Why is mentoring so important? What does good mentoring look like? And what are some ways an everyday Christian can start to mentor people in their lives? A sprawling conversation with two practiced mentors, Jeremy Walker, director of Quest, and Mike Richardson, Columbia faculty member and founder of Quest, provides a wealth of wisdom on mentoring.
The border guard looked in the car window, a suspicious frown on her face. Jeremy Walker, director of Columbia’s Quest discipleship program, and Mike Richardson, Quest founder, were heading into the United States. “Do you often spend time with people who are a lot older than you are?” was the guard’s question to Jeremy.
Without batting an eye, Jeremy replied, “Every chance I get.”
It’s a story Mike tells with a chuckle, but with a little sadness too. He sees it as a perfect illustration of a key missing piece in our society: mentoring relationships. It’s become a rare thing for people to cross generational lines, for a younger person to keep company with one who’s older and wiser.
Why are these relationships so few and far between? Mike suggests a number of reasons. One is our collective emphasis on human development. We — schools, churches, community — tailor our programs to ages and life stages: kids, middle-schoolers, teens, seniors. We silo people into their age-focused activities and rarely plan events that bring generations together. Mike also senses a general reluctance among his fellow Baby Boomers. Many of his generation, he muses, shy away from mentoring young people because they were raised with the ideals of individualism and independence: “you need to do this for yourself, and you don’t ask for help.” They themselves were not mentored, and so they are simply not sure where to start. Economic and family realities play a role too, as teenagers spend more time alone while their parents work longer hours. Add these elements together and it’s no wonder there are so few ‘old’ to ‘young’ mentoring connections.
ORGANIC & INTENTIONAL
Columbia’s Quest program works hard to defy this trend. Every September, twenty-five or so young people arrive on the Columbia Bible College campus to engage in a year of discipleship. They come expecting a mix of classroom learning and outdoor adventure, and they get it. On top of their Bible & theology classes, ‘Questies’ spend forty days in BC’s wild — tackling everything from canoeing to tall-ship sailing to spelunking. They also come expecting friendships, the kind that are forged quickly when you camp, paddle, pray, and study together.
What many Quest students don’t expect is the level of mentoring they will have access to. Most will develop deep relationships not just with their peers, but also with their Quest leaders, who range in age from 20-something to 60-something. And these relationships will have a clear purpose beyond togetherness and fun.
“Mentoring is stewarding wisdom,” Mike explains. Jeremy picks up the thread. “I would define wisdom as the art of skillfully living. Mentoring is the relational process by which we invite others to follow us as we follow Jesus.” They agree that mentoring is not so much about building competency (that’s coaching), but developing character and identity that are rooted in Christ.
In Quest, mentoring is intentional, but it’s also organic. There’s no list matching students to ‘official’ Quest mentors, nor is there a plan requiring regularly-scheduled mentoring appointments. Instead, mentoring relationships emerge little by little over the course of the year. And it’s the student who sets the pace.
“The out-trips are a seedbed for fostering mentoring relationships,” shares Jeremy. “A lot of students feel more comfortable doing side-by-side things.” This is a unique feature of Quest — leaders literally come alongside students. Hours of hiking, bus-riding, and chair-lift riding pave the way for more intimate face-to-face talks. “There’s this easing in,” Jeremy observes. “We had dinner with you, we hiked with you, and now those conversations become part of this process in a very non-threatening way.”
THE ART OF LOVING INVASION
“I would say we have developed the art of loving invasion into the lives of students,” Mike smiles. “One of our program mantras is ‘We cannot be fully loved until we are fully known.’ So we create a culture where it’s a safe place to be known.”
Both Jeremy and Mike light up when they describe the mentoring conversations they get to have as students begin to feel safe enough to open up. They invite students to share their stories, ask them about family patterns, explore questions of faith, and help them dream about their futures. Specific habits and issues are often tackled. Throughout, there is a tremendous amount of verbal encouragement. Mike and Jeremy take every opportunity to affirm Questies, to praise them for their strengths, and to let them know the unique ways they see God’s image reflected in each of them. For many students, this takes some getting used to.
