By Melissa Wuske
It was a cool spring Saturday when I walked into a sweltering high school gym for a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps competition. I was one of only a handful of adults and one of only a dozen or so white people. I was the only person not in a uniform.
The teens were competing in events I would be terrible at: marksmanship, shuttle runs, and military trivia. I was out of place in nearly every way. I felt conspicuous, and to top it off, I tripped walking up the bleachers. I wanted to walk out. I would’ve preferred to spend my Saturday so many other ways. But my mentee, Maria, was the student commander of the JROTC at the host school. My girl was running the show and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Values like commitment, loyalty, and deep investment are at the heart of mentoring, but as a mentor of high school students and a coach to other mentors, I’ve found that letting go is just as much a part of mentoring as hanging on. As a mentor, you let go of your preferences, goals, and expectations; you let go of your self-focus; and you let go of your mentee when the time is right.
While most of my experience is through a program that pairs adults from local churches with teens from a public high school, these lessons apply to all sorts of mentoring relationships—between church leaders, spiritual friendships, between younger and more experienced parents, workplace apprenticeships, and many other types of mentoring relationships.
Letting Go of Preferences
As a mentor, I’ve had to learn to let go of what I want to do, how I think our relationship should be, and what I want for my mentee’s future. It’s a conscious process of entering my mentee’s world and loosening my grip on my own. This doesn’t mean I sacrifice my identity, deny the gifts I bring to the relationship, or let her control me; but in order to best serve, I have to understand her and her life. Even in a non-spiritual mentorship, my goal is to be like Christ, who became flesh to be like us. Just as Paul strove to become all things to all people, I shed aspects of myself to become like my mentee.
Every mentor-mentee relationship is different, and every mentor brings their own set of preferences and expectations, so letting go looks different in every situation.
Letting Go of Expectations
In addition to letting go of my preferences like the Saturday spent at a JROTC competition, I’ve had to let go of my expectations about time. Maria often runs late. I’m tempted to set a hard line—if you’re late, I don’t wait—and sometimes it has to be that way. But God has shown me that I cling too tightly to my time. He’s given me incredible flexibility in my schedule, and he’s asking me to leverage that to show Maria that I’ll be there for her no matter what.
Letting Go of Goals
More than my preferences or expectations, it’s been challenging to let go of my goals for Maria. I want her to graduate from college and I want her to follow Christ. She also wants to finish college, but what that process looks like to her is different from what that was like for me. Her familial, educational, and financial experience make her road much different than mine, so I have to adapt to best serve her goal in a way that works for her.
I’m not the only person who wants Maria to go to church. Throughout her teen years she’s been coerced, even tricked, into going to church by her extended family. If I press my agenda with her, I risk deepening damage that’s already been done; but when I focus on loving like Christ, listening to her beliefs and faith experiences, sharing what I believe and why with open hands, and praying for her, I can better walk alongside her as God does his work.
Letting go of my preferences, expectations, and goals really isn’t optional; it’s the only way to effectively serve my mentee. If I don’t enter her world, I can’t walk alongside her. I find it all too easy to think I understand what someone else’s life is like, but I’m almost always missing a key element of their perspective. I once asked my husband’s mentee if he liked wearing hats. It felt like a stupid question, a lame, contrived attempt at conversation with a quiet young man. His answer floored me: “No. It’s too dangerous.” For me, hats are a fashion choice. For him, they’re a risk of perceived gang affiliation. It’s just one small example of how two people can have very different lives—and this is true no matter how much they seem to have in common.
Letting Go of Self-Focus
Letting go of self-focus, while similar to other ways of letting go, is much deeper. This is between me and God, not me and my mentee. Letting go of my self-focus—my desire to feel wise and liked, my vision of myself as a hero—requires repentance, plain and simple. I must turn from the sin of self-referenced living and open my heart and hands to what God is doing in and through the person I’m mentoring.
With this shift, mentoring becomes true service to another person, walking alongside rather than taking a position of power. It’s a process of humbly submitting to God the influence I have over another person.
I’ve had to make this choice countless times. My mentee likes me; that’s beautiful and I love it, but when I come to our meetings seeking validation or eager to stamp my name on her life, I’m skewing my relationship with her and my relationship with God—fostering her dependence on me and denying my dependence on God.
When I let go of my self-focus I can help my mentee become a beautiful version of herself rather than a reflection of me, and both my mentee and I have the opportunity to become a reflection of God.
Letting Go of My Mentee
All relationships end at some point. It’s natural and good. One of the priorities of the mentoring network I’m part of is teaching teens how to end relationships well. The goal is to prevent dependence and to practice closure, avoiding those moments where you hide in the grocery store from someone with whom things ended awkwardly.
I’ve had two mentoring relationships officially end. My formal relationship with Maria ended after about a year and a half, as she finished her first semester of college. We’re still in touch, we still meet sometimes, and I know we’ll still care about each other for years to come. But we both desired her independence and wanted to move toward friendship rather than a mentor-mentee relationship, so I let go.
My mentoring relationship with Shanice ended after just a few months. We’d connected well right away, we had fun together, and she shared with me about pain she felt she couldn’t really talk to anyone about. But over time, the trauma and transition in her life got too heavy. I wanted to help her through it, to care for her as she got the professional help she needed. But in some intangible way that I can’t fully understand or describe, keeping up our relationship was too much for her. The end of our relationship hit me hard because I couldn’t be sure, on many levels, that she was okay, and I cared about her deeply even after a short time. I fought to stick by her, but she needed to pull away. I was only able to say goodbye in a letter.
In both cases, ending the mentoring relationship was an act of trust in God, not trusting myself, my mentee, or something about our relationship. It’s trusting that God is the one whose love never ends, who never leaves, who is the source of all wisdom, who is the most fierce advocate for good in a person’s life. It’s acknowledging that I’m only part of God’s plan and that I’m planting and watering seeds that will grow and blossom in their good time, whether I’m there to see it or not.
Melissa Wuske is a freelance editor, a writer, and a columnist for The Lookout. She and her husband, Shawn, live and minister in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Find her work at melissaannewuske.com.