By Eddie Pipkin

November 21, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, long-distance runner Shalane Flanagan won the New York City Marathon, the first American woman to do so in 40 years (with an impressive time of 2 hours and 26 minutes).  It was an amazing individual accomplishment, but inspiring as it was, there is something even larger that Shalane Flanagan is respected for in the running community (as explained here in a recent New York Times article):

[P]erhaps Flanagan’s bigger accomplishment lies in nurturing and promoting the rising talent around her, a rare quality in the cutthroat world of elite sports. Every single one of her training partners — 11 women in total — has made it to the Olympics while training with her, an extraordinary feat. Call it the Shalane Effect: You serve as a rocket booster for the careers of the women who work alongside you, while catapulting forward yourself.

“Shalane has pioneered a new brand of ‘team mom’ to these young up-and-comers, with the confidence not to tear others down to protect her place in the hierarchy,” said Lauren Fleshman, who became a professional runner in the early 2000s, around the same time Flanagan did. “Shalane’s legacy is in her role modeling, which women in every industry would like to see more of.”

The problem for elite women runners, historically, is that despite their raw talent and willingness to work hard, they most often functioned without a supportive extended community to encourage them, share the stress, and gain the wisdom of experience.  Therefore, they most often peak, then burn out, with their true potential unfulfilled, their racing days over too soon.

It occurred to me as I was reading her story that this is exactly the dilemma faced by many young adults in the church.  They have passion and ideas—they care deeply about God and their community—they want to serve—they want to build lasting relationships—but many local churches are unsure what to do with them.  Like the women Shalane Flanagan decided to nurture, they have a history of peaking in a blaze of glory, then burning out and becoming disaffected with the institution they once so loved.

One of the most powerful strategies available to existing faith communities in avoiding this unfortunate turn of events is fostering mentor relationships: older Christians who have been traveling for longer on the faith journey and are willing to share their wisdom and support with someone who is younger and formative in their faith.  Just as Flanagan built a sympathetic shared space for accountability and encouragement, local churches can provide the framework for intergenerational connections which help young people channel their energy and ideas.

This is an opportunity for older congregations to invest themselves in a legacy for the future while bringing fresh energy to the life of the local church.  Marian Liautaud at Exponential sums it up (as part of an article titled, Five Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be”):

Millennials don’t feel the same sense of obligation to attend church that previous generations may have. At the same time, being part of a faith community can provide young adults with exactly the mentorship and guidance they crave from older adults. Barna’s research shows that young adults who remain involved in a local church beyond their teen years are twice as likely as those who don’t to have a close personal friendship with an older adult in their faith community (59% vs. 31% among church dropouts). They’re also twice as likely to have had a mentor other than a pastor or youth minister (28% vs. 11%).

“Mentoring and discipling this next generation is everything,” says Aspen Group CEO Ed Bahler, a founding partner of the Cornerstone Knowledge Network. Baby Boomers, Bahler says, hold all the financial, intellectual, professional and relational capital. “The golden opportunity for the Church is learning how to tap into all of this capital and leverage it to equip the next generation to lead in the church.”

Of course, it is not only about equipping the next generation—prepping promising future leaders for the far-off time when they can take their turn.  Too often, existing churches think in these dead-end terms.  The problem with this approach is that once you inspire young people to be passionate about serving Jesus, they are not likely to hang around waiting their turn until the present generation of leaders dies off.  If we don’t give them significant roles in casting our vision and carrying it out right now, they will go find someone and someplace that will.

This understanding that the purpose of mentoring is to help those being mentored discover and develop their own call is a core mindset for those who would serve as mentors.  Kurt Willems, writing at Patheos in the article, The Crisis of Millennial Mentorship: What Young Leaders Desperately Need to Hear,” shares from his own experience:

Too often mentorship becomes something like mold-er-ship: trying to create clones who create more clones is one of the crises of mentorship for the millennial generation. We long to become more fully human – more of who we were meant to be – not merely a younger version our mentor. What those of us in our 20s and early 30s (millennials) crave more than anything from spiritual and ministry mentors is safety. In most mentoring situations that go bad, the number one complicating factor usually comes down to the reality that a mentor was uncomfortable creating space for their mentee to safely ask questions, doubt, or even to disagree.

For those would-be mentors who “get it,” there are some other basic principles for what makes a successful mentorship (expanded on in this Crosswalk article from Whitney Hopler, Mentor the Next Generation):

  • There are lots of different ways to be a mentor. It’s a not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.  Figure out what your own style is and lean into it.  Find someone to mentor who works well with the style you have to offer.
  • Pay attention to the young adults who are already in your life. You can do a lot of good without ever having access to a formal mentoring program.  You likely know young people who would benefit from your presence and guidance in their life.  Devote time to these relationships.  Be intentional about them.
  • Be authentic and emotionally vulnerable. Be willing to share your own struggles, not just the list of all the aphorisms you have stored up over the years.  Young people need to know that you have faced the same kinds of challenges that they are facing right now and have made the same kinds of mistakes they are making.  Such honest sharing builds credibility in their eyes.
  • Share your stories and listen to theirs. They don’t want to hear lectures of bullet-point lists of advice.  They want to hear stories in context, full of details and interesting characters (just like the interesting characters they are dealing with right now).  Be sure and give them a sense of the arc of your growth, so they can learn to see their own story beyond the present moment.
  • Live with integrity. If you don’t practice what you preach—live out the values you are attempting to pass on to them—the relationship will be undermined, maybe destroyed.  We must be true to the gospel values we espouse.
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh. Humor is an important addition in any relationship toolkit.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.  Don’t let the person you are mentoring take themselves too seriously either.  Laughter can set people at ease and open many doors.

Just like Shalane Flanagan, we can move beyond our own success to build a supportive system of up-and-coming strivers who find successes of their own.  Does the church you are part of have a program that helps connect mentors with young people?  Have you ever been a part of such a program?  If so, what was your experience?  Have you personally mentored another disciple?  Do you have thoughts on a wonderful mentor who helped you on your own journey?  Share your stories and questions here in our comments section.  And blessings to you in your ministry this week.