Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Search in posts
Search in pages

Mindful mentoring can help develop leaders

More than 16 years ago, on the first day of my first real job in higher education, my supervisor treated me to lunch. Over grilled cheese and tomato soup, she said something that has stuck with me all this time: “I believe in you, and I want this job to be an opportunity for your growth and development, so let’s be sure to focus on that.”

I was coming out of a toxic church situation, and my new supervisor’s offer of support and mentorship gave me hope in my new role.

I am grateful for having had many wonderful mentors in my career as a pastor and higher education administrator. Their generous investment in me has inspired me to mentor others.

My first leadership mentor was my mother, who, after serving as a super church volunteer for more than 30 years, finally accepted a call to ordained ministry and served for 15 years as a senior pastor.

My mother modeled inclusion; for example, she took a special interest in the youth group kids. Every year, we hosted a big Halloween party at my parents’ farm in rural Illinois, with my dad driving the hayride tractor. Mom would work the phones, organizing transportation to make sure all the kids could get there.

She frequently disrupted our church system by not only serving as a woman in a leadership role but also including other women in leadership positions.

Achieving inclusion in leadership continues to be a problem across institutions. The number of women, and particularly women of color, who reach senior leadership roles continues to be small. In higher education, a clear majority (58%) of college students are women, yet only 33% of college presidents are women. Approximately half of college students identify as a race other than white, yet 73% of college presidents identify as white.

Representation is not more abundant in the church world, and in many ways, is worse. In my own United Methodist Church, where women are widely accepted for ordination and are a clear majority of members, only 32% of clergy are women. And the church remains one of the most racially segregated institutions in the United States.

This lack of representation in senior leadership roles is a wicked problem that requires individual, institutional and systemic solutions. I’ve come to believe that one important piece of the solution on an individual level is mentoring.

All along the way, I have felt frustrated that I am not making a bigger impact — and a bit terrified that I, as a white male, will do more harm than good by seeking to mentor people with identities different from mine. It puts a knot in my stomach to write publicly about my intentions in this area where I have so much to learn, but it is starting to seem more problematic to be silent. I recognize that white men can play a key role as gatekeepers.

I’ve had successes and failures. I’m happy to say that of the 21 employees I have had the privilege of hiring, most have been women and/or people of color, and most of them are thriving in new leadership roles. One of my proudest professional accomplishments was pivoting the leadership of a church I planted to a woman who has since led that church for more than 10 years.

I’ve also made mistakes. In one instance, I pushed one mentee too hard in my eagerness to develop what I saw to be her talents. In the end, I apologized and acknowledged, “I did a bad job of listening.”

In the academic literature on leadership development for women and people of color, mentoring comes up frequently. Recent studies that center the voices of women and people of color suggest that while mentoring may be helpful, what’s needed most are people who will move beyond merely mentoring to advocacy on their behalf.

I am now convinced that mentoring and advocating for mentees is crucial to progress. I’ve found success with a particular style of mentoring I think of as “mindful mentoring.”

Mindful mentoring moves beyond simply investing in someone to identifying, addressing and dismantling the systems that lead to disparity and inequity. The starting point is awareness of who is in your sphere of influence.

One theory I find useful is Leader-Member Exchange (LMX), which attempts to describe the quality of exchange in the relationship between leaders and the people influenced by them.

It describes an in-group and an out-group. In the workplace, those in the in-group have a deep connection and high-quality relationships with the leader. Studies have shown that being in the in-group leads to higher job satisfaction, commitment, performance and innovative behavior.

Those in the out-group are under the supervision of the leader but lack the high-quality connection of the in-group, and all the outcomes previously mentioned are worse.

The first step to being a mindful mentor is awareness. I know how easy it is for a white male in a senior position to forget his privilege, and I recommend a simple exercise to help leaders be mindful of their relationships.

Take a sheet of paper and draw two large circles, one inside the other. Label the inner circle “in-group” and the outer circle “out-group.” Next, write in the in-group circle the names of the people in your sphere of leadership with whom you have a great connection.

Then fill in the out-group circle. Finally, apply the lens of gender and race to the names on the paper. Who is in your circle(s) of influence? Who is missing?

