Being a mentor is such a privilege and joy. I have been a mentor to many, in highly academic medicine and in ministry. In each relationship I have learned many lessons, and experienced the great satisfaction of seeing young people grow closer to what he/she was “intended to be!”
The question often is immediately asked, how do you spot the person that you think would be a good mentee? How do you spot that zeal, that spark in the eye that means that this person is destined for a greater purpose in life? What characteristic has this person demonstrated that helps you to decide? How do you figure out the good from the bad in each person, since no one is perfect? In essence, how do you really (or can you?) estimate or guess the potential of a person?
I dare say that there is no fixed formula, there are no real guidelines, and truly, the mentor’s life experience likely helps. Over time, I think instinctively, you can begin to see how some people are just born with special potential, or that in spite of limitations you sense that there is a deeper drive that you recognize, but other’s many not necessarily notice or even want to notice. It’s just not something you can add up or compute mathematically. And the interaction between mentor and mentee is very important; the chemistry really has to be just right also. Some interactions just do not click, and will not really be a good fit. Such is life, and not everyone is destined to work together. Especially if this process is meant to be over a long duration.
I do like the conceptual mystery of “seeing into their eyes”, just the special spark, the gleam, the dedication in their eyes, the determination to succeed in spite of all odds. Not everyone has that same drive, and if we can spot it and nurture it, that drive can become something truly remarkable. There’s something about the eyes being the venue of the soul, some basic truth about that! Simple things, like eagerness to learn, basic teach ability, humility, sincerity and trustworthiness, are critical. These might be assessed through previous practical experiences when working together, which are usually much more solid than any flashy academic or secular achievement! And pride or arrogance, definitely “goes before a fall”, so any prideful issues are definitely a warning sign that alerts you to potential disaster ahead, in spite of glowing records!
At a couple of points in my life, I would also try some kind of light-hearted “test” on a potential mentee, before agreeing to the relationship. For example, in chatting initially with a potential mentee, I might talk faster and faster, on an increasing variety of topics, or even take a fast walk together into heavy city traffic, chatting as we go, even up and down stairs, to see how well we could communicate without missing a beat. This “stress test” gave me some feel of how flexible and adaptable the mentee would be in stressful circumstances, and it worked well, but it became a bit exhausting for everyone!
Once we agreed on a mentorship relationship, a key practical part is scheduling of steady regular sessions together. I set this up with a goal for a potential long -term relationship. It could be monthly or even two monthly sessions, but some specific regularity helps make it work. And, because I give high priority to this interaction, I try to adjust my schedule to the mentee schedule since often theirs is more complex and difficult to manage, and I don’t want to discourage them.
In my personal life I have taken the initiative to seek out my own personal mentors myself, and I think that‘s ideal. But not every mentee knows that they can do that, and some mentees are intimidated by that. So, it’s good to encourage a potential mentee sometimes by making the initial suggestion to meet, but don’t make it too easy. Having set it up, I insist that they make the call, or drive to a meeting place, to demonstrate their desire to be mentored. It’s a two-way street that includes, importantly, love with understanding from the mentor, but there’s no need to spoil them. Also there may be different phases of life too, so that when one phase is over, it could be that your mentorship could transition to a more detached relationship. Something like when your mentee gets married, or graduates from a specific program, that could be a decision point, because many other factors will start coming into play.
I used to do my mentorship over lunches or coffee, to be decided mutually, but especially by the mentee. But now I am doing it mostly over video or phone chats, because the mentees and I are now all in different locations in the world. Long -distance chats, I think, are nearly as effective, and in fact, for me it reduces my time commitments to that one hour of chatting, say monthly, whereas in the past it might take nearly a three-hour time slot to just chat with one mentee, including driving time, eating time, etc., so it’s really quite efficient nowadays. Of course, it’s always much better and more fun to have chats over lunch or coffee, face to face, and we should treasure that interaction whenever possible! Face -to -face body language still outclasses video chat language. Which beats disembodied voices in the air!
It‘s good to remind myself also that I am not the mentees’ parent, and I have to learn to back off at times, so that they have enough space. For me, it’s convenient that often they think that I’m just their “uncle” (that’s my name anyway) and therefore I probably don’t have an excessive authority figure problem. Occasionally one of my mentees who is from a more passionate culture might come to respect me so much as to even hug me tightly and proclaim, “You’re my father,” and that’s awe-inspiring to know that someone can respect you that much. However, that’s over the top, and maybe “uncle” is perfect for me, and probably the best compromise.
Indeed, our chats range all the way from life itself, marriage, and family news, to serving God and others. Indeed, it often could be like a family chat. I tend to start by telling about what’s going on in my own life, my own anxieties and prayers, my work, my meetings, my stories. Meaning that I open myself up first, which helps to break the ice, and even indicate areas where I need special prayer and concern. I am only human and not a super- person, and this is one way we can learn to encourage one another. There often are good testimonies and stories mixed in there, which could be meaningful and gently encouraging. And mutual sharing might bring back great memories, which might even trigger my writing them up later into a “real” Uncle Reggie story.
One thing I am usually careful about is that I don‘t make our chat into a probing session that makes it sound like an investigation, which could lead to discomfort and even possibly trust issues. I just let it go wherever my mentees would like it to go. If they are comfortable talking about sensitive issues then that’s wonderful, but if they don’t want to talk, I don’t get into that. Above all, I don’t want to lose the relationship, which is probably much more important than anything else. In some ways it’s still like working with youth. Learn to back off and not push an agenda, and let the discussion go naturally.
I really view mentoring best as “just coffee chats”, indeed just like the title of my books. So there’s no high expectation necessarily that comes with it, but if the time comes when there’s a need, I am right there. Especially when personal issues, illnesses, and pains come up, I am there, hopefully like a member of the family, as someone who has been on this road before, and they can call on me as necessary.
Indeed, in times of crisis, I‘m there to listen, to cry when crying is needed, to pray together, to give some advice for the marriage or ministry or work when asked. The “safe uncle” at a safe distance, not too far away wherever I am in the world. For as long as they like it; that’s not a problem, it could indeed be for life. For instance, one of my own mentors has been a mentor practically for life, and it continues to be a great pleasure to see him or chat with him, even as now it’s not as often as in the past.
For me, when I see my mentees grow up and living a very meaningful life, a life of contribution, that satisfaction and inner joy are just unmeasurable. We are very privileged to be able to be an earthly mentor, working together with the heavenly one. We can indeed be the theory and principles that have put on flesh and blood. Remember Jesus, the unique flesh- and- blood Incarnation, the greatest model Mentor, who mentored all kinds of people, even those whom others would not have instinctively felt were the “best material”. But these somewhat unlikely people were changed themselves, and changed the world, from a handful, to a third of the world’s population.