Last week I was asked a question I’ve been asked before, probably over a thousand times before. This time the question came from a young man in ministry in Central America. He’d grown up in the foster care system, without many male role models in his life. He wanted to know how he could find someone to mentor and disciple him. Maybe you’re in a similar situation. If so, here’s what I’d say.
Don’t ask someone to mentor you. Don’t misread me to be suggesting that you shouldn’t seek out a mentor. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is, don’t use that language when you seek someone out.
First of all, it’s kind of awkward. I remember once having someone say to me, “Do you think you and I could be friends?” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be friends with this person; it’s just that that’s not really how friendships form. They form naturally, and then at some point one realizes, “This is my friend.” Mentoring is most often kind of like that.
More importantly, the person you’re asking is going to be, more than likely, intimidated by the request. Partly that’s because mentoring means different things to different people. He might be blessed with the sort of humility that leads him to feel unqualified to be chief disciplemaker in every area of your life. Or, he might not be sure that the two of you will “click” relationally in such a way that the mentoring won’t end up being a burden to you both. But there’s a way to get around that.
Ask for mentoring help in a specific area of need. When I’ve had people say, “Will you mentor me,” I almost always say no. I don’t know what they’re expecting: an every morning coffee? A year of counseling? What? But I almost always say yes if someone asks for help in a specific area, if I can be of help there.
For instance, from time to time a young preacher has asked if I would listen to one of his sermons and give it my critique, to help him learn. Sometimes I’ve done that. But I’ve been even more willing to help with one specific area. One young preacher said, “I have trouble figuring out how to conclude my sermons. Could you help me think through how you go through the process of landing on a conclusion?” That’s an easy yes.
Find someone who has one specific area of gifting or personal holiness or practical skill that you can learn from and ask for help in that specific area. You might ask a godly business leader for help learning how to craft a budget. Or you might ask a godly married couple to help you and your spouse think through how to work through a disagreement. Or you might ask a pastor you admire to show you how he plans out his week, making time for both study and administration, or how he would preach a particular Proverb in light of the gospel.
Set a time limit, at first. It might be that your ideal mentor doesn’t yet know that he’d be your ideal mentor. He’s not likely to commit, if he thinks your asking for a lifetime. It’s not that he doesn’t see the need for lifelong mentoring; it’s just that he doesn’t know if you and he are fit for that sort of commitment. Ask for an hour, or for five weeks of one-hour a week, or whatever it would take to accomplish that specific area of mentoring. Sometimes this will lead to another aspect of mentoring or discipleship.
What you’re wanting to see is if what develops out of this is an actual friendship, of the sort it takes to do long-term mentoring. Paul did not think of Timothy as a project or even a protégé, but as a son (Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:2). That cannot be engineered but must be organic and authentic. That takes time to discern.
Offer to help. As I look back on the people who mentored me, often the way that came about was through work, first on small, mundane projects and then on to bigger projects. That congressional candidate I believed in needed envelopes stuffed and doors knocked on. Later he needed to be driven to campaign events. Later still, he needed someone to respond to the media and execute press events. Somewhere in all of that, a friendship emerged, and I learned more from him than I could have imagined. My seminary president needed some help grading papers in a course he was teaching, then needed some pages proofed, then someone to drive him to some speaking events. I didn’t know I would end up serving him as dean.
The same thing is true, come to think of it, with the men I have mentored in ministry. Most of them started out offering to help with some project, or set of projects. Some of them then became interns. Three of them now sit on my executive cabinet, and others are pastors and leaders around the country. Another is now the editor of my new book, among his many leadership responsibilities at a publishing house. In many of these cases, it ended up as mentoring but it started out as just working together on something, usually small and mundane and sometimes boring.
If there’s someone you respect and you might like to be mentored, offer to help. By that, I don’t mean offer to preach or to lecture or to run his office. I mean mention that you would love to be of help if he needs some research tracked down, or someone to drive to a speaking event, or someone to help navigate computer issues, or whatever. Often, this can lead to mentoring, sometimes even of a lifelong Paul/Timothy or Naomi/Ruth kind.
Commit to mentoring others. I’ve found that men who come from fatherless homes usually follow one of at least two trajectories. Some of them lament the absence of a father in their lives, and then go on to repeat their absent father’s mistakes and sins, all the while groaning that they can’t be held responsible because they didn’t have a good father figure. Many more, though, take a different approach. They lament the absence of a father in their lives, and commit that the story will be different for their families. Many of the best husbands and fathers I know fit this type. They couldn’t learn to be a husband and a father from their dads, but they learned from this negative example, and resolved to do otherwise. The cycle ended with them.
A similar path is possible with mentoring. You can groan and whine that you haven’t been mentored, and you can place blame with the older generation. Or, you can resolve that when you are in a place of leadership, you will mentor and disciple those coming after you. If you can’t have the mentor you need, you can be the mentor someone else will need.