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The Accidental Mentor By Alec Hill

Five Lessons Learned by Becoming a Mentor

The path to becoming a mentor can be accidental.

In 2016, I faced a challenging situation. Following a bone marrow transplant, my long-term disability benefits were running out. Given my illness, I still needed six more months of living in quasi-isolation and could not return to the job I had had before. What type of work could I do in the interim?

After several conversations with my supervisor, we decided that I would serve as a mentor to a dozen InterVarsity staff. Then I would find a “real” job.

But a funny thing happened along the way. I discovered a new calling. Who would have guessed that a Type A personality like me could morph into a pastoral presence in the lives of leaders 15-35 years my junior?

For the past seven years, I’ve continued to work as a mentor. As the number of mentees has grown, the majority are no longer related to InterVarsity.

On this unexpected journey, I learned five important lessons.

Mentoring Relationships are Non-Reciprocal

Most relationships are mutual, with each person sharing equally. But mentoring is different. From my first conversations with new mentees, I make it clear that our calls will be 100% about them – a one-sided focus. For the next 60 minutes, we will concentrate on whatever they want to discuss. Common topics include disappointments, transitions, personal issues, and conflicts.

Mentoring Requires Preparation

I ask mentees to send me their topic(s) 24 hours before a call. Why? Because a conversation without focus drifts and feels wasted. But when a mentee articulates in advance what’s important, we hit the ground running, and time flies.  

I also prepare. First, I try to think through – and pray about – the topic in advance. What questions should I ask? What resources can I recommend? Second, I reread the notes I made during prior sessions so that I can ask intelligent questions about “how did that go?” Finally, I pray for each mentee by name on Friday. Often, the Holy Spirit nudges me to send a note of encouragement.   

Confidentiality is a Two Way Street

I handle personal information with strict confidentiality. As a lawyer, this comes naturally to me. But I also ask mentees to be cautious in sharing the advice I may have offered.

A couple of years ago, I got in a bit of trouble when I advised an InterVarsity staff member about how to negotiate a raise. When he mentioned my name to his supervisor, it caused some uncomfortable ripples for me.

Mentoring Differs From Coaching and Spiritual Direction

Coaching, mentoring, and spiritual direction are related and yet distinct. Here are my definitions.

  • Mentors are typically senior in terms of age and experience. They ask good questions and listen carefully. When they speak – no more than half the time – they provide advice and wisdom that draws on their experience and expertise.
  • Coaches enable others to identify goals, name obstacles, and develop concrete plans to move forward. Often about the same age as those they serve, they do life side-by-side in an egalitarian/partner model. They speak no more than a quarter of the time.
  • Spiritual Directors facilitate another’s spiritual formation through a covenantal relationship. By personal holiness and spiritual maturity, they guide others to pay attention to the presence and work of God in their lives. Typically, they speak less than 20% of the time.

Mentors Need Mentor

Seeing a mentoring relationship’s impact, I belatedly sought out my own. A few years ago, Leighton Ford – still going strong at 91 – entered my life. During our monthly calls, we discuss my most pressing stuff. His attentive listening and caring presence serve as a model of mentoring that helps me serve my mentees more effectively. We’ve even done some writing together.

Final Thoughts

Mentoring is one of the richest experiences I’ve ever had. The look on an engaged mentee’s face when entering a call – anticipatory and animated – is incredibly energizing. When I sense that I’m making a difference in his or her life, my purpose bucket overflows.    

For those of you nearing retirement, I strongly encourage you to consider adding mentoring to your portfolio of activities. Serving the next generation of leaders is both significant and brings great joy. If you would like to further explore this possibility, feel free to contact me.

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Alec Hill is president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is also the author of, Living in Bonus Time: Surviving Cancer, Finding New Purpose.

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