“It seems like a shock to people when we speak words of encouragement into their life,” Mike observes. “They don’t have a place to put that.” This makes sense given the experiences many students bring with them into the program.
“There are a lot of stories filled with shame, hurt, abuse, sin, you name it,” Jeremy explains. Gently and compassionately, Mike and Jeremy and their fellow leaders work at helping students change these negative narratives, to rescript the voice in their heads that’s keeping them from being what God’s designed them to be. In some cases, the transformations are astonishing. Jeremy tells the story of one student who had suffered horrific abuse and hurt from their church — who really didn’t want anything to do with God when she first arrived. That young woman experienced restoration, to the point where she chose to lead an on-campus event to fight human trafficking.
Though the stories of transformation are not always so dramatic, they tend to follow a similar pattern. Mike grins as he describes that pattern: “New habits develop. That then refine character. Belief in themselves. An understanding of ‘I have something to offer the world,’ and then to go see them do that. Discovering their voice, how to use their strengths, their gifts.”
MENTORING IN ‘THE REAL WORLD’
The mentoring that happens within Quest sounds special, and it is. But both Jeremy and Mike are convinced that it doesn’t take an outdoor discipleship program for powerful mentoring to take place. If you’re a Christian, you can mentor others on the way. In their minds there are three ingredients to successful mentoring: asking questions, spending time together, and sharing stories.
JUST ASK QUESTIONS
“There’s this idea that to nurture wisdom, then I must be able to give really good advice. And people know their own stories, they know their own mistakes, so they automatically disqualify themselves from being a good mentor. What I wish they knew, is really, you just ask questions. Most of what students discover, they discover for themselves. Really, you’re just available.”
IT’S WHO YOU KNOW
Available to whom is perhaps the next logical question. Today’s culture of busyness can make it feel impossible to fit in an intentional, time-intensive mentoring relationship. For Mike, the answer here is to look at your life and focus on identifying the mentoring relationships you already have. People are often surprised that they’re already engaged in mentoring — in relationships intent on nurturing wisdom. Mike loves to sit down with people and help them see that they can be more intentional in their existing relationships. Grandparents are a particular favorite of his. “What goes on in your relationship with your grandkids? There you are, down on the floor building Legos, or roaming in the mud, and you’re engaging with them. Letting them know they’re valuable. You’re stewarding wisdom. That’s mentoring at its finest!”
Jeremy’s approach is similar. He encourages people to take stock of the people they already know and care about: “Who in my life could I provide a safe place for? What young people would it be cool to invite to share life with? Who can I do life with who doesn’t have someone to do life with?” This could be as simple as having a young adult over for coffee and boardgames, or it could mean doing what Jeremy and his wife did, inviting Glenallen, a younger staff member, to live in their spare room. Jeremy’s aware this situation might not work for everyone, but he sees it as a great way to blend everyday life with mentoring. “Glenallen gets to see family with all the good and bad — the challenges and opportunities for growth. He’s getting a realistic lens for how marriage looks.”
TELL ALL YOUR STORIES
Sharing reality is an idea Mike is also passionate about. For him, something as simple as sharing real life experiences can lead to powerful mentoring. “Everyone is drawn to story,” he notes, and goes on to paint the picture of a group of retired men enjoying their morning coffee at Tim Horton’s. “What do they do — they swap stories. What if you invited some younger guys into your group and just let them hear your stories? There are so many jewels in that.”
AN INVESTMENT WITH HUGE RETURNS
Jewels for the listener, and for the teller too. Mike becomes visibly emotional when he describes what it’s been like for him to mentor so many Quest students over the years.
“It’s incredibly humbling to have the opportunity of knowing someone deeply and profoundly, and caring for them, and then being cared for by them. These people become family. You lay down your life for them, and that’s part of the privilege of it — the connection lasts a lifetime.”
“And then when I can see what they’re doing in the lives of others, with goal of intention of being imitators of Christ, then I know they’ve got it. For me now, watching our students all over the globe and getting stories back of the people they’re investing in, and the ways they’re extending the kingdom… that is so exciting!”
This article was first published in the 2018-2019 edition of Columbia’s Contact Magazine.