Thoughts on how to find a mentor

Confession: If it had been up to me to go out and find a mentor, I might still be looking. I’m that kind of person – the kind who has a great deal of trouble admitting my need and potentially obligating someone else to help meet it.

My mentor fell, by the mercy of Jesus, into my lap. (But not literally.)

A friend asked me some good questions one Sunday evening over the back of a church pew, and after I had self-disclosed a little, nervous but also grateful and trying to be honest, she said, “I am here if you want to talk more.” Many people say that, right? And you let it go, if you’re not possessed of the energy to chase it down and seek it out. But I looked in her eyes and saw a real invitation and an open door. I said, “I’d like that.” And so we did.

At that meeting, she said, “I wonder if it would be helpful to meet once a month. Would you like that?”

And I said, “I’d like that.”

Do you see how kind Jesus is to stubborn and independent people, who require more mercy than they’re willing to ask for? One of the things this friend-cum-mentor and I talk about nowadays is my drive to smooth things over, to not let my messiness inconvenience other people, to not NEED. Hello darling. You’re human.

So when I share ideas for finding a mentor, I am speaking partly but not entirely from experience; but I have learned along the way.

  1. Recognize your need.

A few months ago, I had a professional counselor tell me, “I believe all caregivers – pastors, teachers, foster parents, counselors – need to be receiving counseling themselves.” I was startled. He said, “We think we’re doing fine, but the truth is we invest deeply in the lives of the people we’re caring for, and we experience pain because of it. Look up vicarious trauma. Don’t go only by the first website you land on, but check into a couple of them and see what you learn. It’s a real thing. It’s okay to get help.”

I am ashamed of my old belief now, but I used to think the world was divided into the people who offered help and the other people who needed it. How impoverished a vision of our complex and interwoven community, where everyone needs something and everyone has someone.

All the women with whom I share community give me something – some truth, some new view of God, some kindness, some challenge. One teaches me about homemaking, and another has reshaped how I think about mothering/ gardening/ recreation/ marital harmony. But I’ve found it helpful to walk specifically with a long-term friend who knows all my junk, with whom I am comfortable sharing (repeatedly) what is emotionally raw and not for public presentation, whose advice I will trust, who will pray for me and not give up on me. That is what I mean by mentor.

  1. Let go of your desire to find The Perfect One.

I need to be upfront about this: you won’t ever find someone who’s been through all the same experiences you have, or someone who understands you completely and cares for you perfectly. That’s Christ. If in seeking a mentor, you start analyzing mutual history, perks of different personalities, subliminal nudging of the Lord, various spiritual gifting styles, how many kids you each have, and whether or not she makes good coffee, you can muddle in indecision forever.

Some of my struggles surround marriage and mothering. My mentor is single. If I were to pick a person who has had the most in common with my life, it probably wouldn’t be her; but the Holy Spirit lives in her and she knows how to care about His daughters.

When I think of a mentor, I think a) same gender, b) older than me, and d) serious about her walk with the Lord. That’s a beautiful place to start.

So make a short list of three women in your community who fit those criteria, and to whom you’d be willing to talk honestly. Then pick one and…

  1. Ask.

This is the hardest part; and although it is obvious, it deserves its own place in the process.

I encourage you to be clear on what you are asking for. If each time you run into your mentor-friend, you say, “Do you have a minute to talk?”, she’ll eventually know something is up, but it will be kinder and easier if you are forthright about what you are seeking. Then she can say yes or no.

Is she willing to meet with you? How often would you like? What are you seeking: skills coaching, advice for changing your character and situation, or a listening ear and prayer support? You can say honest things like, “I need new ideas for how to solve the problems in my classroom/ household/ marriage.” Or “I’m not expecting you to fix the hard things in my life, but it would be helpful to process them with someone.”

Sometimes including a time frame is helpful – “Could we get together to talk during this hard season / through the end of the summer / until my son is healed?”

Many women are honored to be asked to walk with a younger woman, especially if they know what you’re hoping for. Others will not feel up to the challenge, for one reason or another, and that is okay too. Go to the next person on your list. You will not know if the door is open until you try the handle.

  1. Receive her input.

Again, this could go without saying… But at times, it is easier said than done.

