This is Part 1 of a 3 part series on mentorship in ministry.
I am learning what I know about mentoring between couch pillows on a 92-degree day without air conditioning. I sit in Miss Claire’s double-wide trailer on the outskirts of town during the first days of August. It’s hot, and it doesn’t look like the kind of mentoring I was taught about in my youth.
I struggle to write about mentors. “Being mentored” has always felt something like playground basketball games, where you line up and wait for the captains to select whoever they think has the most promise. I’ve been repeatedly advised to find a mentor, but that process mostly left me feeling insecure, wondering about my own value and worth. While waiting to be picked by the pastor with all the accolades, my phone rings. Miss Claire is ready for a visit.
I pull in between the chain-link fence separating her lot from the others, park my car, and collect my thoughts before toting my Bible up rickety stairs, through the sunroom, and into her living room. Eighty-seven years of life sits before me, and not one year is disguised. The years are worn on her head in mostly gray strands of matted hair. Miss Claire apologizes for not wearing a wig, but there is something soothing about her raw appearance. I am in the presence of unfiltered wisdom.
I’ve never met her husband, but she tells me all about him. Over the course of our conversation, we discuss how she met Johnny when he came home after the Second World War. She shows me his awards from the military, and one afternoon, she lets me read the notes in his Bible. We talk about her being born on the first of February in 1930, and about the effects of being young and black during the era of civil rights.
Talking with Miss Claire encourages me, like hope that goes before and provides a foundation on which to stand rooted and strong. Her wisdom empowers me, and after a while, she has me wondering who is the one being visited and who is the one doing the pastoring. Are these visits for her, or are they for me?
Mentorship is not about being chosen or doing the choosing; mentorship is about opening our lives to one another in real fellowship, seeking to share in the life of the other.
I go to Miss Claire’s house because relationships are powerful, and experience is a two-way street. Often, over Bible passages and travel-size Eucharist, we share the roads we each have traveled. I’ve come to know a thing or two about the world because Miss Claire has invited me to walk a mile or two in her shoes, and I’ve invited Miss Claire to walk in mine. Her shoes are worn with wisdom; mine spring with the energy of youth. Thanks to Miss Claire, I am learning that sharing in the journeys of each other’s lives is a more faithful and accurate definition of mentoring than being picked to be the protégé.
Mentoring has a long history, but mentoring has always been about traveling. The modern connotation of a mentor derives from a character named Mentor in the ancient epic poem The Odyssey, written by Homer. The Odyssey is an epic travel narrative set in a mythological world about Telemachus’s search for his warrior father. In the story, Mentor is embodied by the goddess Athena and serves as a wise and instrumental guide in the son’s journey. The root of our understanding of a mentor is ultimately traced to this character who offers advice, wisdom, and companionship to Telemachus. To mentor is to guide wisely and offer companionship.
Thinking about mentorship as companionship challenges my idea that to be mentored is to be chosen, and it opens the door for me to think about wise guides like Miss Claire and the many others who have offered their friendship and time as companions on my journey in life. Mentorship is not about being chosen or doing the choosing; mentorship is about opening our lives to one another in real fellowship, seeking to share in the life of the other.
I think about Moses. In a raw conversation between Moses and God, Moses demands that God prove himself and his promise. The Lord answers in the voice of a mentor, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest; everything will be fine for you” (paraphrase of Exodus 33:14). Of course, these are not words only for Moses. Jesus also echoes these words in the Great Commission to the disciples, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
We never go alone. The Spirit of God is at work, guiding us to the end and the fulfillment of God’s purposes for us. The Lord is a mentor to us, and this is the gift of a mentor: companionship that will personally go with us.
I close in prayer with Miss Claire. As I lift her requests to the Lord, she offers blessings to me. These words go with me and carry me, her life wrapped into mine. I have long forgotten whether I chose Miss Claire or she chose me, but I am living in the shoes of my wise friend. She mentors me.