Giving Their Lives in the Same Direction

“Giving their lives in the same direction.” These were the words my friend and fellow ECS alum Nathan Cachiaris said to me as we talked about the subject of mentoring several weeks ago.

I’d told Nathan I was writing an article for the Ministry Resource Center on mentoring.

Toward the end of our conversation, Nathan talked about how grateful he was to have graduated from Emmanuel and to be part of the MRC’s mentoring program.

The MRC family, he’d go on to say, embedded him in a post-seminary community of ministry colleagues who were all “giving their lives in the same direction.”

What a wonderful way to describe the activity of the women and men who’ve walked Emmanuel’s halls and since gone into the world to serve and proclaim the Risen Christ.

And what a wonderful way to help us think about mentoring.

In what follows, I’ll expand on this sentiment by posing and answering a few common questions about mentoring. The aim of this article is to give people who are considering mentoring with the MRC an overview of what it entails.

I’m thankful for the mentors and mentees who shared their time with me as I researched this article: Nathan Cachiaris, Jill Harman, Beth Jarvis, Justin Miller, and Derek Sweatman. The advice and wisdom they shared was plentiful, and what’s included in this article is only a taste of what they had to say.

What is mentoring and just who are these people?

While many useful definitions of mentoring abound, I’d like to propose that within all of them is an important through line: Which is the idea that a mentor and mentee enter an intentional relationship of growth as they seek to give their lives in the same direction.

A mentoring relationship assumes a relationship between at least two individuals. One of them has something to offer the other—generally the wisdom one has learned and earned through critically reflecting on their own experiences. A goal of a mentoring relationship, unlike say a casual acquaintanceship, is growth. There is a desire to get the mentee from point A to point B, and beyond. In practical terms, recent Emmanuel grads are mentored through the oftentimes overwhelming first years of ministry. The mentor’s responsibility is not to solve all the mentee’s problems. Or as mentor Derek Sweatman memorably said, “to snowplow their problems out of their way.” The mentor is a guide who walks with the mentee, faithfully helping them explore and live into their calling.

When considering entering a mentoring relationship, either as a mentor or mentee, it’s natural to wonder, “who are these people in the program?” Or, “how do I know if it’ll work out with the person I get paired with?” It’s important to remember that every person in the mentoring program has been thoughtfully and prayerfully paired with another individual. And while it’s true that sometimes mentors and mentees don’t click (and that’s okay), Beth and the team in the MRC work to ensure every duo is reasonably matched and has the resources they need to cultivate their relationship.

When thinking about who might be a good fit as your mentor or mentee, remember the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Mentee Justin Miller at first imagined he would be paired with a mentor that was basically himself in ten years. It turns out he was paired with someone from a different denomination who’s sense of fashion and lack of tattoos made it seem like they were complete opposites. But, as it turns out, the pairing worked and Justin’s relationship with his mentor has flourished! So, if you’re worried about getting paired with someone who’s different than you, trust the process.

How frequently should we meet and what should we talk about?

When it comes to the frequency of meetings, there is no one right answer. Some mentors and mentees talk weekly; others talk monthly. It seems that a best practice is for mentoring conversations to happen about every month, and no more than six weeks apart. While the exact frequency of the meetings will vary, the mentoring relationships that thrive are the ones built on consistency, which Justin Miller observes, “keeps the relationship alive.” What seems to be incredibly important for mentors and mentees is the fact that they have a meeting on the calendar that they can look forward to. Some mentees call their mentors; some mentors call their mentees. Again, the mechanics will vary. But what’s important is that before a mentoring meeting ends, the two decide on when the next meeting will be.

Now, if you’re new to mentoring, you might ask, “What should we do in our meetings?” If you’re a mentor, you might be intimidated thinking about how to fill an hour with a mentee. If you’re a mentee, you might be wondering if you have enough to talk about, or if what you want to talk about is really worth bringing up (I assure you, it is).

MRC director Beth Jarvis suggests creating a structure for your meetings by asking these three questions:

1) What is working well in your ministry?

2) What is not working well?

3) What are you learning from God right now?

I’ve found that these questions are just as useful in a mentoring relationship’s first months as they are after it has matured. We never outgrow the questions. An important tip for mentors especially—but one that applies to mentees as well—is that when we ask these questions, seek to gain a deep understanding of the person’s responses. A relationship will flourish when each person listens actively and deeply to the other. In a culture where we often eagerly wait for our turn to talk, seeking first to understand means that we shelve our priorities and agendas, and we give the other person the primary agency in the conversation. As we seek to understand, follow-up questions will emerge and the conversation will go down surprising and often fruitful side paths. From time to time, a mentor may provide direct advice about what a mentee may do in a situation. But more often than not, a mentor’s job is to create space where a mentee can discover what the Spirit of God is stirring up in their soul.

What type of space are we trying to create in mentoring meetings?

It’s helpful to think of the mentoring space as one where the mentor and mentee cultivate an atmosphere of trust. Trust between two people opens possibilities for sharing and growth on both sides of the relationship. Because congregational and parachurch ministry is such an emotionally taxing calling, ministers need a place to sort through their experiences and feelings with a trusted colleague. Mentor Jill Harman remarks that she wants her mentee to know that she still has regular struggles in ministry. So, she shares about her life, what’s going on in her church, and what’s keeping her up at night. But, she notes, as a mentor it’s her job to put in place a “veil of safety” for the mentee. What this means is that it is her responsibility to not overshare her own struggles with her mentee. The “veil of safety” means that a mentee gets a glimpse of the mentor’s struggles, but doesn’t see them in their entirety. While the mentor/mentee relationship may become a friendship (more on that below), it should be remembered that built into the mentoring relationship is a power dynamic and it’s the mentor’s responsibility to ensure proper boundaries are in place. When mentors allow their mentees to see they are real people with real struggles in ministry, it helps shatter the illusion that there’s such a thing as a perfect pastor—and young ministers can be freed from thinking they need to aspire to that ideal. This act of grace helps create a space of trust in a mentoring relationship, one where long-term growth can happen.

Should mentors and mentees be friends?

It may not always be the case that mentors and mentees will become friends, but they often do. Structuring mentoring meetings around the three questions Beth gives may feel like an overly formal and counterintuitive way to cultivate a friendship. But Beth is quick to point out that often “the formality gives way to friendship.” By consistently showing up for each other, the roles of mentor and mentee become increasingly blurry and friendships tend to emerge over time. One of the most valuable parts of mentee Nathan Cacharias’s relationship with his mentor is the mutuality and friendship they’ve cultivated. Nathan observed that his relationship with his mentor has been about more than receiving tips on how to become a more effective minister. On deeper level, their mentoring relationship—their friendship—has helped Nathan fully embrace his call to ministry and intensify his love for God. The grace of Nathan’s friendship with his mentor helped him lean more fully on the deep truth that God’s grace is what sustains the church and each of us in ministry—not any new ministerial technique.

Give it a try!

Mentoring and being mentored is a grace God gives the church. It’s an opportunity to experience the goodness of God in an intentional relationship committed to growth. If you’re on the fence about entering a mentoring relationship with the MRC, do yourself a favor and give it a try! Beth and the team in the MRC are here to support and equip you for the journey.

Herbie Miller is an alum of Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan. View Emmanuel’s Academic Programs page here.