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Overcoming Our Fear of Mentoring

April 30, 2022 • De Pree Journal, Third Third Journal

Snakes, heights, flying, spiders, and public speaking. 

Did your heart start racing as you read that list? Did your palms get a little sweaty? If so, you’re not alone. These are some of adults’ most common fears. 

I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of a few of the items on the list. Snakes give me the cold shivers. And flying? Well, let’s just bless all the poor souls who have been my seatmates during extreme turbulence. 

Recently I’ve learned about another phenomenon that can strike fear in some of the most competent and capable adults I know: mentoring.

Take a moment and read through the following scenarios.

  • A new employee at your company comes up to you in the break room and says, “Hi! I hope to have a position like yours one day. Would you mind mentoring me?”
  • The women’s minister at your church calls you and asks if you would serve as a mentor in the women’s mentoring program.
  • A neighbor knows that you’ve recently retired and invites you to join him in serving as a lunchtime mentor at the local middle school.

How do you respond to the thought of mentoring someone else? With enthusiasm? Ambivalence? Curiosity? Maybe fear?

At the De Pree Center, we have discovered that many adults are reluctant to mentor. As part of a recent research study on mentoring, we asked some exemplary mentors why they thought others might be hesitant to try it. They gave us four primary reasons. People are reluctant to mentor because (1) they believe the term “mentor” carries a stigma and weight that many don’t want to take on; (2) they don’t feel competent enough to mentor someone; (3) they’re protective of their time; and/or (4) they don’t want to be vulnerable. 

At the heart of most of these reasons is fear. In her article on the top fears that hold people back in life, psychotherapist Amy Morin lists change, failure, rejection, uncertainty, getting hurt, being judged, inadequacy, and loss of freedom among her top 10. Some people are reluctant to mentor because they’re uncertain about what they’re committing to do. Others are reluctant to mentor because they feel inadequate. Others fear losing their valuable free time. And some risk getting hurt or being judged if they share their truest selves. 

Some people are reluctant to mentor because they’re uncertain about what they’re committing to do.

It’s time to destigmatize mentoring so that more of us are willing to try it.

Defining Mentoring

Let’s begin with a definition of mentoring. Based on our research, we came up with this one:

Mentoring is a relationship in which one person intentionally comes alongside another for the purpose of helping them flourish. 

That’s not too scary sounding, right? Let’s break that definition down a bit.

Coming Alongside

First, mentoring is a relationship in which one person intentionally comes alongside another. Mentoring requires a decision and a commitment. To mentor someone, you have to adjust your course and your pace a bit so that you can draw near enough to them to discern where they’re going and to listen to the questions they have along the way. 

In Scripture, we have a beautiful picture of what it looks like to intentionally come alongside someone. After Jesus rose from the dead, two of his disciples traveled from Jerusalem along the road to Emmaus. Luke tells us, “They were talking with each other about everything that had happened” (Luke 24:14). The events of the past week had been enough excitement for a lifetime—Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem as a humble king, overturning the tables in the temple, challenges from the chief priests, teachers of the law, and Sadducees, betrayal by Judas, a special Passover meal followed by Jesus’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial. And then he rose from the dead. 

“As they talked and discussed these things with each other,” Luke records, “Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:15). We know it was Jesus. Luke knew it was Jesus. But, at that moment, the two disciples didn’t know it was Jesus. From their point of view, some random traveler had come alongside them to help make sense of all they had seen and heard.

You could come alongside someone who’s trying to make sense of what’s going on in their life.

You could be that random traveler. You could come alongside someone who’s trying to make sense of what’s going on in their life. You don’t have to be the crucified and risen Lord to do that. You don’t have to be an expert in your field or a certain age. You just have to be willing to adjust your route and your pace a bit in order to draw near to someone who could use a little help, a little encouragement along the way. 

Helping Someone Flourish

Second, the goal of mentoring is to help the person you’ve come alongside flourish. But what does flourishing look like? In a series of devotionals, Mark Roberts has given us a biblical perspective on flourishing. He writes, “Real life, full life, abundant life, a life of peace, blessedness, and wholeness . . . that’s what we’re talking about when it comes to flourishing.”

Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, helps us think about flourishing along several dimensions:

  1. Happiness and Life Satisfaction
  2. Mental and Physical Health
  3. Meaning and Purpose
  4. Character and Virtue
  5. Close Social Relationships
  6. Financial and Material Stability (for “secure flourishing”).

A Christian can view each of the dimensions of this list from a biblical perspective. As we obey Christ and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can begin to experience flourishing in many of these areas. 

Such a grand vision of flourishing may be overwhelming. How can one person help another truly flourish? We need to remember that we can’t help someone flourish in every single dimension of life. For example, consider the case of Max, who aspires to be a filmmaker.  I’ll never be able to help him flourish as a filmmaker because I haven’t the first clue about videography. But, I can help him think through his sense of calling, list the pros and cons of different job opportunities, and work on his resume so that he can continue to grow and flourish in his work. Nancy couldn’t really help me navigate doctoral studies since she never went to college, but she gave me loads of encouragement and wisdom about being a new mom and about following Jesus, which helped me flourish a little more in that season. 

John, with considerable experience in the field, can help Max flourish as a filmmaker. Max’s mom and dad can help him flourish as a young father. God brought several mentors alongside me to help me navigate my doctoral studies. And down the road, more people will come alongside Max and me to help us flourish in other ways. One of those people could be you. 

What about Discipleship?

Take another look at our definition of mentoring. 

Mentoring is a relationship in which one person intentionally comes alongside another for the purpose of helping them flourish. 

You’ll notice that we didn’t say that mentoring is a form of discipleship. That’s because it doesn’t have to be.

Mentoring is a relationship in which one person intentionally comes alongside another for the purpose of helping them flourish. 

You’ll notice that we didn’t say that mentoring is a form of discipleship. That’s because it doesn’t have to be.

Several Christian authors like Natasha Sistrunk Robinson have written wisely on mentoring as a means of making disciples. But mentoring relationships are not limited to Christians. Nor do all mentoring relationships have to focus on Jesus and the gospel. A mentee might need to learn how to generate leads and close deals, how to keep house and plan meals with a toddler and infant underfoot, how to get out of debt, how to start a home vegetable garden, or how to navigate the office culture. 

Along the way, though, a mentee might pick up a thing or two about the gospel-shaped life from carefully observing the life of their mentor. While the Bible tells us that, as Christians, we should be willing and ready to talk about our faith if asked (1 Pet 3:15), the Bible also reminds us that we may play only a small part in someone’s coming to faith or their ongoing discipleship. God calls some of us to plant seeds and some of us to water them. Ultimately, God is the one “who makes things grow” (1 Cor 3:5-9). 

From Fear to Faith

I may never completely conquer my fear of flying, but I don’t think I’ll experience all that God has for me in this life if I spend my life avoiding airplanes. In the same way, we might miss out on something God has in store for us–maybe even our flourishing–if we avoid being a mentor because it seems a little scary. 

Naomi, one of the exemplary mentors we interviewed shared, “People can get trained as a mentor, but, unless they’re willing to take that step of faith to do it, they’re not gonna ever do it, no matter how much training they have. It’s more of a willingness, and I don’t know how you train somebody to have willingness.” 

Are we willing to take that step of faith?

One thought on “Overcoming Our Fear of Mentoring

  1. Michael V Wedman says:

    Thank you, Meryl for this beautifully written article. I have had the privilege of serving as a mentor for over 15 years. Initially, I was supporting a few people in the company in which I worked.

    After retiring in 2018, I realized that I missed the mentoring relationship. I decided I’d try my hand at making mentoring and coaching services a means to augment my retirement income. But it wasn’t the same. The thrill was gone. What had changed? I was no longer helping others for the sheer joy of it. It was then that I made the decision to continue coaching and mentoring but to go forward on a pro bono basis. The joy returned and I’ve not looked back since.

    I always tell my mentees that I obtain at least as from our relationships as they do. It’s an honor to be called upon to assist as I can.

    I agree that we can have a real fear of mentoring. And I would encourage each of us to make a prayerful effort to work through those fears. The good we can do will make our fears diminish and fill us with great gladness.

    Peace!

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