How Not to Find a Mentor

I was ordained as a pastor just shy of 21. In hindsight, I was probably too young. At the time, I had a strange naïveté about pastors and ministry leaders, while simultaneously feeling in over my head with the demands of youth ministry. 

To combat this, I started reaching out to every pastor I knew who was older than me. I was working in a large church and grabbed time with nearly every older pastor on staff, including our senior pastor. I’d email his assistant to get a lunch on his calendar every eight weeks or so. The only thing that matched my curiosity was my desperation. 

I took this practice outside my church to other leaders in the area, buying them coffee and picking their brains on youth ministry, marriage, seminary options, money, kids, discipleship, writing sermons—everything. Looking back, I cringe at my former self: an overly confident first-year pastor hounding men much busier and more important than me. They were gracious not only to reply to my email, but to actually spend an occasional hour with me.

Since that time, I’ve spent more than a decade in pastoral ministry, and now 20-somethings often ask me for advice on how to find mentors. Here are five bits of advice I offer in terms of what not to do. 

1. Don’t assume wise people will approach you.

In Proverbs, wisdom is to be sought like a righteous woman crying out (Prov. 1:20) or like precious silver (Prov. 2:4). To find wise people, then, we have to take initiative. In your pursuit of finding them, remember you will be the one who will reach out. Every time. The first time and the 41st time, you will be the one who reaches out, sets up a time, and asks the questions. Sometimes, wiser older people will check in on us, but this is an exception. In general, we will need to be the ones who reach out, asking for someone’s time in a respectful way. 

2. Don’t ask them to be ‘your mentor.’

It’s daunting to be asked to be someone’s mentor. A lot of wise people will say “no” to this broad of a request, mostly because they don’t know what you mean by it. Instead, work to define the term, or go my route and never tell them “mentoring” is what they’re doing. Here’s what I mean: spend time with the same few wise people, absorbing their wisdom without knighting them as Your Mentor. Before long, that’s precisely what they’ll become, perhaps without even knowing it.

I realized this as I suddenly found myself calling four or five people “my mentor.” How did this happen? I came to see that mentorship is a slow burn, cultivated over many coffees or meals. I kept asking wise people in my life questions until, one day, I realized I’d learned so much from them they must be, well, a mentor. 

3. Don’t arrive unprepared.

Wise people don’t like to waste time. This is different from saying “all wise people are busy.” In fact, wise people are just efficient, devoting attention to the things they value. If you arrive without any game plan, questions, or goals for the meeting with your mentor, you will waste their time by lollygagging with 20 minutes of small talk before they try to navigate the conversation.

I’ve learned to always come with at least a few questions prepared. It’s also important to consider your mentor’s expertise. Some of my mentors have been more theological or academic, and I rarely bother them with more “soul care” or emotional issues. I pick their brains on issues of interpretation, while I may ask my pastoral mentors about how they balance ministry and family.  

4. Don’t abuse their contact information.

Many young people I pastor think mentorship requires a weekly, hour-long meeting that comes with constant on-call privileges. Though different mentors will have different availability, in general try not to badger your mentor every time something pops into your mind. Save up questions and make your time with them rich with good conversation.

I create little notes in my phone for each wise person in my life, where I jot down topics and questions to consider chatting with them about. With patience, you can often answer your own questions after some time. If you’re constantly getting answers from wise people without wrestling with the issues first yourself, you’ll never develop your own wisdom. 

5. Don’t look for or wait for ‘the one.’

Don’t believe the lie of the “one mentor.” It rarely works this way. Yes, over the course of our lives, certain people will end up having more influence on us than others, but there’s never just one. No, wisdom is developed through numerous voices. This is why Proverbs says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). “An abundance of counselors” is always the best approach. Grab time with multiple mentors, and you’ll put less pressure on all of them. 

‘An abundance of counselors’ is always the best approach. Grab time with multiple mentors, and you’ll put less pressure on all of them.

One of the beauties of being a Christian is being saved into a new family with many older brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. We find the “abundance of counselors” in our midst as we commit to Jesus’s body, the church. But I would go a step further: we must not just commit to “the church” but “a local church.” Here we discover potential mentors are closer and more plentiful than we thought. These seasoned saints can help us become “wise”—not in a general sense, but in the specific shape of Jesus, discipling us to be more and more like him.

Jesus, after all, is the ultimate voice of wisdom. None can replace his role. Many young people I talk to seem to be looking for a Replacement Jesus to call them their “mentor.” Those people will never be found, and if we keep looking for them, we’ll hoist on them a burden they can’t bear and a set of expectations they’ll never meet. All great mentors point us not to themselves, but to our Master Jesus, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” personified forever (1 Cor. 1:24).

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