When I first tried this exercise, I was surprised and disappointed to see how many people in my inner circle looked like me. I now complete this exercise twice a year. It’s helped me be aware of who is in my in-group and to strategize about how to move women and people of color from the out-group to the in-group.

Being a mindful mentor includes doing your own work of self-awareness, striving for cultural humility, uncovering your own implicit biases, and perpetually attempting to understand why these representation disparities exist in the first place.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the scale and scope of the work that needs to be done, but being a mindful mentor is practicing hope by focusing on what is within your control. Be aware of your immediate context and think concretely about what you can do today to make a difference.

I have two little daughters, and my deep desire is that they will grow up in a world where their gender will not limit the leaders they can be. Currently, their primary care physician is a woman, and we have many female family friends who are medical professionals. The other day, one of my daughters asked me, “Daddy, can boys be doctors too?”

I said, “Yes, boys can choose to be doctors too.” This kind of upside-down thinking motivates me to be the best mindful mentor I can be.

When people mention how they are sleeping, I perk up. They may be about to reveal something significant about their level of stress.

Yes, this could sound creepy. Inquiring about sleep habits is not part of my getting-to-know-you routine. I have been conducting interviews for several jobs lately. I don’t ask candidates how they’re resting.

When extending hospitality with event participants or guests in my home, however, I do ask. They might raise a concern about the environment — temperature or noise — that I can address. Most often, I congratulate those who are resting well and commiserate with those who are tossing and turning.

Outside of hosting and traveling, conversation about sleep is uncommon. But when the topic does come up, I start listening closely. I lean in further if people mention dreams. I am not a physician or a therapist, but when resting and dreaming come up, I sense that people are offering me a deeper glimpse into their lives.

Sleep patterns and dream narratives can reveal the depth of tension that a person is experiencing. A comment about sleep can reflect deeply troubling stress at home or work or church or in the neighborhood. It is a signal that I should be more attentive.

If I am the person’s pastor, I likely will ask questions about whom that person trusts to share dreams with.

If someone in the systems I lead is talking about disrupted sleep, I don’t try to interpret what is happening in that person’s soul. When my role is team leader, I listen for clues of the stress the person is experiencing. I explore what conditions are amplifying it.

If work is playing a role, I might offer suggestions on navigating the stress or offer to intervene in the situation. When I have leadership responsibility for the overall system, I consider the possible effect of what’s happening on everyone in the system, not just on the person speaking with me.

What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility? Do you pay attention to when people are responding to emails or whether they’re accepting appointments during scheduled vacations? Do you notice when people don’t turn on their cameras in video conferences or are continually checking messages during meetings?

When you pick up signs of stress, what can you as a leader do? Sometimes, I am a primary cause of the stress. Change is stressful, but it also can be necessary. Seldom can I make the stress go away. But I can always listen.

If a person is sharing about stress, I try to listen carefully and deeply. I do my best not to defend the organization or diminish the person’s experience. I acknowledge the difficulty of the situation.

If the conversation is mostly about work stress, I might point out factors that the person is not considering. I might apologize for the effect on the person. I might pledge to make changes. I might acknowledge the challenges and indicate that I don’t see improvement coming anytime soon.

Later, I will step back to examine the situation. I will listen to others. What is stressing the team? What is stressing me? How might those stresses be acknowledged or mitigated for everyone?

I don’t know of any tension-free places to live or work. Paying attention when people are sharing about the intensity of their stress is not the same as accepting responsibility for fixing it. People under stress may not want to surrender their agency; they may just be looking for acknowledgment. They may want to feel less alone. They may not know what they want.

Responding to the stress in people’s lives is balanced by an organization’s mission and the responsibility to follow through with its commitments and priorities. Leaders are responsible both for the mission of the organization and for the morale of the people. The same actions rarely achieve progress on both mission and morale. In fact, aiming for progress on both with the same actions might result in progress for neither. Leaders need to have in mind a mix of actions. When signs and symptoms of stress appear, leaders should consider putting more energy into the morale-lifting actions that are likely to alleviate the stress.

In the stories in Scripture, Jesus displayed a finely tuned sensibility to the stress in people’s lives — from the death of a loved one to not catching enough fish to feed the family. He also challenged religious leaders to pay more attention to God’s purposes. Jesus was not leading an organization, but he was on a mission. He tended to people while making progress toward Jerusalem. The stories that we have indicate that he knew how to help people take their next faithful steps in living.

In a world where everyone is carrying plenty of burdens, I recognize that I cannot work solely on my task list but must listen carefully to the stresses behind the stories that colleagues and constituents share. Listening in itself is not enough, but without it, I will not appreciate what is happening and consider adjustments that I can make.

How are you sleeping? How are your colleagues sleeping? How are your participants and constituents sleeping? What clues might we pick up by paying attention, and how can we respond?

What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility?

On a trip to celebrate a friend’s installation as president of one of the world’s most influential Protestant seminaries, I experienced a master class for those who are beginning a ministry assignment.

David E. Goatley is the sixth president of the 75-year-old Fuller Theological Seminary, which has its main campus in Pasadena, California. I had already witnessed David’s exceptional leadership over two decades at Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society. More recently, I had a front-row seat as he served at Duke Divinity School in multiple leadership roles under three deans, including recruiting faculty and inspiring students as director of the Office of Black Church Studies and as academic dean. I was expecting to learn something from both him and Fuller at his installation on Jan. 21. They did not disappoint.

In the 20th century, some experts advised that new leaders not make any changes in the first year; introducing the peculiarities of a new leader would bring change all by itself. In this approach, the new leader should not intentionally introduce additional changes while learning the organization, the community and all the personalities.

Almost equally common guidance from the same era advised that new leaders make as many changes as possible in the first year, treating it as a grace period, with no expectation of knowing history, tradition or past practice. Enacting a version of “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” the new leader, if confronted, could say, “I had no idea.”

Both approaches can work. The key to positive influence is not a particular strategy itself but how it addresses the needs of the institution at the time of transition. For example, if the institution is stuck in the past, then change is likely essential to moving forward. If the institution’s people are fearful, then building trust through relationships might be best accomplished with minimal change.

The best strategy does not come from the leader’s preference as much as it does from the opportunities and challenges facing the institution.

David takes the helm of a flagship seminary whose faculty and graduates have influence across the globe. Yet these are challenging times for nearly every school and for most congregations; standing at the intersection of academy and church, Fuller is thus buffeted on all sides.

Significantly, David is a newcomer to Fuller Seminary. Unlike his predecessors, he is not a graduate, faculty member or founder of the school. Much of the last 30 years he has spent traveling the globe with bases of operations on the East Coast of the United States. As a Black man, David is the first person of color to lead Fuller. In so many ways, he has embodied change from the moment he was elected.

The installation of a president often occurs months after the president has begun work. The associated pageantry involves so much coordination and support that many, many preparatory meetings are required. Yet I noted that Fuller chose to install David about three weeks after he started at the school. Such speed signaled something, but what?

When I arrived in Pasadena for my first visit to the campus, everything was carefully prepared. I had no sense that anything had been rushed. The smallest details were curated to communicate meaning. For example, the location of the ceremony was a church. That congregation had hosted the first class meetings of Fuller Seminary 75 years ago, in their kindergarten rooms. There had been a switch at the last minute from a building the school had prepared because of a delay in permits from the city. The congregation has held a significant place in the school’s life ever since.

The installation service was in a beautiful sanctuary that was well equipped to livestream the service to Fuller’s many constituents. Both the congregation and the school have matured and expanded over three-quarters of a century.

The service included expressions of faith and culture that make up the diversity of the Fuller community. Every move was filled with beauty and meaning.

David’s presence and words were most notable to me. He impressively embraced Fuller’s history and brought it to the present moment. In his address, he quoted from speeches given by all five of his predecessors, in several cases from their installation addresses. Rhetorically, he drew a through line from the commitments of all the presidents to his own priorities.

Doing such historical work is not very popular these days. But David was demonstrating that in the midst of a changing guard and the emergence of new leadership, he respected the past even as he was urging the community forward.

Some leaders believe that an institution’s history starts anew when they arrive. David demonstrated the art of learning the history so well that its telling can point to the future. He spoke the truth about the history in a way that was charitable and future-oriented.

Yet even as he named and honored history, he signaled a fast pace. The quick installation launched a tour across the country in which David met alumni and donors. Leaders often need to signal enthusiasm for the work by picking up the pace in the first few months. The goal is to connect with and bring energy to the system. Once connections are made, the leader can slow to a more sustainable rate.

I have found that the aftermath of lockdowns and social distancing has made many aspects of leadership more difficult. Shaping culture in an organization requires new strategies. At Fuller Theological Seminary, I witnessed an inspiring mix of classic tactics with a freshness and vitality that held promise for shaping culture. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from Fuller. God be with them and all those who are beginning ministry together in this season.

The best strategy does not come from the leader’s preference as much as it does from the opportunities and challenges facing the institution.


The melodious voice of Howard Thurman bellows through the room: “How good it is to center down,” he says. His voice is filled with gravity, but it is not without a sense of joy. It has an almost incantatory quality, a cadence both warm and mysterious. Each time I play a recording of Thurman reciting one of his many meditations, I smile. Like Landrum Bolling writes, many of us feel like Thurman speaks directly to us — “vividly, intensely, personally.”

Once I started reading and listening to Thurman, I stopped feeling strange for seeking silence, stillness, and solitude. My awkwardness as the only African American on a silent retreat or at a spiritual conference dissipated. In him I found support for my desire for intimacy with God and hunger for spiritual community, and I began to consider him a mentor.

Thurman personally mentored and inspired many social and political activists, among them Pauli Murray, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Vernon Jordan, and Vincent Harding. Legions of individuals — faculty, staff, and students at Spelman College, Morehouse College, Howard University, and Boston University; members of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples; those in attendance at Sunday worship at Marsh Chapel; and the readers of his books and listeners of his catalogued lectures and sermons — have absorbed his quiet and determined direction. Something in his rich, poetic voice and profound wisdom speaks to the deeper places within us.

Being mentored by Thurman or someone else, however, does not mean we simply stop there. As those who have been mentored, we are called into mentoring others.

Thurman’s Mentors

Born into a community of trusted guides, Howard Thurman understood the importance of having a spiritual mentor and, eventually, of being one for others. “For Thurman, real learning always required the intimacy and intensity of personal mentoring,” write Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. “He had always sought out teachers who could provide this, and he would try to be that sort of teacher himself, giving several generations of students the same sort of close spiritual encounters that had been so important to him.” Howard Thurman needed spiritual mentors to reach the apex of his potential, and he blossomed into his role as mentor. Prominent people dotted young Thurman’s surroundings, including the family physician, John Stocking, and renowned educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Yet his grandmother Nancy Ambrose, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, George Cross, and Rufus Jones served as his chief mentors. Let’s look at how these individuals molded and shaped him and his thinking.

Grandma Nancy

Grandma Nancy served as Howard Thurman’s first mentor. She pushed him to develop his mind and live from his spirit. A close friend of Thurman’s, George Makechnie, notes, “Grandmother Nancy was Howard’s rock. Her spiritual strength, wisdom, and good sense had a profound influence upon his growth, shaping, and development.” Makechnie highlights, as Thurman himself did, the way he would read to her from scripture. I imagine him sitting beside her, how proud he must have felt, how precious were these moments he shared with her. She could not read, Makechnie writes, but “she firmly believed an education was of primary importance, and especially so to Blacks. ‘Your only chance,’ she told Howard, ‘is to get an education. The white man will destroy you if you don’t.’”

A tale about Grandma Nancy’s redemptive love demonstrates something of what she modeled for Howard. The story circulates today in sermons and lectures, although it’s hard to know whether it actually happened. Still, the story holds value for what it evokes of Grandma Nancy’s character. When Howard was a child, a white woman who lived adjacent to their home apparently resented having Black people live near her. Each night she dumped chicken manure she had scraped from her chicken coop over the fence onto Grandma Nancy’s garden. Young Howard wondered why his grandmother did not become enraged at her neighbor’s hateful act and exact some sort of revenge. Grandma Nancy chose instead to rise early and mix the manure into the soil and use it as fertilizer. This practice continued for years.

One day the old white woman, who lived alone, became ill. Being an authentic Christian, Grandma Nancy stopped by her neighbor’s house with some chicken soup and a bouquet of roses. The woman was deeply moved by Grandma Nancy’s acts of kindness and asked her where she had found the beautiful long-stem red roses. Grandma Nancy Ambrose told the neighbor that she herself had played a role in growing the beautiful roses. She reminded her about the chicken manure she had dumped regularly in her backyard.

The God Grandma Nancy worshipped showed her how to turn hate into love. Thurman espouses this form of redemptive love in Jesus and the Disinherited, in which he reminds his readers that Jesus treated people not in proportion to who they were but to who they could be. Thurman knew that healing a fractured nation would require this type of transformational love.

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson

While attending the Florida Baptist Academy, Thurman joined the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Although highly segregated, the YMCA created programs for the uplift of boys and young men. His election as president of his local chapter during his sophomore year allowed Thurman to attend his first King’s Mountain conference where he heard the great orator Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Johnson had served as a former student secretary of the International YMCA Committee. Howard was so impressed and stirred by Johnson’s message that he wrote him a letter. Despite his earlier ambivalence about the church, due to how it scorned his father’s death, Howard pleaded with Johnson to become his mentor. “I want to be a minister of the Gospel. I feel the needs of my people, I see their distressing condition, and have offered myself upon the altar as a living sacrifice, in order that I may help the ‘skinned and flung down’ as you interpret. God wants me and His precious love urges me to take up the cross and follow Him,” wrote the young Howard.

Johnson wrote back, and they continued their correspondence and personal relationship for many years. Possibly the most important piece of wisdom that Thurman incorporated into his adult life came from Johnson. He told Howard, “Keep in close touch with your people, especially with those who need your service. Take every opportunity to encourage their growth and to serve them. School yourself to think over all that you learn, in relation to them and to their needs. Make yourself believe that the humblest, most ignorant and most backward of them is worthy of the best prepared thought in life that you can give.” Howard Thurman took this wisdom into his spirit, and it directed him throughout his life.

George Cross

As a student at Rochester Theological Seminary, Howard Thurman took several courses taught by George Cross. He also had private conferences with him and was advised by him. Thurman wrote that Cross “had a greater influence on my life than any other person who ever lived. Everything about me was alive when I came into his presence.” In their personal meetings, held frequently on Saturday mornings in Cross’s faculty office, Thurman bantered with Cross, asking questions and making challenges. Cross would listen with great patience, Thurman later wrote, and then would “reduce my arguments to ash.”

George Cross believed in the brilliance of Howard Thurman, but as we saw earlier, he could not grasp the reality of racism, nor the extent to which it tries to annihilate unrealized potential in its victims.

Rufus Jones

As an instructor and mentor, Rufus Jones helped Thurman refine his thinking about the links between mysticism and social transformation. They spent many hours discussing how the inward life is connected to outward experience and how mysticism might expand efforts to remedy international conflict and poverty. Although they did not discuss race, which Thurman viewed as a blind spot in Jones’s analysis, Thurman knew he could use mysticism to alleviate the plight of Negroes. His intense kinship with Jones only deepened his intellectual grasp and personal experience of mysticism.

In June 1929, Howard Thurman wrote a note to Rufus Jones thanking him for “the huge share which you have had in the enrichment of my life during the past five months. I cannot now estimate the significance of the days with you at Haverford.” As a result of Thurman’s work on mysticism or religious experience, spiritual seekers and sacred activists continue to reap the benefits of this unique mentoring relationship.

Thurman carried the lessons and words of these spiritual mentors with him in his mind and in his heart. They would become models for him as he, too, became a mentor for others.

Mentoring Others

Howard Thurman serves as an exemplar for both the formal ministry of spiritual direction and informal spiritual friendship. Mentoring, at its best, is an exchange. Spiritual guides are vital beacons of light on the spiritual path, and once a person becomes spiritually mature, they naturally begin to serve as spiritual mentors for others. Maya Angelou instructs, “When you learn, teach.” Howard Thurman taught and mentored many, although not always in a formal classroom. Students found they could share their personal issues with Thurman and frequently sought him out for spiritual advice. His timeless sermons, public lectures, and written meditations endure because they continue to feed the hunger of the spirit. Let’s look at a few of the people he mentored.

