Let’s Talk About Race: A Letter to My Pastor

*Note: I first emailed this letter to my pastor on July 12, 2016. After discussing it, he has given me his consent to post the letter here. I have merely omitted any names mentioned from the original.

Dear Pastor _____,

Normally, I wait until Preaching Team to share my reflections on the prior Sunday’s service. This week, however, I want to carefully craft the concern I feel for the following subject, while not having to worry about being heard amongst a large group of voices. So thank you for being accessible enough for me to write you this letter and for having a shepherd’s heart that’s open to hear the cries of your flock.

This Sunday, I felt deeply disturbed that during our pastoral prayer we lifted up the policemen in Dallas who were shot and killed, yet we entirely omitted the two black men who were shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Certainly, we needed to address the murders of the five officers and the wounding of the other six in Dallas. Our silence concerning the racial tension that caused this violence, however, spoke louder than our prayer. The Dallas officers’ deaths did not occur merely because of “lawlessness.” Those men died for the same reason that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died last week: Racial prejudice plagues the heart of our nation, causing division and enmity amongst our people.

As Christians, we recognize that any behavior or action that attempts to devalue another human being derives from a fallen nature and a sinful disposition. Our Scriptures consistently teach that the hidden thoughts in our hearts are inextricably linked to our outward behaviors and how we treat others. The link between inner feelings of hate and the murder of another human being is too close for comfort. Thus, in the Old Testament, jealous Cain killed his only brother. And in the New Testament, Jesus taught the religious leaders that those who thought about hatred committed murder in their hearts. Ultimately, then, we have a major heart problem. And how are we instructed to address heart issues? Through confession.

When we are silent, therefore, we allow an inner heart problem to become an outward disaster.

Our silence on issues of race is what allows racism to continue. Because we are so uncomfortable with the term, we ignore it altogether. Racial prejudice that leads to the murder of policemen merely becomes “lawlessness” in our vocabulary. And the manslaughters of two black men at the hands of white officers is never spoken.

In our attempts for comfort, we create an in-group by surrounding ourselves with others who resemble us. If you looked around our church community during the second service on Sunday, you could count on one hand the number of colored faces. All others were white. We can then make excuses as pastors, saying that we care for the needs of our people. And as white, middle-class Americans, we care about others like us. We more easily relate to the police officers, because they have jobs like we do; it hits closer to home. But we do not connect with a black man in Louisiana, who had a prior record. And we can turn a blind eye to the black man in Minnesota, because he’s just different enough from us that we do not have to feel his pain or loss. Thus, praying for our police brothers while ignoring our black brothers becomes justified.

For the majority of our church, I presume, people felt the tragedy of the police officers’ deaths and paid little attention to the tragedies of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths. If my presumption is true, then we as a community are wrong and demonstrate a lack of compassion.

We are ignoring the needs and injustice against an entire population within our nation. We are allowing for the cries of our black brothers and sisters to go unheard, because we do not care enough to listen—because we can look out in our congregation and see no black sibling, whose burdens we must help to bear.

If any black neighbors were to step foot into our doors, and if they had the courage to give up their personal cultural preferences in order to worship with us, they would learn that we do not care for their weights and burdens. They would learn that we shake their hands, but do not listen to their stories. They would infer that we are a church that would not keep their best interests in mind; that we do not care about the things they care about. And they would gather, rightly, that they are not truly welcome; for when they enter our gatherings, they must leave their blackness at the door. All this, because of our silence. Our silence teaches more to our black friends than anything else we say.

And what about our white members? What we teach in our services, we encourage our people to live out in their ordinary lives. Thus, as we remain silent in leadership, we teach them that they, too, can remain silent. Rather than engage courageous conversations on race, they can ignore them altogether. Rather than listen to the plights of black friends, they can think people of color are crazy for saying racism still exists. They can continue in their small groups and circles of people who look, think, and act the same way they do, never being challenged to broaden their perspective by learning from people who are different.

But imagine what could happen if we truly became like Christ and cared for the marginalized in our community. What if we proactively engaged the divisive current ripping through our country? Perhaps we could go to a black church in our city, asking them how we can embrace them as our brothers and sisters. We could ask them how they’d like us to use our voices and our influence on their behalf. We could plan times to worship together and invite others to join in. We could represent the incarnation of Christ by entering into hard conversations and leaning into the pain of our friends instead of running from it. Perhaps, we could then join with ______ and ______ as they minister to officers as chaplains. As a black and white church together, we could seek to serve our police officers. We could share stories of brokenness and how Christ has brought healing. Perhaps our church would even begin to look more like our city with 90% Caucasian and 10% a beautiful array of diverse ethnicities.

