One of the best things I’ve ever done was to enter a mentoring relationship with Kenneth West. I was a young man, still in my twenties, working as a lead pastor for the first time in my life, and woefully unprepared for the task. He was in his seventies when we met, a retired pastor, full of wisdom, and still passionate about life with God.
The first time I saw him, he was teaching a Sunday School class. He was a big man, as tall as me, with a sturdier frame. He had large hands that were calloused by hard work, a genuine smile, and an openness toward others I later came to attribute to humility.
We never referred to our connection as a mentoring relationship. We didn’t really refer to it at all; instead of talking about the nature of our relationship, we talked about the nature of life, of faith, and of work. I still remember some of the things he said, but what he said was not as important as the kind of life he modeled. I didn’t just want to learn from him; I wanted to be like him.
I was impressed by his humility from the beginning. He was a good storyteller. Whether his story was about himself or someone else made no difference; never once did I get the impression that he was telling the story to impress people with himself. He loved God, loved life, and loved people, and he wanted to share what he loved with others.
He taught me to eschew brash dogmatism. He did this by showing me that it is possible to firmly believe something without insisting everyone else believe it. I learned from him how to disagree with others without disparaging them. He helped me see that life, whatever else it is, is not an argument to be won or lost.
I learned from him that a well-ordered life is, by necessity, a prioritized life. Humans are not God. They cannot do everything. They must make choices. Once, when we were talking about something that demanded a higher priority in my life, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to make time for it.”
Ken West looked at me knowingly and said, “Brother Looper,” – he always called me that – “You can’t make time. You can only take it from something else.” It was an obvious truth with profound implications, but I’d never thought of it before. A good mentor helps you see yourself and others in a new light.
Mentoring has, in recent years, become a “thing,” especially in the business world. But it is not just business types who can benefit from finding a mentor. I know from experience that a good mentor can make a difference in a pastor’s life, but teachers, customer service people, husbands, wives, and students can all benefit from establishing a relationship with a good mentor.
There are things to do and things to avoid when finding a mentor. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor because you admire his or her success. Ask someone to be your mentor because you admire his or her life. The person who has succeeded in your field but failed in marriage may believe that sacrificing relationships is an acceptable price to pay to achieve success. Is that really the kind of mentoring you want?
Find someone who has already navigated the path you are on, is far enough ahead of you to know what the terrain looks like and has the communication skills to describe it to you. Remember that not everyone who has achieved proficiency in a skill is able to articulate the steps in getting there.
Look for someone who sees the relationship as a way to give, not a way to take. Some people love the idea of mentoring (especially the authority and admiration that comes with it) and love to give advice but are more interested in themselves than in the other person.
Finally, don’t quit the relationship when you don’t like what the mentor says. It’s the hard truths that help most. Find a mentor who will tell you what you need to hear, even if it is not what you want to hear.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/7/2018