“WHO WANTS A MENTOR FOR THE NEW YEAR” read the title of a post on a museum blogger’s website that I followed. Intrigued that someone would just put themselves out there to mentor someone coming up in the field, I clicked on the link. Linda had recognized the value of someone further along in their career helping to coach someone younger through the maze of career planning, professional development, network building, and everyday office politics. I was living in Laos at the time and thought there was pretty much no way I’d be chosen as I was only a half year into my first museum job and lived on the other side of the world but applied anyway.
Linda is well-known in the museum world so I couldn’t believe it when I found out I’d been accepted. As her first mentee in this new venture, I was entitled to monthly Skype calls, the opportunity to guest write for her website three times, and at the end of the mentorship year relevant introductions to connections in her professional network who might be helpful for me to know. I had won the professional jackpot. It was also an opportunity that fell into my lap: it was advertised, there was an application and selection process, and then clear terms of engagement. Though that was six years ago, Linda remains a friend. I see her when she comes through DC and have met up with her at conferences and on trips to New York.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about mentorship in the church—Timothys seeking a Paul who can impart to them the wisdom of age and/or experience, Pauls seeking a Timothy to offer guidance, and Barnabases, friends who help sharpen and encourage each other. When I was in college it was even easier than with Linda, a woman was assigned to me as my spiritual mentor or “discipler.” There was no application process and the terms of engagement were equally clear: meet every so often, go through a book, pray, serve together. My freshman year, the campus ministry I was involved in matched me with a wonderful woman on staff I met with for four years and my senior year I double dipped and also met regularly with my pastor’s wife.
After college, I did full time ministry with a Christian parachurch organization and the ease continued. My female boss was my discipler and we met weekly to study the Bible, discuss life, and pray. The first of the two women I had while on staff and I are still friends as well.
As I left staff and the warm, ready-made cocoon of Christian community it provided to re-enter the “real” world, it became hard. I went through the darkest spiritual season of my life and at first in Boston, though I had peers, I had no one really to offer the kind of structured support I’d grown accustomed to. I suppose I’d been spoiled on staff. However, when I moved to Seattle for grad school, I had two women who served unofficially in this role. I attended one church but was in a small group at another and I had a mentor from each. My friend Stella and her family adopted me the first Sunday I went to their church and although we didn’t meet regularly, she was (and remains) a great source of wise spiritual support. I also met regularly with my small group leader (who is coming to visit in a couple weeks!). In the thick of that dark season, I have fond memories of her being very intentional and meeting up with me outside of the group and letting me literally cry and snot on her shoulder.
When I moved back abroad after grad school Christians were scarce but when I moved to DC I got really well integrated into the community at my church. After joining, I went through a discipleship program they offered and was paired with a lovely, (only slightly) older woman at the church for the kind of regular, intentional, growth-centered mentorship with which I was previously familiar. After finishing the program, I still hung out with my mentor but as a friend.
Last year as life was falling apart my whole church community became the very source of support I needed for survival. Now on the other side, I’m craving mentorship again. Only this time, there’s no one to assign me someone, my small group leader is a peer, and I find myself in the situation that maybe most post-college Christians find themselves in, making things up as they go along, getting encouragement and support from wherever they can find it. That’s great, too, but is something lost when the intentionality and regularity aren’t there?
After moving to DC, I reached out to a woman who worked at a museum in California who I had never met but whose career I followed and I’d identified as someone I’d like to learn from. I emailed her cold asking if she’d be open to exploring a mentorship relationship and followed up until she emailed me back. Again, to my surprise she was totally up for it, she said she was honored to be asked and had taken so long to respond because she was swamped and not because she wasn’t interested. As with Linda, we had monthly Skype calls, she introduced me to people in her network and I visited her on a trip to San Francisco.
I wonder if, in the context of church, other women (or men) want this as well? If they do, where are they finding it? Should I pay forward the generosity of Linda and Cynthia (and Jen, Lynn, Sarah, Allison, Susan, Stella, and Lezlie) and make a call for people looking for a spiritual mentor? But, who am I to offer myself up as someone who could be that for someone else? Is that line of thought itself in others what makes it hard for me to find that older person as well? Should I just wait to be asked? But then, if I don’t feel comfortable asking and others feel the same, then is waiting to be asked a guaranteed way to make sure it doesn’t happen?
Discipleship in college and on staff were easy like frozen dinners. But just as in real life I’ve moved away from pre-made meals to cooking my own and even sometimes without a recipe, what does it look like to put together a mentorship relationship when everyone’s busy and looking for different things? The other day, I did cold email a woman I found on the internet who looked like someone I’d like to learn from spiritually. She blogs and she lives in DC. Who knows if I’ll ever hear back from her or if such methods will (or even should) work in the church. But I am curious to know what others do about this? Are you being mentored? What does this look like for you? What would you want it to look like? What would it take to carve out space for this or to make that connection?