Mentors: An Endangered Species

All this talk about mentors leads to a frustrating question: ‘So where do ya get one?’ Mentors, like most things worth having, are tough to find and costly to obtain. If you embark on a search for this kind of life-changing relationship, you better be in it for the long haul. Here’s some hints for your search:

1. Look for someone who has been used by the Lord in ministry.
If you want to learn Jeet Kune Do, don’t get a Spanish tutor. If you’re heading into ministry, find someone who’s been there. The more similar their ministry is to your own calling, the better. It is astounding how many of us head into church-planting having never seen a church planted before! When you call your mentor with a crisis, it’s nice to have some confidence that he’s been in the same boat (or a bigger one). And never forget that there’s a near infinite number of people happy to share their wisdom with you whose ‘wisdom’ you really ought avoid.

2. Look for someone who is willing to spend a lot of time with you.
This is the balance on the previous hint. There’s plenty of guys we could all learn a lot from, but they’re probably not going to give you the time of day. I was watching a conference online the other day. There was a Q&A session, and some young guy got up and asked half a dozen preachers how he could find a mentor (as they had lectured in the conference about how necessary it was to get one). My summary of their answer: ‘Good luck with that.’ Blew my mind! I praise God that he brought me under the leadership of someone who would have answered, ‘My office is right over there anytime you want to talk to me.’ For the record, when I say ‘a lot of time,’ I mean hundreds and hundreds of hours. That this person looks at mentoring you as a real part of his ministry, not a side dish. The problem is vulnerability: remember how tough it is for someone to open up about their family, marriage, ministry, and personal walk with Christ. So when you find someone willing, latch on!

3. Look for someone who shoots straight.
About everything. Not that most people are liars, but most just leave a lot unsaid. There is a kind super-spiritualization that admonishes young men to prayer and trusting God when what they really lack is a practical instruction from a more mature saint. Brutal honesty is what we need. Honesty to tell us we’re wrong. Honesty to tell us when our ministry is unhealthy. Honesty to tell us our plans are ridiculous. Honesty to tell us our marriage is weak. When you’re with them, there should a kind of clarity.

4. Look for someone who’s twice your age.
Don’t go too old – coherency of speech is also a vital attribute in a mentor. But young men have a democratic tendency to conform to the average of their peers’ standards. But an older man brings experience, discernment, and perspective. ‘Poll the audience’ is not as powerful a lifeline as ‘phone a friend’ (if you’ve chosen your friend wisely). I don’t know anyone as old as my mentor who spends more time with people less than half his age (he may not be thrilled about that statistic).

5. Look for someone who seems to be a living Bible concordance.
You know the type. Throws away better sermons than you preach. Forgets more verses than you memorize. Outlines epistles at traffic lights. Prays like a mantis. As you pursue intimacy with God yourself, it’s of great benefit to have someone out ahead of you marking the way. Furthermore, it’s evidence that this person’s advice has been proven not only by experience, but by the Word. That’s what we in the biz call ‘important.’

6. Look for someone who has trained some other young guys.
Embarrassing story. Before I met the missionary that trained me, a friend a couple years older than me was mentored by him. When this friend came back to the U.S., he encouraged me to go get some training myself. Amazingly, though I was impressed by how much this friend of mine seemed to have learned, I wanted to find someone else to train me! What’s the word for that? Oh yeah – pride! God graciously closed a couple of other doors on me and drove me to where I needed to be. Don’t waste time looking for what others have already found. If you need a mentor, ask someone who’s been mentored. I’ve seen guys express their envy of the relationship trainees have had with our missionary mentor, yet never consider getting on board themselves! Maybe it’s not pride for them like it was for me; it may be fear of rejection. But the guy that has trained guys in the past is the most likely one to do it again! Ask… or you probably won’t receive.

7. Look for someone you can work with and for.
On-the-job training is powerful. If at all possible, find a way to get in ministry right under your mentor’s nose. Let him correct you, advise you, encourage you. If there’s no place for you to co-labor with him, your training will be stunted. And while in an obvious sense training is preparatory, in another sense it becomes more valuable the longer you persist in it. I’d been in a lot of classes with my missionary mentor, but I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much from him as I have since coming to China! Not surprisingly, we have more to talk about than ever before! More ministry = more training (if you persist in going to get it).

Warning about these suggestions: the ‘beggars-can’t-be-choosers’ rule is in effect. A mentor in hand is worth ten heroes in the bush. Too many guys are waiting for a phone call from the guy whose podcast they listen to. If you’re convinced there’s no mentor anywhere near you, then move!

One last word of caution. The biggest cause behind the shortage of gracious mentor relationships is not a lack of mentors but a lack of learners. Also like most things worth having, when you find a suitable mentor, you may not like all you find. You may get more than you bargained for. They may want to make some renovations in your life you don’t like. But that’s grace, isn’t it? It lovingly comes to us where we are, but then it gets to work. No grace-based relationship is content to leave us be – it wants to conform us. And that’s painful.

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