I believe life exists for the purpose of creating community. Each of us is impacted in and through the relational connections that we develop. Whether challenging or refining, the relational context that individuals are exposed to shapes who they are, who they have been and who they are becoming.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how my journey through life has unfolded and what factors affected my character development as a leader.
I grew up in a small town in a rural setting. My community was filled with different generational representatives, multiple ethnicities, and of course both men and women. My parents were heavily invested in the community. Particularly with the faith community portion of our relational context. We went to church most Sundays (often twice in one day); we knew all of our neighbours and many of our other community members in our little town.
While being in such a small setting does come with its disadvantages, there were many things about my upbringing that I unintentionally took for granted. The older members of our community took a vested interest in who I was. They knew me by name, and were happy to give me a piece of their wisdom when I was in need (either because of my propensity for mischief, or because of my desire to learn… I’m not sure which desire was greater.) I didn’t know it at the time, but the investment these people were making in my life was really about mentorship.
What is Mentorship?
Mentorship in its most basic form is best understood as the intentional relational investment in another person. Sometimes mentorship can be a negative experience. We humans are creatures of habit; we mimic what we see and experience. Children that experience abuse at a young age, most agree, are more likely to become future abusers than those who are not victims of this sort of tragedy.
While we may not see this as a form of mentorship, it is. Although negative, there is an intentional investment in a relational capacity in the life of an abused child. Similarly, there is an intentional investment in the lives of those who do not experience great trauma as a young child. The mentorship process becomes more about a sequence of relational exchanges than a linear curricular guide to adulthood and beyond.
There is actual biological evidence to back this up. Human brains contain something scientists refer to as “mirror neurons.” These neurons help us as humans to display empathy and sympathy. Have you ever wondered why a great storyteller captivates us? At the most basic level, the mirror neurons in our brains help us to be able to identify with and even imagine ourselves in the unfolding story that is being presented. The same can be said for experiences of mentorship. We are shaped by those we interact with because of our desire to either become or refrain from becoming more like them. Mentorship is discipleship. As followers of Jesus we are invited and expected to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20), and because of this great invitation those of us who have given our lives to work alongside emerging generations must become experts in the mentoring process.
So what is a mentor?
Being a mentor and finding a mentor are two significant milestones in the process of discipleship. While there are many different components of what this all entails, I want to suggest three basic principles every mentor and disciple-maker should pursue:
- A mentor is someone who knows your name. You can’t intentional invest in people if you aren’t willing to either know or be known by them. While it’s true that we can learn from people we may never meet, it’s those that we do share some sort of relational connection with that will have the greatest impact on our lives. In the absence of relational, mentorship and discipleship in turn are virtually impossible. As we work alongside this emerging generation are we making the effort to know and to be known, or are we more concerned about a statistical analysis of our ministry success than character development and transformation?
- A mentor is someone who inspires you to be. Our North American cultural possesses an over-stimulated fascination with doing. Think about this for a minute, what are some of the initial questions you ask someone you are meeting for the first time? What is your name? Where do you live? What do you do for a living? As we introduce ourselves to people, we are more likely to talk about our vocation than we are about some sort of character quality that we either possess or are trying to develop (Hi, my name is Lisa and I’m a dentist). Deaf culture, conversely, makes the effort to introduce themselves to one another using a being descriptor instead of a doing descriptor (Hi, this is my funny friend Lisa who is a dentist). Mentors focus more on character development and transformation because they care more about who a person is than what a person does. As ministers to youth and families are we helping to create a culture that emphasizes being rather than doing, or are we simply content modify a persons behaviour instead of partnering with Christ in the transformation of their identity or entire being that will ultimately shape their behavior?
- A mentor is someone who stands in the gap for you and with you. People who value character development are people who are willing to walk alongside of others in all seasons of life. This is the most difficult time in all of history to be a teenager. They face more obstacles than us older folks ever have. The communities that we create in our gathered or scattered church settings must be places of safety, hope and restoration. Do those we serve know that we are willing to walk life with them no matter how dark or how bright the next season might be? Mentors are allies in life’s journey, not adversaries. Difficult truths need to be shared verbally and non-verbally. People who are willing to share in the suffering of others earn the right to be heard and the credibility to be a mentor. How does your community reflect this value of being present in the moment?
Making it Fresh
When we work with this emerging generation our ministry initiatives should be steeped in the concepts and principles of biblically based mentorship. If we believe that the church needs a fresh infusion of enthusiasm, life, energy and passion, perhaps we should grow to consider what it would be to re-culture our approach to mentoring and discipleship instead of re-engineering our programmatic elements of youth ministry. What would it look like if our commitment to families (how ever diverse the definition of this may be in your context for ministry) became more about mentorship and less about keeping them active in our programming efforts?
I know that I’m longing for something fresh, what about you?