. You are asking this person to donate their time toward your personal and professional growth – respect that time by doing your homework. Come to each conversation prepared with meaningful goals.

How to be a mentor: Be teachable. Remember that we can learn from anyone and any situation. Listen for the wisdom of the novice. Be dependable. Give thought to what you have to offer and how best to offer it. Be clear when a request or topic is outside your purview so no one’s time is wasted. Look for opportunities and relationships to recommend for the mentee – help them build their network and be self-directed learners. Do not take responsibility for the Mentee’s learning. Gently but clearly help them be accountable to self for their growth.

See: “A Bibliography of Spiritual Mentoring and Coaching” for an introductory list of resources.

A Mentoring Process:

1)     Establish meeting parameters. How frequently and for how long will you meet? Is it a regular weekly or monthly meeting, or something less formal? Think about locations that are most helpful. Keep in mind issues of cross-gender relationships – avoid uncomfortable or potentially compromising situations, or even their appearance. Once a working relationship is established with clear expectations and boundaries, then…

2)     Establish Goals. Mentoring grows from a basic question – What do you want to achieve? It assumes some growth goals with which the mentor helps the mentee. If these are not clear, then that is the first work in the relationship – to determine the goals. In what ways does the Mentee wish to grow?  See the example of a “quarterly goal worksheet”. You may not use something this formal, but the more specific you can be, the more successful you will likely be.

3)     Consider who sets the agenda. Does the Mentee say, “Today I would like to learn/explore ____,” or will the Mentor have a series of topics and experiences to lead through? Or a combination of both perhaps. Either is fine, just be clear so that everyone knows what to expect and is prepared.

4)     Focus on experience. Something happened. How did it come about? What did you feel, think, say and do? What was the result? What might be learned from this? These questions apply whether the Mentor or Mentee is sharing. See the example of a Verbatim as one tool for this exploration. It can be used formally, or as a general guide for reflection.

5)     Focus on meaning. What is this situation about? What is at stake? What is of worth or value to each person involved? What is being gained or lost? Where are the opportunities for confusion or clarity? What other experiences or relationships might be impacting this encounter?

6)     Focus on identity. Who are you in this situation? Who do you want to be? What might be done to bridge the gap, if any, between these? What kind of leader? What kind of friend or spouse or child or parent? What kind of employer, supervisor, employee?

7)     Focus on God. Where is God in this situation? Who and where is God calling you to be? How is God present to you in the situation and the people you encounter? How is God present to them through you? What biblical/theological ideas surface? Are there competing claims to truth – i.e. how do you balance mercy and justice?

8)     Return to experience. Reflect on how the insights gained will be put to use in future encounters. What encouragement or help is needed to remember and act on them? What can you do now to prepare for future success in these efforts?

P.S. Jesus as Mentor: We can read the New Testament and see aspects of mentoring in Jesus’ relationship with the apostles, Peter’s relationship with John Mark and Paul’s with Timothy and Luke. In each instance, we see strength and wisdom being offered. We also see vulnerability and brokenness. Christian Mentoring means also sharing our sufferings and failures, and allowing the mentee to serve the mentor. We look not only to the successful, but also to the fragile and weak. To the hungry we say, “Teach me to be satisfied.” To the sick we say, “Teach me the meaning of health.” To the poor we say, “Teach me the meaning of riches.” To the captive we say, “Teach me the meaning of freedom.” To the dying we say, “Teach me the meaning of life.” To the Son of Man we say, “Teach me of God.”

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