Martin Luther King Jr.

We’ve already seen how Howard Thurman’s indelible mark on the American civil rights movement runs directly through his influence on Martin Luther King Jr. Clearly, the respect went both ways. Thurman expresses his great admiration for King with these words:

As a result of a series of fortuitous consequences there appeared on the horizon of the common life a young man who for a swift, staggering, and startling moment met the demands of the hero. He was young. He was well-educated with the full credentials of academic excellence in accordance with ideals found in white society. He was a son of the South. He was steeped in and nurtured by familiar religious tradition. He had charisma, that intangible quality of personality that gathers up in its magic the power to lift people out of themselves without diminishing them. In him the “outsider” and the “insider” came together in a triumphant synthesis. Here at last was a man who affirmed the oneness of black and white under a transcendent unity, for whom community meant the profoundest sharing in the common life. For him, the wall was a temporary separation between brothers. And his name was Martin Luther King Jr.

Religious scholar Paul Harvey says, “Thurman was a private man and an intellectual; he was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take a specific social and political cause to transform a country. But he mentored an entire generation, including King, who did just that. Thurman’s lesson to King was that the cultivation of the self feeds and enriches the struggle for social justice. In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation, and prayer.” Thurman transmitted that message to the larger civil rights movement.

It was at Crozier Seminary where Martin Luther King took a class from George Washington Davis, one of Thurman’s classmates at Rochester Seminary, and also read and wrote about Thurman’s seminal work Jesus and the Disinherited. King would later incorporate some of Thurman’s notions into some of his own writings and speeches. Although King did not consider himself a mystic, he was moved and amazed by the mystical wisdom of Thurman. Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman expressed hope that King would consider becoming the pastor of Fellowship Church, but King felt called to Montgomery to begin active work in the civil rights movement. Working behind the scenes, Howard Thurman became his spiritual adviser.

One story illustrates their spiritual connection. In 1958, a mentally disturbed woman attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. by stabbing him. Thurman writes that he experienced a “visitation,” or vision, and knew he needed to travel to New York to speak with King.

Thurman found King at Harlem Hospital and strongly urged him to take a much longer recuperation period and to include some time for silence and solitude. He needed to assess his role in the movement, in a venture that had taken on a life of its own. King later wrote to Thurman about how their meeting had been “a spiritual uplift, and of inestimable value in giving me the strength and courage to face the future of that trying period.” Historian Taylor Branch points out that this time was a period of relative quiet for King, a unique season within the rest of his adult life. There were no talks or lectures, but just solitude. It was after this respite that King took a five-week trip to India, studied the principles of nonviolence and civil disobedience, and laid a wreath at the grave of Mahatma Gandhi.

The ideas about a nonviolent religion and Jesus as a nonviolent liberator that Thurman developed in the years before and during his tenure at Fellowship Church received a larger audience through the publication of Jesus and the Disinherited in 1949. This book deeply influenced other leaders of the civil rights struggle. Thurman offered the vision of spiritual discipline that informed the moral basis of the Black freedom movement in the South. During these years, while serving on the boards of Fellowship for Reconciliation (FOR) and Congress of Racial Equality CORE, he spoke with leaders of these organizations and others — including Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Vernon Jordan, James Farmer, Pauli Murray, Jesse Jackson, and Whitney Young — about matters both political and spiritual. But Thurman always preferred offering quiet counsel and private intellectual guidance to garnering political visibility. His influence would extend into the future to touch the lives of many religious scholars and scores of spiritual seekers, including Alice Walker and Barack Obama.

Marian Wright Edelman

Like a river, Howard Thurman’s sway flowed along several tributaries, inspiring women and men who chose to devote their lives to important yet sometimes less visible causes. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund, found kinship with Thurman in the ways in which they were reared. They both emerged from families of deep faith who worked to buffer them from the hostile worlds they would encounter. Edelman writes, “Still, as in the days of Thurman’s childhood and in the day of my childhood, countless children in these most difficult, unjust, undeserved circumstances are bolstered and strengthened, nurtured and protected by parents, and others who struggle to counter the world’s message and remind their children that they are sacred gifts from God and precious in God’s sight.” Her parents, like Thurman’s grandmother and mother, didn’t want her to internalize negative and damaging social messages. Their loving protection gave her a certain inner strength that enabled her to take her prophetic message about the care of children into adulthood.

