The power of mentoring

Posted Jan 02, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Willie Sordillo

Willie SordilloThis fall, I took my yearly trip to Ithaca to visit my friend of nearly 40 years, Sox. In addition to our usual conversations on politics, spirituality, relationships, music, and surfing, these days we spend a fair amount of time talking about ageing. Rather than focusing on our aches and pains, this part of the conversation is more about how we embrace our role as elders with experience and knowledge gained over years of work and practice. We talk about the people who mentored us when we were younger (and who continue to mentor us), and how to mentor others.

A couple of days earlier, I attended a party hosted by friends whose son is a former sax student of mine. In the years since our last lesson, he’s continued to grow as a musician, and he led the band which provided entertainment for the party. Comprised of people in their 20s, I’ve watched a number of them grow up. Playing a repertoire that ranged from Aretha and Stevie Wonder to Cee Lo Green, they rocked the house! It was a beautiful sight to see the mostly 50ish and upwards audience swaying to the music, unable to stand still, unselfconsciously digging the scene, not because they were kids we knew and cared about, but because they were just that good. As I sat in with them for a jazz set, feeling like a proud father as I played alongside my former student, I was keenly aware that mentoring is as much a gift—and as much a learning experience—for the mentor as the mentee.

I am coming to realize that mentoring can be sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental and sometimes essential. In an article in the July 29 issue of The New Yorker, Atul Gawande talks about why some ideas—often lifesaving in import—catch on relatively quickly while others linger for decades or more, despite proven effectiveness. The ability to readily witness the phenomena in question is a factor, hence the relatively rapid acceptance of the use of ether to quell pain during surgery in contrast to the dismissal of antiseptic practice decades after the publication on such techniques. These discoveries took place in the mid-1800s, yet despite a current cultural climate which by and large takes for granted invisible scientific and technical phenomena, some habits remain nearly intractable.

In Northern India, infant mortality is ten times higher than it is in high-income countries. In one hospital, four percent of babies die shortly after going home. Two of the greatest causes of this are lack of hand-washing by attendants and hypothermia, which could be prevented by placing newborns immediately on their mothers’ skin. Even with training and the use of punishment and reward systems, these simple practices were not broadly adopted. But, a study conducted by the BetterBirth Project found something that’s making a difference.

Everett Rogers points out that mass media can introduce a new idea to people; but people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. In other words, real change comes about through mentoring. Simply put, when birth attendants in Northern India developed trusting relationships with nurse trainers, change took place.

This is the philosophy behind the Transition into Ministry program. Trusting relationships are built between experienced pastors and new clergy, and between congregations and clergy. If we are to prepare our churches to meet current challenges and sustain into the future, we need to foster these relationship webs.

Sox lost his primary mentor this past December, and as I get older, I feel more than ever the need to honor these relationships, as both mentor and mentee, and to think about how I can become better at both. One thing I’m sure of, whatever it is we know, we need to pass it on, even as we let it go to become whatever it will in the hands of the person who receives it. And we need to allow ourselves to be changed in the process, to learn as much from the student as we hope to give. This, I think, is what makes getting older not only bearable, but sustaining.

Willie Sordillo is the Administrator for the Pastoral Excellence Network.

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