If we learn to start speaking openly about race and other tensions that plague our inner hearts, I believe that we will experience greater theosis in our local congregation as our worshipping community transforms even more into the likeness of our Savior. If we refuse to engage these issues, however, I believe we will miss out on Christ’s power without even knowing it; for our church community will never know the difference, but our black and colored brothers and sisters will be left to fight the battle alone. In the very least, can’t we at least pray for them?

 

Dwelling in Him,
Starla J. Gooch

 

P.S. If you have not watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot, I encourage you to do so—despite the graphic nature. It is vital for us to know why these manslaughters are causing so many significant waves across our nation and for us to genuinely grieve for their lives alongside our black brothers and sisters. I don’t know how we could see these men die with our own eyes and not talk about it.

Here are links where you can watch the videos:
Alton Sterling: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/06/new-video-shows-alton-sterling-was-not-holding-a-gun-when-baton-rogue-police-killed-him.html

Philando Castile: http://heavy.com/news/2016/07/philando-castile-falcon-heights-minnesota-police-shooting-facebook-live-video-watch-uncensored-you-tube-police-shooting-man-shot-lavish-reynolds/

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The Bible Is Not Crystal Clear

A recent Christian news source published an article that stated, “The Bible is crystal clear about [insert controversial topic].” Contrary to such dogmatic statements, the Bible is not crystal clear about anything. For example, think about something that seems undeniably crystal clear in the Bible, beyond any dispute. How about the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Most Christians would probably say that the Bible is absolutely clear that Jesus experienced bodily resurrection from the dead. Yet church history teaches that within the first century after Jesus’ death, people tried to deny that Jesus had physical flesh. They called this docetism. Docetists believed that Jesus was only a spiritual being, more like an apparition, that people only thought or perceived him in physical form. “But what about Thomas?” Some may say: “He doubted, so Jesus invited Thomas to physically touch his hands and feet to prove he was physically there.” This is absolutely correct. But even with such documentation, people—those who may have seen Jesus himself or knew others who did—still thought that he was a bodiless spirit.

Things that seem crystal clear to one person may contrast what seems crystal clear to another. Our cultures, worldview, age, gender, and race—along with many other parts of our personhood—contribute to our understanding of the world around us. When it comes to Scripture, we cannot help but read the text through our own cultural lenses. Most often, we read into the text what we already believe.

Is all Scripture ambiguous? Certainly not! The Bible is the inspired word of God, spoken through approximately forty individuals to communicate God’s truth to humanity. When we read the Bible as a whole, many themes repeatedly appear as we navigate over thousands of years of history. When each theme occurs, we have to study each individual passage where the theme occurs to discover what the author was trying to communicate to the original audience. Then we extrapolate the major principles from the passage and compare it to the overall evidence of Scripture to see if it still weighs true. If the principle stands, it must be true for all people, at all times, in all places. It must be just as true for a twenty-first century American female as it was for Mahatma Gandi who lived in India over a century ago. This is where the issue gets sticky.

Our culture wants to say, “You do what works for you, and I’ll do what works for me. You live your truth and I’ll live mine.” Simply put, such a relativistic philosophy cannot succeed for long in a society. Societies can only function by upholding shared values. Without absolute truth, societies no longer have values to share, which breaks any sort of communal bond by isolating individuals. This is why demanding that the Bible is crystal clear on an issue can be so damaging. Taking the Bible at only face value allows readers to believe something without understanding it. This also encourages people to shut down those who do not see as they see. The Bible becomes an individualistic endeavor for interpretation that excludes those with differing perspectives, making each reader his or her own island.

When we read Scripture, we can never assume that we fully understand it. Even what initially appears obvious, we should seek to study more. Studying well does three things in us.

  1. Embracing our lack of understanding points us to the all-knowing, omniscient God.
    We become most aware of our finite status and limitations, humbled before the God who is greater. We must open our hearts and minds for the Holy Spirit to give us truth that we cannot come to on our own.
  2. We must rely on the community around us.
    When we do not know the answer to a question, we must ask and learn from someone who knows more than we do. We ask others whose experiences and worldviews differ from our own. As we learn to see through the eyes of others, we gain a fuller picture of the God who is entirely other from creation. We begin to see things to which we were once blind. Such learning grows us into fuller, mature persons.
  3. As we become confronted with God and also with our peers, we discover what we truly believe and develop ways to explain it.
    Shallow faith cannot endure in the presence of God or others. God sees through to our shallow hearts, and others see through to our ignorant minds. We are forced to dig in, to explain coherently our beliefs and have the integrity to live them out.

Words are important. How we say something is just as important as the message we seek to communicate. Setting an ultimatum by declaring that something is crystal clear shuts other people and opinions out of the conversation. If we want to engage in genuine dialogue, we need to use language that intentionally keeps the discussion open for other people to engage with their own ideas. If we refuse to listen and understand, no one will want to hear what we have to say, and our input—whether true or not—becomes useless.

Vision For A Thriving Community

The Christian Church’s influence on American society diminishes daily, and as a twentysomething Millennial, I quite personally feel its effects. Though many Boomers still fight ardently for “conservative values”, and I absolutely believe we need to encourage and empower more disciples of Christ to enter into politics and law-making, many of the battles we choose seem futile to me. I have embraced the fact that we no longer live in a Christian culture. The values and belief system I hold exist in tension with the world around me. I speak, think, behave, and interact quite differently from the majority of my peers. And I’m actually really okay with that, because if I’m going to live as if I’m from another world, I’d rather people notice.

I wish more churches and spiritual leaders would embrace the fact that Christendom has passed. Maybe then we could begin to focus less on the number of people walking through our church doors and more on the quality of Christ-followers we’re sending out from our community into the world. I’m excited to see more literature being written that emphasizes the need for mature discipleship, but I still worry that churches will respond by simply creating more programs.

For thirteen months, I experienced the honor of serving as the discipleship pastor in a local church. After overseeing the academics for a nine-month residential discipleship program for young adults, I learned two important lessons:
1) Programs do not work well.
2) Listening to God does!

In the first semester, I labored intensively to rewrite all of our academic guidelines. I created syllabi, prepared lessons, taught fervently, and graded papers diligently. But even with all of my effort, the impact on my students’ lives remained minimal. Why? Because my primary relationship with them stayed at a teacher-student status, and no one was succeeding. Very few of my students exhibited proficiency in their academics. And out of those who performed well, some displayed significant character issues. What good would it do if my students learned to read the Bible correctly, but they never allowed the information to transform them?

So for the second semester, I decided to change things up. I set aside two hours each week to meet with students one on one. During each hour, I got to know one of my students personally. It’s amazing how deeply you can get to know someone when you purposefully spend one hour listening to them share from their heart. (I also learned a major transgression for pastors: running out of tissues in your office!)

Choosing to spend time with my students individually drastically increased the impact of the ministry. Why? Because as I listened, I received the opportunity to truly know each one of them, and while doing so, I diligently sought to hear from God on their behalf. Though I initially sat aside only two hours in order to guard my time, I soon did so to guard my energy. I quickly discovered how much more work goes into an hour of listening well than an hour of lecturing. Self-control proved trying when I had to choose patience and compassion over defensiveness with an angry student, and when my flesh wanted to tell them blatant truths, but God’s Spirit subtly warned me to hold my tongue. Though difficult, the intentionality that it took to listen to the voice of God was worth it every time.

I believe that the greatest need in our churches is mature believers who hear and respond to the voice of God. In Hebrew, the verb for obey quite literally means “to listen.” It carries the idea that as we listen to God’s voice, our hearing demands response. If we do not obey, we have not truly heard.

Imagine with me a community of Christ-followers who actively hear and obey the voice of the Lord in everyday life. A community in which you and I participate. Compassion for the broken and the lost come naturally. We become people who embrace the tension of grace and truth. We address problems boldly, but in timely manners. We speak life into dead souls and spirits. We call forth potential and hope in individuals and communities. We cast visions of redemption. We know the mind of Christ, because He regularly reveals hidden truths to our hearts. The Spirit speaks through our mouths and lives to engage those who need to experience the living God. We are a community that brings healing to all who choose to participate, because the Holy Spirit moves freely through His willing vessels. Broken lives are made whole and new.

This is the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring. It’s not just a romanticized dream of idealism. No, this is the message of the gospel. This is why Jesus called it good news! Such a life and community is fully accessible to us now.

