Ask most leaders what was most important in getting to their level of success, and they will respond: “a person.” Someone provided crucial influence—and possibly to the time to mentor them. Mentoring is a relationship with a goal of growth and capacity-building.
Mentoring is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger, but have a certain area of expertise. (Quoted in Wikipedia, “Mentorship”, accessed 8Feb15, from Caela Farren’s Eight Types of Mentor: Which Ones Do You Need?)
The same article goes on to define
Mentoring [as] a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development. Mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience [the mentor] and a person who is perceived to have less [protégé, apprentice or mentee].
Mentoring has proven useful in the area of youth work and non-profit organizations lacking the resources of business and academia. Mentors are often volunteers who draw from years of experience to short-cut learning through tedious and often defeating “trial and error.” It’s another way to bypass the costly routine of re-inventing the wheel.
Highly advantaged young people often have attentive parents, even grandparents and other relatives, highly qualified teachers as well as educational situations that can promote their growth in various ways. Disadvantaged children and youth often lack natural mentors with useful contacts (what we call “social capital”) to foster essential growth and encourage steps upward to social success. Programs like Big Brother and Big Sister involve a kind of mentoring.
Those who volunteer, or are employed, to help disadvantaged children and youth are often untrained. They have “heart” and usually a natural ability to relate, but they often find themselves in a sink-or-swim situation. They learn as they go along and usually achieve a useful level of success. But there are capacities they lack, and can easily “burn out” after a few years. They lack the professional expertise of evaluating their work and rewarding their own efforts.
Mentoring, then, is about intentional relationships and shared goals of desired growth. It is a discipline needing sustained commitment from both the mentor and the mentee. It is a learning arrangement that occurs in all areas of life: from parenting to sports, business and government to non-profits.
Mark Cannister, in his article on Mentoring, refers to psychologist Sharon Parks’ work (1986), which reminds us that while mentoring is helpful, it is not usually adequate for a young person’s growth or faith development. Adolescents are group oriented and need group support to explore life’s options, challenges, risks, and demands. Their growth is a community process.
Like all life-affirming relationships, the four basic questions can be a helpful pattern of conversation between a mentor and the one who seeks to grow and improve. These questions are 1) “What’s happening?”, 2) “Where are you coming from?”, 3) “Where are you going/headed?”, and 4) “How can we help you help yourself to get there?”. (See “Four Basic Question of Youth Ministry”.) Such questions show the mentor’s deep interest in the other, evoke the important story of another’s life, deepen relationship and trust, and demonstrate core values and desired goals that form the “curriculum” of the mentoring relationship.
It may be that mentoring is one of our most neglected social resources.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Have you taken the time to reflect on who most influenced your life and helped in you maturation as a leader, to the place where you are now?
What if, after having been helped to achieve your life goals, you fail to help or influence someone coming along who needs just what you have to offer?
What skills and tools does a successful mentor most need?
Where can you find out more about mentoring and its necessary skills? (Do you realize how much of this can be found to your right… under Articles, Books, Research, and particularly Resources?)
What has most helped or challenged you here?
Mentoring is a specific and intentional learning relationship.
We cannot stand to neglect the importance of mentoring relationships as we work with young people today.
Christians may look at principles used by Jesus in mentoring his disciples. Other faiths may look to their heroes and models. And all of us can look at our favorite heroes or influencers for lessons in effective mentoring.