In over a decade of church work, there has been no other question that has been asked more often of me than, “Can you help me find a mentor?” For the first couple of years, I really did try and help folks out. I set up programs, made personal introductions, and essentially did everything I could to make mentoring magic. But alas, I failed.
Now some (or most) of this may be due to my shortcomings as a leader, but it also may be because of something I’ve come to realize: You don’t need a mentor. Or, put more precisely, you don’t need a mentor in the way you’re thinking about a mentor.
Let’s chat about what you’re really asking for. What I think most people are looking for is someone “older and wiser” who will call them out on mess-ups, force them to read the Bible (finally), and generally just teach them how to be an awesome clone of him or herself. What you want is an accountability partner/dad/grandpa/best friend/Ron Swanson/pastor/buddy mash-up. But guess what — that person doesn’t exist. I wish he did, as it would be amazing to have a one-stop-shop type of person to essentially raise me, but that’s not real life.
And how do I know there’s no mentor silver-bullet? Because we’re all a little messed-up: you, me, amazing old guys who we think have it all together. Every single one of us is walking through his world trying to be obedient, failing, learning, repenting, remembering grace and trying again. This concept is succinctly and wisely articulated by Paul, who said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Did you catch that? No, not just the “sinners” part, the reference at the end. It was from the book of 1 Timothy, that is, a book written by Paul to his much younger protégé, friend and—dare I say—mentee. In this book, we get a glimpse of one of the most beautiful, honest, and enduring examples of mentorship. Let’s look at what made this relationship work:
1. Paul Was a Real Person.
And I’m not using the term real like he existed, I’m using it like keepin’ it real. Paul was that kind of real. He didn’t posture himself as a holier-than-thou, I’ve got my junk together, follow in my footsteps type of teacher. In fact, he pretty much did the exact opposite. He spoke openly of his failures, wasn’t posturing for prestige and said, over and over, that the only person we should be emulating is Christ.
2. Paul Taught a Minority of the Time.
OK, before you get all preachy on me about this, I know Paul said a lot of profound things to his student, Timothy. But if you really think about it, what was written that we have, plus what was written that we don’t have, plus what was just said and never recorded, pales in comparison to the total amount of time Paul and Timothy spent together.
So, what did they do with the rest of the time? Well, they hung out. They traveled, ate food, goofed off, worked, talked about nothing important, laughed—you know, hung out. Most of Paul’s relationship was about the ministry of presence and then, in small doses, he taught.
3. Paul Was Not Timothy’s Only Influence.
There was Barnabas, Timmy’s mom and grandma (both prominent leaders), Silas, others who are mentioned in the Bible, and certainly more who didn’t make the pages of Scripture. The point is, Paul wasn’t the only person caring for Timothy, he was part of a team. Team Timothy. And this team was responsible for pointing Timothy toward Jesus and doing all they could to keep in moving in that direction.
Paul shouldn’t get all the credit, and I’m sure he wouldn’t accept it—he was just an honest companion and someone who was a bit further down the same road Timothy was walking.
What I want for you, more than one, great, shining mentor on a hill, is a team. Here’s an example: my team:
First, there’s Dan. He was my college Young Life Leader and is currently the first call I make when the decision is too big or the situation is too hard. And you know what’s interesting about Dan? I could probably write all of the advice he’s ever given me in fewer words than the article you’re currently reading. He doesn’t go on an on for an hour a week about his life, he listens and does life with me. And because of that example, I’ve learned from Dan how to be a husband, father and relationship builder. Did he ever sit me down and give me a sermon on parenthood? No. He’s never spoken a word about it. I’ve just watched him work and tried to copy his moves.
Then, there’s Denny. He was the senior pastor at my church, there when I realized that vocational ministry was in my future, and the first person who gave me a shot at the pulpit. Why did he do that? I don’t know. I still have that sermon and it was, in all ways, terrible. But he knew what I didn’t know, and he let me tag along on hospital visits and pastoral care sessions. I learned more from him about pastor-hood than I did in the entirety of seminary.
Then there’s Jeff, who forced me to face my sweeping insecurities by—wait for it—granting me front row access to God working in his heart. There’s Jason, who taught me that caring for someone means taking a genuine interest in their life. And the list goes on and on. It’s a huge team of relationships, and a team that has a similar thread running through every person: I know the faults and struggles of all of them, they do most of their work through modeling their own life, and none of them are my primary mentor.
What I want for every one is not to find a person, but to find people. People younger and people older, people of different backgrounds and genders, and people who are as eager to learn from you as you are to learn from them.
Timothy learned from Paul, and Paul learned from Jesus that most of mentoring is about walking around together and seeing what dust gets kicked up along the way.
Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.