By Joe Wilson
As Julia was rounding third base, she glanced up at me as I was waving her to home plate. She said nothing, but a lot was communicated in that glance: Don’t you know how tired I am? Can I really make it? Are you really telling me to go home? She rounded the base and headed home as the throw was relayed from the outfield. It was a close play as she slid into the plate . . . and she was promptly called out. Almost a home run.
I wondered how she would respond. After all, I was urging her to go home which was in conflict with her desire to play it safe. But she quickly jumped up, brushed herself off, and ran over to me and whispered (with a big smile), “I was really safe. My foot was under the tag.” And then she ran off to get her glove.
Like a good baseball coach, mentors help us attempt things we wouldn’t normally try on our own. They ask us to push the boundaries of what we discern as possible. They prompt us to see life outside of our default viewpoint. And more than that, mentors communicate our value by their willingness to lean into our lives with their time.
Perhaps you can remember teachers or coaches who fulfilled more than their official role. After all, there are teachers who teach history and then there are teachers who teach students. There’s a difference. You may have had a sports coach who also wore the hat of life coach. Those are the people who help to shape us. They act as powerful capacitors that energize us toward new goals and opportunities. They help us to break harmful habits and gain new perspectives.
And while many of us have received the attention of others who have added value to our lives, how many of us are intentionally looking for opportunities to add value to the lives of others? While many people volunteer time and effort to change the circumstances of others (which is important), how many take time to help others actually think and live differently?
Mentoring can be as simple as a single conversation or as in-depth as a formal, ongoing relationship; but it’s essential for the growth of both the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring speeds the process of change. It is catalytic in nature and exponential in result. From a Christian worldview, it is the most rapid way to change the world. When we mentor others who will mentor a subsequent generation, our kingdom footprint grows much more rapidly than if we had invested only in ourselves (2 Timothy 2:2).
A Shift in Focus
I’ll never forget the day my ministry focus changed forever. I was sitting next to a pool in Cocoa Beach, Florida when I was overwhelmed with several truths about my life. It was 2013 and I was on a three-month sabbatical. At the time, I had been serving the church I was pastoring for 22 years. My wife and I were celebrating our 25th anniversary two years late, and I was reading a convicting book by Tim Keller that was calling out my pride. And then it hit me: The ripples of my life are only going to reach so far . . . I need to think about how I can make a greater impact. And then another truth washed over me: I need to invest in greater ways in people who will outlive me.
It’s not that I hadn’t tried to do this in ministry. I had many meaningful relationships. And I was always aware of next generation ministries. But there was something different about this realization. It came from a place that acknowledged my mortality. My own single ministry couldn’t go on forever. It would have a finite impact. But investing in others who would in turn invest in others would outlast my days by far.
This breakthrough in thinking was also rooted in a renewed sense of compassion. Why must people walk blindly into their futures or repeat the mistakes of others when a few critical conversations could change that outcome? What could I do to make a difference in the lives of others?
While my decision about mentoring led to a shift in career from a local church ministry to a coaching ministry, no such shift is really required. There are a number of ways that anyone can be more purposeful about mentoring, no matter your profession.
Learning to Listen
In common conversation, people consistently ask questions only to ignore the answers. Think about when people ask you, “How are you?” They are rarely interested in the real answer. Or consider other everyday settings. It’s not uncommon to look around a restaurant and see one-sided conversations where one person is speaking and the other is looking at a phone. To intentionally bless another person, you must be willing to actively engage in the listening process. Ask clarifying questions. Be engaged. The closer a person is to us the more apt we are to assume that we already know their answers and reactions. We might be surprised what we would learn if we truly listened.
Visioning consultant and ministry coach Rochelle Melander refers to his professional coaching style as “A Generous Presence.” While coaching and mentoring have differences, they also have similarities. Listening is one. Rather than thinking of what to say next in conversation and missing what the other person is currently saying, we have an opportunity to listen intently and rest in the moment. By really listening, and not taking the listening portion of a conversation as “response preparation” the conversation will take brand new turns and produce more helpful outcomes.
My teachers in school used to comment that there were no bad questions. That may be true in educational circles, but not necessarily in relational ones. I’m reminded of my first real boss from my days of selling shoes who told me the golden rule of sales: “Never ask a question that can be answered with a ‘no.’” That might be a transferrable rule of thumb for conversations: Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a single word.
In meaningful, mentoring conversations, it’s important to ask empowering questions. These are questions that lead a person to see that their own decisions can and will affect the outcomes that occur. In my current role, when someone approaches me with a problem, it is not my goal to solve the problem. If I do, it leads to dependence. And unless I’m willing to be their lifelong companion, walking alongside them and solving all their problems, it’s not a helpful way to approach conversations.
Instead, I need to help them discover ways to solve the problem. I can do that by asking empowering questions. “Why is this important to you?” “Where can you find input that will help you make an informed decision?” “What are three things you could do that would change the situation?” “What could you do differently that would produce a satisfactory result?”
When you’re in a mentoring relationship, it’s appropriate and necessary at times to point out a blind spot to the mentee. “You’ve mentioned your desire to pray more often at least three times in this conversation. What can you do to accomplish that desire?” “I’ve noticed that in our conversations, one recurring theme has to do with this habit. When do you want to focus on changing that pattern in your life?”
Teachable moments come when a person has identified a truth or solution without realizing it. Or when circumstances have unfolded in such a way that an outside perspective can identify a truth that cannot be seen by the mentee. In those circumstances it is more than appropriate to call out what may be obvious to everyone else except your mentee. However, not every moment is a teachable moment.
Far too often, mentors slip into the pattern of offering quick advice. Those occasions should be the exception and not the rule. When advice is offered it should be preceded by the question, “May I offer a piece of advice?” Otherwise, advice should be requested before it is offered.
The Right Example
Perhaps the most important part of the mentoring process takes place as your mentee observes your life. As they spend time with you and hear the kinds of questions you ask and observe your reactions to life’s curveballs, they will have the opportunity to see what’s behind your decision making. And as they observe your values and worldview, hopefully what they discover is Christ. Perhaps they discover your love for Scripture, your passion for the mission of God—even your love for people. They may discover peace in suffering or unwavering belief in your own uncertain circumstances.
Back in the early days of my ministry, I had an opportunity to meet several times with an aging minister in our area. We did not have a lengthy mentoring relationship. However, he was good at listening and being transparent. I found his heart in just a few meetings. And his heart was contagious. That interaction reminds me of the power of example.
Life doesn’t come with a manual. The closest we have is the Bible, and unless you’re deeply familiar with its contents, it’s easy to flounder. There are moments when we should reach out to others and ask, “Would it be helpful if you had someone as a sounding board for all the decisions you’re making? Would you like to get together and talk about them?” Not everyone will say yes, but some will, and that’s an opportunity to bless another person.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8) This is a beautiful description of mentoring. Mentors lead people to truth but they also share their lives.
I have decided that no matter what my occupation happens to be, I will always be looking for opportunities to do just that. What about you?
Joe Wilson works as a Training Coach for Pioneer Bible Translators. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland.