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September 19, 2017

A. Trevor Sutton: Here’s what I’ve learned from working with my mentors

By A. Trevor Sutton

Pastor and writer

A. Trevor Sutton is a Lutheran pastor in Lansing, Michigan, and PhD student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. His most recent books include Clearly Christian: Following Jesus in this Age of Confusion (Concordia Publishing House, 2018) and Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Post-Modern World (co-authored with Gene Veith Jr., Concordia Publishing House, 2017). You can find out more at his website or follow him on Twitter.


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Yes, it would be fun to be trained by Yoda on the planet Dagobah. But it’s the less eccentric elements of humility, vulnerability, honesty and wisdom that make for a fruitful mentoring relationship, writes a young pastor.

Mentors, according to popular depictions in film, are eccentric characters who speak in riddles and impart wisdom with bizarre assignments.

“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” shows Yoda mentoring Luke Skywalker on a piggyback ride through the forest on the planet Dagobah. In “The Karate Kid,” Mr. Miyagi hones Daniel’s skills by having him wax his car and catch a fly with chopsticks. And Rocky Balboa’s trainer makes him chase down a chicken in a deserted alleyway in “Rocky II.”

Hollywood makes it seem as if a good mentor must be quirky, enigmatic and shrouded in mystery. How are we supposed to find a mentor who fulfills the requirements: a heroic past, an unconventional approach and Yoda-like ear hair?

As a young pastor, I have come to rely heavily on the wisdom and insight of several experienced mentors. Without them, I would have made more mistakes, struggled through serious problems and accomplished far less.

But I’ve noticed that none of my mentors is particularly eccentric. So what has made these associations successful?

In my experience, there are several key elements in a fruitful mentoring relationship — and they rely, in large part, on the mindset of the one being mentored.

Humility. Pride is constantly whispering in a young pastor’s ear: You know best. You have a master of divinity degree; that’s like having a black belt in ministry. There is no way that a dusty old pastor has any valuable insight.

Curbing your pride and arrogance is essential to the mentoring relationship. You have to admit to yourself and to another person that you do not have it all figured out. You have to be willing to throw up your hands and ask for help. Without humility, you will never even get started.

Vulnerability. Pastors love to help vulnerable people. We are very comfortable with stepping into a hospital room and praying with someone in a time of spiritual and emotional vulnerability.

We are not, however, comfortable with being the vulnerable one in the room. Pastors are used to giving wisdom rather than getting wisdom. A mentoring relationship requires vulnerability from both individuals. Your mentor must be vulnerable in exposing past mistakes, failures and uncertainties, and you must be vulnerable in exposing present ones.

Honesty. If you’re willing to reveal only your polished and totally put-together self, you won’t learn anything. If you will not honestly open up about your struggles and deficiencies, a mentoring relationship is not for you. Mentoring will work only if you are willing to be painfully honest about the status of your life and ministry.

You are not trying to impress your mentor. Similarly, a mentor must be painfully honest in giving guidance. A mentoring relationship has no room for a veneer of niceties that obscure honesty.

Wisdom. Your mentor must possess more wisdom and knowledge than you do — that’s essential to the job. However, you will likely find that no single mentor possesses all the wisdom that you need for life and ministry.

So you too need wisdom, in part to recognize your mentor’s limits. Does your mentor have tremendous wisdom for ministry? A depth of knowledge and insight about you as a person? General wisdom about life?

Recognize where your mentor possesses a wealth of wisdom and insight. And recognize where your mentor is lacking, then find another guide to help you in those areas.

Openness to questions. Good mentors ask the toughest questions. That’s the point of it. I’m talking about the questions that you’d rather never answer: Do you think pride might be driving this decision? How are you contributing to this problem? Is it possible that your priorities are out of order here?

These questions are the absolute worst. They are like a scalpel to your pride and arrogance. It’s important to find a mentor who will ask them.

Intentional connectedness. Mentors often are recognized, not recruited. If you aren’t part of a formal mentoring program, you don’t have to artificially create a mentoring relationship. Instead, look around and see who is already serving in this capacity. Like any human connection, a mentoring relationship is best measured in years, not days. Can you deepen or formalize your connections to those folks who already are guiding you?

As a young pastor, I recognize my need for a mentor — or, more accurately, multiple mentors. I can think of at least six individuals who have served in that capacity as trusted, experienced guides.

Of course, real-life mentoring isn’t as cool as it is depicted in the movies. No epic montages. No enigmatic riddles. No piggyback rides.

Instead, my mentors ask me hard questions, guide me with their wisdom and encourage me to be vulnerable. They hack through my pride and arrogance with their keen insight. They help me grow in ways that could not happen without them.

I’m deeply grateful for their help. And because of them, I am a better pastor.

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

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