Your mentor may think differently than you expected. She may push you toward paths that feel uncomfortable. No one should be God in your life but God; yet having asked for input, you would be foolish to brush it aside lightly. Consider her words. Talk to your husband and the Lord about them. And hang in there, while you and she get accustomed to one other. There will be inevitable bumps, where something strikes you wrong or you have trouble communicating clearly with each other. It’s okay!

If the relationship truly does not gel, do not force it; it’s okay to let it be what it is, short term instead of long. But your goal is connection that lasts. Do not become the person who cycles through counselors in search of one who will say the right things.

Friendships become more precious over time. The women who have walked alongside me for the past ten years to fifteen years (and the few who are pushing 20 or 30 years), I count among my best advisors and dearest friends.

  1. Don’t make it all about you. Or her.

What can I say? If you don’t care about her experiences, only about sharing your own, you’re in trouble.

If she becomes the only one who can listen well, advise right, or walk with you, you’re in even bigger trouble. Keep reaching out to a wide range of women – your age, younger, older, in groups, one-on-one. Life is about walking together toward Good. It’s never wise to hinge your honesty, stability, or support on one person.

  1. Say thank you.

She is giving of herself, and her gift is worth acknowledging. A financial gift may be courteous when you are taking significant time from her other activities. There are also many other ways of giving back and blessing in return, and I am sure you will find them all.

Other ideas? Questions?

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5 years ago

Arg, I still struggle with admitting my need, and doing something about it. I do have friends I can share my heart with, but not an older mentor, really.
Thank you for a helpful post.

5 years ago

Questions yes. From the other side. What are “good questions” your mentor asked? A younger girl going through some of the same stuff I had at her age. I want to help, show I care. I write a letter….because frankly I’m shy and my words would have jumbled all up, said the wrong thing if I had tried talking. Told her how it was when I was her age. Told her I’d b happy to listen if she wanted to write or talk. Now what if she does want to talk? Wait I’m not a mentor! Do I need training for this?! But I meant what I said…just hope to know how to listen… and help, not hurt.

5 years ago

Mentors are so important in crisis times…if for no other reason than being a sounding board! My children encouraged me to find one when I went through a horrific valley for a couple of years.
I chose someone on Facebook who had been on a weight loss group with me. (through facebook) She was quite a bit younger than me. I didn’t really know her personally, but knew her parents. The reason I chose her was because she was such an awesome encourager in this group! For several years she walked with me through that very difficult journey! Sometimes we would text everyday! I pretty much told her everything,
She was such a blessing by just allowing me to vent, and share my prayer concerns etc. etc.etc.

The interesting thing, after I was pretty much through the journey I found myself texting her less and less, and then almost nothing. I feel deep gratitude, and love her dearly for the way she walked with me through that journey every step of the way, but now I have a really hard time wanting to text her anymore. I wasn’t really sure why except that she was connected to me through a very painful time, and the thought of connecting to her again in that way is just too painful because it’s a reminder of that time, and I just don’t want to go there!
She knows and understands!
I sometimes feel guilt about it, and kind of selfish, because it feels like I’m letting go of a dear, dear friend who was there for me through soo much! We are still friends, but just don’t share deeply anymore.
Someday perhaps!

5 years ago

Yes, yes, yes to all of the above. This is something else to talk about when we get together. 😉

5 years ago

Oh I so agree with all you said Shari. I think for me I would need to get rid of my desire to find a woman who shares my exact Biblical values. Now of course I would need to be discerning but oh how picky I am!

5 years ago

I looked up vicarious trauma (because they didn’t tell me about this in foster care training). Then I asked my friend, a smiling Catholic nun who is a trauma chaplain in a hospital, how she avoids vicarious trauma. She said she focuses on the person she is caring for-their eyes, their mouth–and what they need from her in the moment. She does not focus on their wounds or how they came into her care, or the process of death, if it is happening. She simply focuses on what they need from her now. Isn’t that beautiful?
As for a mentor – you inspired me to turn a handle and I found the door is open! You see, I thought it was enough to sit down with my friend, a licensed clinical social worker and a certified play therapist, to talk about the hard things in our foster care experiences, but your post made me realize that I need someone From My Church, too. Thank you!
Hats off to you for having a single woman as a mentor. There is not enough of emphasis in our circles on how we can give to each other 🙂

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