We hear a lot about the benefits of mentoring today, but mentoring itself is not a new phenomenon. Mentoring has always been part of God’s design for weaving together the lives of his people. Titus 2:3 paints a picture of older women teaching and training younger women in “what is good,” and Psalm 145:4 says, “Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power.”
Mentors can speak wisdom into your life, and they can be powerful catalysts for personal and professional growth. But not all mentors or mentoring pairs are created equal.
First, it’s helpful to distinguish between a few types of mentoring relationships. There are consultant-type mentors, those you would consider experts in a particular area you may want advice. Consultants can be an invaluable source of on-the-spot help, but you won’t necessarily have deep relationships with consultants.
Then there are formal mentoring relationships. These are more involved, and the mentoring pairs have been assigned through an employer, church, professional association, or other group. (4word offers one such program that I’m very proud of.) These pairs tend to work through an established curriculum over a set amount of time, and they can be the perfect starting point for someone who is looking for a new or first-time mentoring experience.
Formal pairings can often graduate into a third kind of mentoring: natural, informal, long-term relationships sustained by deep friendship and trust. Such relationships, when they come, are truly golden.
When I think about the mentors who have had the greatest long-term impact on my life, a few attributes stand out.
What Makes a Great Mentor?
Engagement. A great mentor should want to be a mentor. This person willingly gives her time and energy toward your ultimate growth. She shows an interest in learning about you and understanding how God made you. She warmly celebrates your accomplishments and offers encouragement through setbacks. If you have to hound someone to get her to agree to mentor you, or if she routinely reschedules appointments, or if she spends more time recounting her own experiences or conquests than listening and engaging with you, then you may need to adjust your expectations, or find another mentor.
Objectivity and perspective. People often look for mentors who are close to them, such as a boss, relative, or family friend. In many ways that can be a good thing, but if a mentor is too close to a particular situation, it can also be an impediment. One of the greatest gifts a mentor can bring to your life is objectivity and perspective, especially when it comes to making difficult decisions. Great mentors will separate themselves and their own feelings about a situation in order to help you assess what’s really best or right for you.
Thoughtfulness and introspection. There are plenty of faithful, successful people out there who simply aren’t naturally self-reflective. Such people can be tremendous as informal or occasional mentoring resources, but they don’t tend to make great long-term or comprehensive mentors. It’s one thing to have good instincts for making the right decisions, but it’s another to have been thoughtful about why you made particular decisions and to be able to communicate those principles to another person. The very best mentors are gifted with a natural ability to do so.
Resonance. Your mentor’s life doesn’t have to look just like yours (or much like yours at all, for that matter), but a great mentor will have experiences or perspectives that resonate with you on some level. One of my dearest mentors, Norma Coldwell, came into my life unexpectedly and almost by accident. (But of course, nothing occurs by accident with God in charge.)
When I met Norma, I had a well-established career, and I was secure in my marriage and my faith. I had a solid group of friends and good relationships with my children. If you had asked me, I’d have said that I was doing pretty well. I certainly wasn’t on the hunt for a new mentor. Norma was considerably older than I was, worked in a different industry, and didn’t start her career until she was in her forties (after her kids left for college).
But the more I interacted with Norma and learned about her experience combining her faith, family, and profession, the more I was drawn to her. Over time, Norma’s gentle friendship and mentoring resonated in me beyond all expectation and filled a deep longing I didn’t even know I had.
Honesty and insight. Proverbs 24:13–14 describes wisdom as honey for the soul, bringing hope and a future. I love that description, and when I think about the sweet gift of wisdom that mentors have brought into my own life, it makes me smile to think of their words as honey dripping on my soul. The honest words of a mentor won’t necessarily always feel sweet, though. You need a mentor who is willing and able to speak hard truths and—when necessary—call you out on things that may be uncomfortable.
In Work, Love, Pray I tell the story of one of my first jobs where I worked at IBM with a team led by a man named Lee. I was working hard and knew I was getting good results, so when it came time for my first performance review, I looked forward to the same kind of glowingly positive feedback I was used to getting in school.
Lee did have some nice things to say to me, but he also set me straight on some of the ways I’d been relating to the rest of the team. I expected everyone around me to be just as hard-charging and goal-driven as I was, and when they weren’t, Lee explained, I was overly harsh and demanding. Lee’s words stung, but I knew that he had my best interests at heart.
Lee could easily have shined me on, avoided potential awkwardness, and then waved cheerfully as I left for business school several months later, but instead he cared about my future enough to say the hard, honest thing, and for that I will always be grateful.
As you interact with current or potential mentors of various types, or as you consider becoming a mentor yourself, keep these attributes in mind. Many different types of mentors can bless your life in powerful ways, but sometimes a person whom you hope to build a deep mentoring relationship with is actually suited to better serve as a consultant-type mentor. Knowing what you’re looking for in a long-term, informal mentor will help you to be flexible about your expectations and receptive to signs that God might be positioning someone to step into (or out of) your life in a meaningful way.