Lately, I’ve spent some time thinking about discipleship and mentoring…what exactly is it? What is effective? What does it look like in a practical way? I started this post in January…worked on it a bit in February and then finally returned to it two days ago….
Over the past 34 years of my life, I’ve had a series of “mentors” and almost no mentoring situation has been similar to another. Maybe it’s a generalization, but I get the sense that when most people think about mentoring, they are picturing some sort of match-up with an older or wiser person who is willing to meet with them regularly in a one-on-one very structured, formulaic way.
I don’t want to minimize the effectiveness of, or need for, structured discipleship…there are times when a person definitely needs someone to meet with them for a series-of-so-many-weeks as they walk through what the scripture says about salvation or growth or a specific issue, but my experience has been that most mentoring relationships have occurred while “talking…in (my) house”…and “walking by the way”…and “when I lie down” and “when I rise up” (Deut. 11:19)….in casual, daily, real life.
As I think back through the many mentoring relationships that have influenced my adult life significantly, very few have fit into a pre-formed pattern. They’ve grown out of day-to-day interactions, over periods of time, through common interests or shared experiences, as trust and openness have been established.
Almost none of the women who have become my mentors ever pinned on that “name tag”. They just reached out, gave time, opened doors, or grabbed my hand as I was frantically trying to keep my head above the water.
First…there is R. She was the first person I remember meeting when we came to our church (we’ve been in our same church for about 13 years). I wandered into the lobby and she was standing there with her 2 little kids. At some point, she invited me over for chicken stir fry and let me just watch her life unfold. Jason and I were newly married, without kiddos, and I took pages of mental notes as I observed her parenting. As she allowed me into her life, she showed me what it looks like to “teach what is good” and to “love (my) husband and children” (Titus 2: 3 &4). Over the years, we’ve had continued contact. But to be honest with you, she and I rarely get together outside of email. In fact, our conversations outside of email have sometimes even been awkward. But–we are genuinely close in print. She is someone who has been my mentor for 13 years. I frequently run things by her if I’m needing genuine input and guidance. I consider her a cyber-mentor, or virtual kindred spirit, and her input has come at crucial times.
And then there is S. The first thing she did was ask me to take her kids to swim lessons. She pulled me out of my comfortable role of “consumer” and allowed me to experience the joy of serving within the church family. She has probably mentored half of the church by now because it never fails that she’s the first person everyone meets when they come to visit. The next thing she asked me to do was buy butter…it was for some women’s event…I don’t even remember that part, but I do remember that my small task made me feel a part of the team. And S. has continued to be part of my life. She knows my kids. She knows my husband. She knows my hang-ups. This morning we had coffee and went to a garage sale together….but I know it was less about the garage sale…and more about the chance to reconnect, because she truly cares about how I am doing. Last week, she called to talk through a committment she knew I was about to make and by the end of the conversation, her wise counsel had caused me to reevaluate. When I said goodbye this morning, I know she was on her way to phone another younger mom who she has invested in for years. I love her heart for mentoring younger women.
The first mentor that I probably recognized as a “mentor” was A.L. Someone connected us with their newly established Home Bible Study group. On week #1 they told us of their desire to start a newly-marrieds-no-kids-yet-group. On week #2, they told us they were expecting a baby But in all honesty–that was a huge gift. A.L. openly shared as they transitioned from newlyweds to parents–and we took it all in. Even without the assigned label, A.L. and her husband were our mentors. They opened their apartment, gave us their time and were vulnerable with us during those first years of marriage and parenting. I watched her faith as she struggled through serious health issues and my own trust in God grew.
C.L. is also my mentor. When we had our first baby, I invited myself over to her house. Yes–I actually invited myself. I was feeling overwhelmed by life and I saw something in her that I admired so I just asked if I could come and observe how she “did life”. At the time, it seemed like she had a FLOCK of children, but now I find myself with a similar crew of little guys. I spent the morning trying to memorize how she kept up with laundry and made meals and taught the kids and most importantly, how she made God a part of their lives. She is responsible for answering my potty training and toddler-bed-issue questions. Our first children’s books came at her recommendation. And the fact that our oldest children have real responsibilities around the house is largely due to the fact that I watched her older children and knew it was possible. Her input had a huge impact on me and to this day, I know I can call her at any moment with a question.