So will you choose to participate with me? I’ll warn you: it will cost you much. Your pride must go. You must be willing to submit your mind, heart, spirit, and body to the lordship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in return, we will all gain more than we could ever dream.

Maybe, just maybe, if we become people who attune our hearts to hear the voice of God, we won’t have the problem of a diminishing Church. I’d even take the risk to declare it thriving.

Experience Vs. Theology

In June of last year, the hardest season of my life began. As I concluded my year of service as the Discipleship Pastor at my home church, God spoke a whisper in my heart. Though I had an inkling about one immediate consequence of that whisper, I had no clue of the ramifications that would result from it. Even now, I’m sure many are still unknown.

Within a matter of weeks, I moved 600 miles from home to continue my studies at seminary. I had many plans, but God didn’t seem to care for many of them. As God decimated my idea of safety and allowed every aspect of my life to be marred, I found myself in a place where I had never been: caught between my experience and my theology. They no longer matched.

The God I had known relationally for so long, had studied for years, and had taught so many people about seemed different from the God I was currently experiencing. His actions appeared separate from His character. And as I shared my story with others, I discovered many who felt this same tension. It caused me to ask myself the question: What am I supposed to do when my experience is in tension with my theology? When the God I see in Scripture seems so different from the God I’m choosing to follow now? 

I’m sure there are ample responses and possible answers to this question, which are likely unique for each person. But for me, God kept telling me to stop trying to do something to change my circumstances and perception. I wanted to be able to explain my problems somehow, when in actuality there was only one who fully understood them—and He wasn’t me. I was trying to defend God, when finally He helped me realize that was never my job. There is no way that God can be fully rationalized, for even when we may be able to explain Him intellectually, we are not able to fully rationalize Him to our hearts. This requires faith, many say. Yet that’s not really my job either. My responsibility is to be faithful, yes. But how can I have faith without God first demonstrating that He is worth having faith in?

I was reminded of how many times people in Scripture called out to God, pleading for Him to show Himself strong for the sake of His name. David begged this of God constantly, like in Psalm 143:11, “For Your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!”

I am utterly powerless to defend God, whether it’s to myself or to others. But I believe that He’s strong enough to defend Himself, and that He actually quite enjoys it.

So when what I know about God does not match God in my current life circumstances, when my theology is at odds with my experience, I have to learn to embrace the tension. I choose to trust that He’ll come through and redeem Himself to me. What stinks is that He might let me sit in the tension and distress for a while. But if I allow for the tension and let God be God, He will prove Himself and come through. And if He ever doesn’t, I’ll let you know.

“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” – Psalm 9:10

**Since this is an issue that God must deal uniquely with for each individual, I wonder, what have you learned about the times when your theology and experience are in tension? I’d love to hear your story and/or thoughts, so leave your comments below.

My Full Life

It’s been a very full day. But the great kind of full. I read somewhere recently about how much busyness is an illness of our ever-rushing society, so I try not to be busy. Even though I have a lot of duties like school, work, and church that fill my schedule—often very close to max capacity—I don’t consider my life busy. Busyness exudes the idea of running without the ability to stop, of having so many planned hours in a week that there is no time for a coffee date with a friend, of having no room for the unexpected. I choose not to live like that. So no, my day today was not busy. It was full.

Why was my day so full? Because of the great community I have the pleasure of being a part of. Out of the countless personality tests that I’ve been required to take throughout my academic career, one element is always consistent for me: I’m a people person. This means that for me to fully be me, I need to surround myself with great community. But my extroversion is not the only reason I need community. For yes, even introverts (contrary to popular belief) need community.

We need community because it’s a part of our DNA—and not just our biological makeup. We need community because God made us to be like Him, and the very essence of God is community. Think about it: God is not a single person; He is THREE in ONE. And each person is inherently defined by his relationship to the others. Just like you need three notes to have a musical chord, you need the three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to have God. When God created mankind in His image, he started with Adam and said it wasn’t good for him to be alone. If God had only made Adam, then Adam would not have been made in the communal image of God. He would have always been missing a part of his nature and who he was made to be. Thus, when we are outside of community, we are not fully ourselves. But when we are in community, we are most us. We become the best us.