Edelman first encountered the words of Howard Thurman as a young girl exploring the books in her minister father’s study. Then as a college student, she heard Thurman speak when he visited Spelman Chapel. What kept her grounded in her work to save and support children, Edelman writes, were the urgings to pray, meditate, reflect, and be thankful for grace. In the centering moment, we find a “breath of renewal, and a recognition that we can only do our most faithful best and then turn it over to God. We cannot sustain this work if we are not centered.” Edelman took in Thurman’s words like a holy communion. Meditations of his like “Remember the Children” inspired her to hold “the big hope that never quite deserts me” and to continue in her struggles to end violence, promote love, and protect innocent children from needless suffering.

Vincent Harding

The deep waters of Howard Thurman’s wisdom also touched historian, educator, theologian, and activist Vincent Harding, who considered Thurman a surrogate father. Like so many others, Harding first met Thurman on the pages of Jesus and the Disinherited, which he read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Many years later, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a close and personal relationship burgeoned between these two great men. Thurman offered solace, care, and guidance in what Harding describes as the gloomy days following King’s death. During many long walks up the steep and winding streets of San Francisco, Harding and Thurman laughed and talked. Thurman invited Harding and his wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, to join him and Sue in their home for relaxation and fellowship.

Harding understood that Howard Thurman occupied the important role of mentor and companion to those summoned to the streets to march. As nonviolent demonstrators prepared for action, and when they returned victorious or defeated, Harding writes, “Thurman offered clarification, hope, and encouragement.” Thurman would sit with civil rights demonstrators and listen and pose questions rather than issue commands. He would ask them about what they were seeking and why and what means they utilized to achieve their goals. As a spiritual mentor, Thurman conveyed to them his firm belief that there could be no defeat of the movement if their motives remained oriented toward the oneness.

“I remember going to him in times of deep personal need, occasionally talking by phone, sometimes face to face,” Harding recalls. “He was always solidly present, listening, understanding, admonishing when necessary, sharing silence, surrounding and undergirding me with prayers, doing whatever else seemed helpful. We could feel Howard and Sue keeping our entire family and a special place of love and meditation between them. I remember our silences. They were filled with his wisdom and compassion. Indeed, it may be that he was the wisest and most compassionate man I have ever known.”

The wisdom of life exists to be passed on so that others will not suffer needlessly. A gifted mentor like Howard Thurman spurred people to refine who they already were and to recognize the strengths and talents they possess. Relying on some of Thurman’s words, noted author Sam Keen shares how Howard Thurman encouraged him to find his own vision: “Follow the grain in your own wood.” Peter Eisenstadt observes, “Throughout his career, Thurman was in demand as a mentor and advisor. Counseling is, of course, a core responsibility for all members of the clergy, but Thurman clearly had a special calling for it, less a matter of dispensing advice than assuming the role of a spiritual psychologist, to help others to find their inner voice, what he later called ‘sound of the genuine,’ and to assist them in formulating and answering their own questions.” One of the joys of being a professor for me was advising and mentoring students. I nudged them to try different forms of mindfulness, including meditation, to prevent test anxiety, spark creativity, and prompt innovative thinking. I highlighted the importance of retreats, especially silent ones, to re-energize and guard against burnout and stress. I enjoyed sitting and chatting with students, waiting for that special moment when their eyes would brighten and I would observe them “come alive,” as Thurman describes. The answers I have uncovered in the silence, the stillness, the quietness, the pausing, the “resting lull”: these answers emanate from the same Source Thurman drew from, the same wisdom that must be shared. He will remain my spiritual guide and companion, as his life and words lead me to the Light, to the Wholeness he knew.

Reprinted with permission from “What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk With Howard Thurman,” by Lerita Coleman Brown, copyright © 2023 Broadleaf Books.