And then there was Dorothy O’Neil. I’ll use her name because she’s with the Lord now and I know that honoring her life truly brings honor to God. I somehow volunteered myself to drive her to and from our church’s Tuesday morning Bible study. After 3 kiddos in 3 years, I initially regretted my “hand raising” and wondered how her walker would fit in our car amidst the booster seats and diaper bags and talking Elmo toys. But over a year of Tuesdays, Dorothy became my mentor. Dorothy was pretty old and she knew she was dying. She didn’t fear death though and had full confidence about where she was going. I loved to hear her talk about Heaven. I realize now that God used Dorothy’s mentoring to help prepare me for our daughter Selah’s death years down the road. And the Tuesday conversations had a huge impact even on our children. When Selah died in 2008, one of our kiddos said, “Now I know 5 people in Heaven: Jesus, Grampa Wink, Mrs. O’Neil, Selah….and Johnny Cash” (though there clearly was some confusion about the Johnny Cash part
Dorothy was my mentor because God knew I needed her.
Selah’s death brought along a series of new mentors. M & M are two that are extra special to me. One M. lost twin children prior to birth and I could see in her eyes and through her words that she understood my pain. The other M. also lost a child and she could offer words of comfort that resonated with me because she knew the deep ache of sorrow. In the spring following Selah’s death, God allowed the 3 of us to end up in the same Tuesday morning study group; He knew that they would “be able to comfort” me “with the comfort with which (they were) comforted by God” through the loss of their own children (2 Cor. 1:4). Even now, when I pass either of them in the halls at church–I know they “get it”…they know why certain dates matter and the longing that never really subsides…but also how we don’t “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
Selah’s life also introduced my mentor A.T. She invited me to walk with her during those empty morning hours our older three were in school, when Selah’s death felt most haunting. I’d drop the kiddos off at school and in an attempt to avoid an empty house, would join her and her walking crew for a morning walk. She and her walking pals were my mentors. We’d walk and talk and wade through emotions and frustrations and concerns and joys. They gave me good input; biblical input. But mostly, they gave their time…and there was the freedom to be deep and very real. I could voice true questions about marriage and parenting and friendships and life and God. And through the rhythm of swinging arms and plodding feet, so much wisdom was transferred.
In recent years–my life has been impacted by C.W. She’s been less of a parenting and marriage mentor, but more of a personal mentor. She’s pushed me to take on risks and responsibilities and leadership roles. She’s forced me to question preconceived notions. She and I don’t always agree on everything and she entered my life through an organizational position of authority, but I respect her greatly. I know I can call her if I need a strong wall to bounce my ideas off of. And while I at times dread her calls because I know she might ask me to do something that’s not easy for me, I also appreciate her calls because she pushes me to trust God and to allow Him to use me in ways that force me to depend on Him.
And then there is the “Dynamic Duo”. Two summers ago, they left the familiarity of their own Home Bible Study to join our messy crew….an odd collection of youngsters who were definitely in need of some life experience. It’s not like they are ancient or anything, but they have YEARS more experience when it comes to marriage and parenting and by choice, they agreed to enter our circle. I honestly pray that God will put that sort of missionary work on the hearts of others who fall into their category. I can’t even begin to express my thanks for these two mentors (and actually they’ve both been mentioned before in previous paragraphs). But–the Dynamic Duo (and their husbands) chose to take on mentoring roles by removing themselves from a comfortable peer group and by entering our world of babies and toddlers and runny noses and cheerios. They bring wisdom to our circle where life experience is somewhat sparse.