As I’ve been engaging in community recently, I’m realizing that it makes me the best me. Like when a customer at work today commented on how patient I was, noticing that patience is rare in our culture. I was only able to be patient today because I’m surrounded by people who bring out the best me. They embrace me, love me, inspire me, and motivate me. They affirm the qualities and strengths that God has given me for His kingdom. And they let me know the qualities that I lack or where I’m weak, so that I don’t spend my energy pursuing the wrong things. This is freedom. And freedom is full.

So maybe today, I was able to experience a piece of what Jesus talked about in John 10:10 when he said he came to give us full life. I can’t think of anything better!

My Confession

I write today with a broken heart. But it’s a good brokenness. The kind where God has to break something which seems whole in order to refashion it to be like Him.

I don’t know the way God works in your life, but in mine it’s all about seasons. For one season, he’ll give me extra joy, contentment, fullness, and grace. But soon, He leads me through times of sorrow, inadequacy, lack, and utter dependency. The ironic part about God’s seasons is that during most there is both harvest and pruning, sowing and reaping. While I’m experiencing the abundant fruit of the last season, He’s planting and pruning areas for the next.

So what season is this? It’s one of deep pruning. Within the last few months, I’ve experienced a lot of life. From the loss of my grandfather, leaving my job, going on a missions trip, moving to a new state, leaving my entire community of family and friends, and starting school, it seems that there have been transitions in every part of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time facing the truth of my own heart and dealing with the ugliness. During a time of abundance, it’s hard to see the weeds and the seeds that were choked out underneath the surface, but as my life has been stripped down, God has been revealing the barrenness.

So here’s my confession:

I’m a perfectionist. I’ve built my whole life and self-worth on performance, the things that I do well. The good part about this is that I love to grow. I love to be a part of always making things better than they are now. And because of this drive, I’ve experienced lots of “success” and really exciting accomplishments. Spiritually speaking, I most love the change and growth that comes from seeing a broken life made new. There’s nothing quite as exciting as healing from pain and depravity, seeing transformation to wholeness in a person’s life. Since I love this process, this is the most important goal that I’m driven to pursue: life change.

But here’s the problem. Building my life on accomplishment is a big house with a weak foundation. No matter how tall it gets, it’s always susceptible to crumbling down. Finding my value in what I do well keeps me from finding my value in Christ. I have a hard time accepting that I have intrinsic worth, regardless of my productivity, because I am created in the image of our most incredible God.

And here’s what it looks like in real life:

When I mess up, I’m devastated. Problems that I can’t fix depress me. I have a hard time accepting that which I have no control over. Mistakes are crushing, even when they’re slight. I have a tendency to take too much responsibility for things that aren’t mine to take, which undermines those around me. Because I’m not okay with my own weaknesses, this can cause me to have a hard time feeling compassion for other’s shortcomings. I start to think that the reason I can do things well is because of my own hard work, which leads me to put a heavy weight on those around me to work harder for what they want. But that doesn’t work. This only creates legalism, which may look good on the outside but is devastating to the heart.

So God’s been taking me through a hard process. He’s stripping away my confidence in the areas where I’ve found my identity. He’s reminding me that they’re gifts He gave me, but they’re not who I am. What if I couldn’t communicate well? What if I had really poor social skills? What if I was unable to work? Does this mean that I have no value? As St. Paul would say, “Absolutely not!”

I can just imagine Jesus standing with me in the middle of an incredible view of nature. As we would look around at the trees, birds, grass, hills, sun, flowers, clouds, and all else, he would point to them and tell me what God does to carefully provide for each one. Then he would look at me and say,

“Starla, all of these are important to me. After all, I created them, provide for them, and enjoy them! But even as much as I care for each, you’re set apart from the rest because I created you to be like me. You’re the only one that I view as a mirror to see my own reflection. So how much more valuable are you? And yet I require nothing from you. I only desire a relationship. I just want you.”

I’m having a hard time accepting that. I have a hard time with the fact that I would be just as valuable to God if I were in a hospital bed having no cognitive function as I am when a pastor or seminary student, working in a church and contributing as much as I can. The gifts He’s given me were meant to be a joy, not a burden. They’re an invitation rather than a requirement.

So what does all this mean? I don’t know yet. But what I’m hearing the most is God saying, “Just be.” I’m trying to let go of the pressure to create certain results, choosing instead to listen for God when He says, “I love you regardless.”

Searching for a Mentor

A few summers ago, I found myself sitting on a rock in a creek with a journal in my hand. I was part of leading a discipleship program for junior high and high schoolers and we all had one task: write about what you want from God this year. So what was I asking God for? A mentor.

