Getting the mentoring you need

Kara Powell | Jan 3, 2005

Photo by Ben White

Wouldn’t it be great to have the kind of mentoring that Luke Skywalker had in the “Star Wars” trilogy? First he had Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kenobi was instrumental in beginning Luke’s light saber training and was single-handedly responsible for freeing Luke and his buddies from certain death by sacrificing himself to Darth Vader. That’s quite a mentor! Unfortunately with this act of martyrdom, Obi-Wan left Luke on his own to fight for truth, justice, and the Jedi way.

But then Luke ended up with Yoda as a mentor. One downside to Yoda’s mentoring was that Luke had to carry him around on his back. But at least that made him portable! Plus Yoda was constantly whispering all sorts of pithy phrases in his ear. Granted, most of them were over Luke’s head, at least for the moment. But still, Luke was trained by a wise Jedi-Master whose 900 years of experience were unmatched in the galaxy. What a vast treasure trove of wisdom!

Youth and family workers in all sorts of contexts are starting to recognize the benefits of having mentors for their own personal and professional development. In two focus groups of urban youth workers conducted by FYI (formerly CYFM) at the 2004 Urban Youth Workers Institute Conference, participants reported that their primary source of growth in both their personal and ministry lives came from being mentored.

One problem with the Skywalker-esque images of mentoring is that they set up unrealistic expectations for the kind of mentoring we can generally expect in life outside of the movies. Obi-Wan and Yoda were with Luke 24/7. They helped him with everything from lifting starfighters out of swamps to challenges of the will and body. These days there are few who can give that kind of time or have that kind of power (or for that matter, how many mentors are the size of Yoda and can fit in a backpack that you wear throughout your day?)

In the field of youth and family ministry, there is a shortage of these “end all/be all” mentors. Youth workers looking for someone to help them be better ministers, spouses, parents, friends, and followers of Christ often become frustrated when no Yoda drifts into their lives and promises to “make them a better person, I will.”

In his study of the development of leaders, J. Robert (“Bobby”) Clinton from Fuller Theological Seminary has created a paradigm to help leaders receive mentoring even when there aren’t enough mentors to go around. Instead of expecting one perfect, all-encompassing mentor, Clinton recommends developing a constellation of mentors, a small galaxy perhaps, none of whom is perfect but all of whom can speak into your life.

In his work with Paul D. Stanley, Clinton has divided the ideal mentor into mentoring functions. Youth workers can almost always find someone who can do one or more of them. By picturing the mentoring you need along a continuum of intensity, you’ll have better chances of getting the mentoring you need. [[Figure adapted from Stanley, PD and Clinton, JR. 1992. Connecting: The Mentoring Relationship You Need to Succeed in Life. NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO. p. 41]]

According to Clinton, at the far left of the diagram is the “discipler.” A discipler is someone who empowers you in the basics of following Christ. Often this type of mentoring is crucial when someone is beginning to develop his or her relationship with Christ.

The second type of mentor is a bit less intensive and is called a “spiritual guide.” A spiritual guide provides accountability, direction and insight that lead to greater spiritual maturity. Often called a “spiritual director,” this form of mentoring has gained popularity in recent years.

The third type of mentor, the “coach,” is still less intensive. A coach gives you the motivation, skills, and application needed to meet a task or challenge. Common examples of coaches in youth ministry include those who help you develop your speaking skills, your counseling abilities, or your small group facilitation skills. Each of these first three types are intentional, regular mentoring relationships.

The fourth type of mentor is a “counselor.” This person provides critical advice and perspectives that help you navigate your life and ministry circumstances. At times this may come through professional therapy, but it can also come from close friends or accountability relationships.

The “teacher” is the fifth type of mentoring. Either outside or inside of an official academic environment, this person provides crucial knowledge and understanding of particular subjects.

Clinton labels the sixth type of mentor as a “sponsor.” This person provides career guidance and protection, as well as networking opportunities, as you move through a ministry or organization. They might open the door for you for a promotion or for a new ministry opportunity that you wouldn’t get otherwise. This second group of mentoring relationships may or may not be intentional or regular. Your choice to get this type of mentoring, though, is quite deliberate.

The final and least deliberate type of mentor is a “model.” A model can either be a contemporary, living example you want to emulate or a historical example of a leader in the past who inspires your life and ministry. This final “model” category allows youth workers in any context to receive mentoring by studying the lives of previous leaders or reading provocative autobiographies and biographies.

Given the different types of mentors, it seems likely that when you’re in search of a mentor, it’s wise to:

1. Consider the areas of your life or ministry in which you need or desire mentoring.

2. Ask yourself what type(s) of mentoring best corresponds with those areas.

3. Be intentional and committed to getting the type of mentoring you have identified.

4. Brainstorm person(s) you know who might fit that type of mentor you have identified for yourself.

5. If applicable, prayerfully ask that person(s) to mentor you, making sure that you clearly spell out the type of mentoring you’re hoping to receive. If the mentoring and/or mentoring relationship are less deliberate (meaning you won’t need to ask the person(s) for an official “mentoring relationship”), be sure to design an intentional plan so you get the consistent input you need. Consistency will help provide the results you are looking for.

6. Evaluate the mentoring relationship approximately every three months to make sure that the relationship keeps growing and improving.

Maybe you’ll never find the perfect Yoda to accompany you on every step of your journey. But maybe you don’t have to. By using the mentoring continuum, it’s possible that you can piece together your own Yoda network to get the mentoring you need (light saber not included).

Action Points:

Questions for you to consider and maybe discuss with another youth worker, friend or prospective mentor:

  • As mentioned in the article, in focus groups conducted by FYI, urban youth workers have named mentors as their primary source of growth in their personal and ministry lives. Is the same true for you? Why or why not?
  • In what areas of your life or ministry do you currently need or desire mentoring?
  • Which of the seven types of mentors best corresponds with those needs?
  • Who do you know who might be available to be that kind of mentor for you? What do you have to lose by inviting them to be your mentor? What might you gain?


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Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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