This year I’ve also found a new mentor….my M.H. Her heart for mentoring is a bit more structured. Every year she invites 10-12 younger women to come to her home once a month to learn about finances and education and parenting and marriage and LIFE. Her desire is truly to honor God and she has become one of my very favorite people. I think she’s the first person I’ve known who loves books and reading as much as I do; I feel that common connection and enjoy it immensely. With a “just do it” mentality–years and years ago she started inviting women over on a monthly basis to learn from what God has taught her over the years. Her class is word-of-mouth and there may be openings for next year–though I kinda hope it doesn’t fill up so that maybe she’ll let me sign up again
And I can’t leave out my “peer” mentors. We kind of play a leap frog game when it comes to who is struggling, who needs encouragement, and who can offer strength. But even though we’re peers….they are my mentors on almost a daily basis. But it took TIME–like YEARS–to interweave our lives and earn the right to speak truthfully and openly and honestly. Because we can be vulnerable with each other–I know they will correct me when I’m a mess and need correcting….they will give me the advice I need to hear…not just what I want to hear. I can share things with them that I even hesitate to voice in my journal. They are my dearest friends….who have walked with me (quite literally) through the highest joy and the deepest pain….and they are also my mentors.
Finally, I can’t mention all these mentors without mentioning my mom. She’s a life-time-mentor. I’m so thankful for the many many zillions of things that I’ve learned from her. And I keep learning from her because she keeps letting God teach her new things. I end with her because I always want to remember that while I desire to mentor others, the mentoring going on in our own family is my top priority right now. I have a certain, set, amount of time to walk through life with our kiddos and I will not let it be a price that is paid for a more formal or official mentoring ministry. Oh Lord, “teach me to number (my) days, so that I may present to You a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12).
So–why do I write all this?
As I chronicle this investing of lives–I feel overwhelmingly blessed. I have left out so many who God has used to touch my life. But mostly…this weighs heavy on my heart for several reasons:
#1) I don’t want to miss the opportunity to be mentored or for others to miss it either. At times, I’ve been so focused on looking for “someone to mentor me” that I’ve missed out on appreciating those who already were.
#2) I don’t was to miss the opportunity to be a mentor. I want my door and my life to be open to whomever God designates. I want to look for those opportunities that are already there, sitting right in front of me.
#3) I want to encourage others in this area. It takes TIME to really enter into a mentoring relationship. It’s difficult to let down walls of self protection and to be vulnerable until real trust is established. It takes a real relationship. But–we all are younger than someone. We all are older than someone. By God’s grace, we all have experiences that we can share–experiences that God can use to bring others closer to Him.
The definition of a mentor is “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher”. Almost none of my mentors really fit into one certain mold, but they all fit that description. At times, I probably didn’t even realize they were mentoring me. But as I think about all of them–I feel so thankful.
We live in an era where even within the church, much is unfortunately set up to be segregated by age. A consequence of this is that we often miss out on the joy that can come through mentoring that develops naturally–where lives mesh and genuine care and wisdom is shared in side-by-side interaction.
So….if you are reading this and you are feeling a void–wanting that connection with someone who can be a mentor or wanting an opportunity to mentor someone else, I encourage you to ask God to use the following ideas to help spark a mentoring relationship:
#1) Pray–ask God to bring you the right person. Ask Him for open eyes to see the people He has already placed in your life.
#2) Get involved–ask God to show you where He has gifted you and where you can serve. Sometimes, through a willingness to serve, His gift will be the valuable relationships that you find in the process.
#3) Join a Home Bible Study–it’s difficult for me not to write this as #1. In a large church, your study can become your family–the group that helps you truly feel connected, where mentoring relationships develop naturally. Maybe even consider joining one that is not comprised of your age group, like our “Dynamic Duo” did.
#4) Ask. If you know of an “older woman” you respect, ask her if you can call her, observe her and invite her to gatherings where younger ages may be present.
#5) Offer. It can be intimidating to offer. It feels scary. As a 34 year old mom/wife of 5 kiddos in 8 years, I know God has taught me a lot, but I also know that I don’t “have it all together” and I’m increasingly more and more aware of my own messy, sinful heart. But I continually ask Him to help me get over that. Mentoring is not about me or about presenting a picture perfect example. We have to be faithful to communicate (with vulnerability) how God has worked in our lives, to open ourselves up to share success and failure…with a humble heart. Opening my life to a relationship He wants to develop, is something that can ultimately bring Him glory.
As for me–my heart sings with thankfulness as I think back over the many many women who have spoken wisdom and love and truth into my life over the years. My prayer is that everyone who reads this will at some point experience the same because through the open hearts and lives of these women, God changed my life.