Mentoring was not something that I alone wanted. I’ve heard this same request from many college students and young adults. At the time, I found this search for a mentor pretty tricky. Not only is finding a mentor difficult, but as a young woman going into ministry I found it particularly challenging for a number of reasons. 1) Finding a senior pastor who is willing to let you hang out with them as they go about particular tasks is tricky. Especially since many things a pastor does are very personal and confidential, such as prayer time with God or counseling a married couple. 2) As a woman, it’s hard to navigate the boundaries of being with a mentor who is most likely a man. So I probably needed a woman. But 3) there are not very many woman senior pastors. So how should I find one?

During this time in my life, I was resolved that it was the mentor’s job to open themselves up to a mentee. But I wasn’t around anyone offering this kind of relationship. Then I realized that I did in fact have a mentor, a woman who had been mentoring me my whole life: my mother. Was she a senior pastor of a church? Nope. But she was (and is) a phenomenal woman of God who taught me what it means to follow Jesus and grow into a whole and healthy person. (Plus, the fact that she’s a licensed and practicing therapist has taught me A LOT!!!) I’ve never found the exact kind of mentoring relationship I was originally looking for, but God did provide several other relationships with incredible leaders who have mentored me in the last few years, including my pastors of Lighthouse Assembly of God in Marion, IN, Jerry and Paula Gallaway, and the incredible men I had the opportunity to work for at Indiana Wesleyan in the Dean of the Chapel office, Rev. Dr. Jim “Umfundisi” Lo and Rev. Dr. Pat Hannon. These four individuals taught me exponentially about life, leadership, and ministry during my senior year of college. And, even though they’re all busy, have opened the door to me so that I can contact them any time. I treasure them in my heart, and am sure that they will continue to hear from me as I continue to journey through ministry.

Now, in the past year or so, I’m noticing a shift in my life and relationships: instead of only being the one seeking a mentor, I now find myself mentoring others. This is the perfect sign of growth and health: using what God has given me to invest in others. This has also given me another perspective on mentoring, which is the point of this blog entry. I want to share some nuggets on what I’ve learned from mentoring relationships as both the mentee and the mentor. So wherever you are at in your journey, I hope you can take something from this.

1) Finding a Mentoring Relationship

When I was looking for a mentor, I got really frustrated, because I was convinced that it was the job of the mentor to open herself up to the mentee. Then when I found myself on the mentoring side of things, I discovered that I was assuming it was the mentee’s job to ask me for mentoring. So here’s what I discovered: no matter my position, I was always expecting someone else to take the initiative, which means that most likely, everyone else probably assumed the same thing. So here’s my conclusion: if you recognize a potential mentor or mentee, make the first move. DON’T WAIT FOR THE OTHER PERSON.

  • Mentees: If you find someone that you’d like to mentor you, ask them. They may know you well or not at all, so I understand it may be intimidating to all of the sudden come out at ask them to mentor you. Instead, ask them for an appointment. Ask them for 30 minutes to an hour of their time, and tell them you’ll bring coffee. Or, if they’re not local, just ask if you can call them for about 10 minutes, and ask when they’re most available. Most people will shy away if you ask them to mentor you because they won’t feel adequate, but if you just ask them if it’s okay to get together sometime, they’ll be more open. They’ll be mentoring you whether they know it or not!
  • Mentors: I was once having a conversation with a young man and told him that he should find a mentor. A few weeks later, I let him know I was willing to mentor him since he was interested in areas within my expertise. His response? “I was waiting for you to ask.” As a leader, I should constantly be looking out for others whom I can teach to replace me. When I find a potential person, I don’t have to do all the work. Instead, simply saying, “Hey, if you ever need anything, feel free to stop by my office, call, or email me,” let’s them know I’m available and want to build a relationship with them. After that, it’s in the mentee’s hands, but when the time’s right, they know they can come to me. Some people will act immediately, while others may wait a few months until they feel that they need something. But eventually, you’ll find yourself surrounded by those who want to be invested in.

2) Who Do I Look For?

Sometimes we know we want a mentor or a mentee, but don’t even know where to start. Wherever you’re at, be intentionally observant about each person you interact with and see if they have the following characteristics.

  • Mentees: When looking for a mentor, pay attention to people who make you stop and think, “When I grow up, I want to be like them.” They should be a person you trust, who you think will take time to listen when needed, but also will answer questions when you ask. (And here’s a note, take the time to prepare questions and ask good ones!) They should be a person that makes you say, “If I were just half the person they are, I’d be thrilled!”
  • Mentors: Look for people who have qualities that remind you of you. They may be complete opposites of you in many ways, but in certain areas you understand how they think or why they want what they do. For me, I see myself in many different people: the intellectually astute, the emotionally sensitive, the spiritually hungry, etc. Most people have entirely different backgrounds than me–like the young man who has been to jail multiple times and used to have a drug problem–but where it counts, our hearts are similar.

3) Age doesn’t matter

I’m only 23 years old, but have found myself in relationships where people more than twice my age say they’ve learned from something I’ve said or done. And on the other side, I’ve also found myself learning from the simple faith of a child. When it comes to growth, age does not equal maturity. We witness this all of the time in church when in a matter of months the new, passionate Christian surpasses the one who’s been going to church their entire life. Maturity comes to those who are willing and eager to grow and learn–to those who are teachable. So this works on both ends. The mentor and mentee alike MUST be teachable. When they’re both learning, age doesn’t matter.

4) Use Wisdom and Discernment, But Don’t Discriminate By Gender

For a very long time, I only looked for mentors who were female. I put so much emphasis on creating proper boundaries, that I worried about having a male mentor. While this is justified to a certain extent, the majority of people who have mentored me are men. Did I plan this? No. But they were the people God put in my life during important seasons who listened and shared wisdom that directed my decisions. Just because boundaries can be tricky doesn’t mean we should neglect relationships because of them. God put His image in males and females, which means that no one can share His image by himself or herself. We need each other. Now, there are certainly situations that should be avoided, but there are also plenty of opportunities that are perfectly acceptable and productive. Don’t miss out on what someone has to offer merely because their gender doesn’t match your ideal.

I’ve noticed this trend not only while looking for a mentor, but also while mentoring. One of the surprises I came across this year was how many young men God put in my life to teach. On several instances I found myself in a restaurant or group surrounded by young men as we discussed spiritual issues. The biggest takeaway for a mentoring relationship with someone of another gender is this: when in doubt, add someone else. If a situation is coming up where you may feel uncomfortable one-on-one, ask a friend to join your meeting. The more the merrier!

5) How Do I Mentor?

There can be a lot of pressure when it comes to being someone’s mentor, but mentoring does not have to be a big ordeal. So here are some guidelines for both mentors and mentees:

  1. Ask Questions. Mentoring is about going through life together. Some relationships will be more personal and closer than others, but make sure you’re being intentional by asking questions. Ask about the other person’s life. Ask how they’re doing. Ask questions about something you’re interested in or want to learn about. Just get started, and be intentional about your conversations. Before planned meetings, think about and prepare good questions to help direct the conversation.
  2. LISTEN! When you ask a question, make sure you’re taking the time to listen to their answer. Be intently engaged in the conversation. Also keep in mind that not all people are good at articulating their thoughts. So make sure you’re listening not only to what they’re actually saying, but also what they’re TRYING to say. When you listen well, you’ll pay attention to body language, tone, and the Holy Spirit, and you’ll probably hear things that the person did not even realize they were saying.
  3. Be intentional. One of the most important things to do in order to have a productive mentoring relationship is to be intentional. This doesn’t mean spending every waking moment together. Rather, it means planning and preparation. Plan time together, write down questions when you’re going throughout your day that you want their insight on, sit down and write an email, send a purposeful text message of encouragement (but never send a text that just says “hey” or “what’s up”–that’s just a waste of time! Honestly, most texts like that just seem pointless to me so I don’t even respond. This communicates to me that you’re bored and have nothing better to do. If you don’t have a purpose with your text, I’m not going to work to create purpose out of it.). You don’t need a lot of time to be in a mentoring relationship, you simply need to be willing and let the other person know when and how you’re accessible. Maybe it’s only for 15 minutes a month, but if you’re intentional with that time, it’ll still be incredibly beneficial for both.

Well, there are a handful of things I’ve learned about mentoring. Obviously, this is something I’ve thought about a lot, but why is it so important? I’ll leave that to one of my favorite Bible verses to answer:

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

We live in a culture where relationships are broad and shallow, but it’s through relationships that God wants to grow us as people. Therefore, I am committed to having intentional relationships where I’m both sharpening others and being sharpened. I hope you choose this commitment, too. I promise you that it’s worth it!