Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Spiritual Mentors

The kernel of the idea for this post came from a comment over at Real Intent. In response to a discussion about asking the right questions, commenter Brenda wrote, “In conversation with a spiritual mentor I was asked to…”

I was intrigued with the idea of a spiritual mentor and began to reflect about my own life and to wonder if I had spiritual mentors, and if those mentors would even know who they were.

I have never had a formal mentor in any setting. At work I’ve had a few people that I call on occasionally for advice on career development matters, so I feel like they mentor me, but we don’t have a formal relationship around that mentoring. Similarly, at church I have not consciously entered into a formal mentoring relationship with anyone, though there are those I have looked to for guidance and counsel on spiritual things. Those have included over the years:

1. Ecclesiastical leaders – I’ve counseled with bishops and stake presidents, particularly in relation to my callings or when I’ve had specific questions (usually about my family) for which I wanted their counsel and advice.
2. Family members – I have gone to my parents when they were alive and to my siblings for advice on specific matters. My father and my father-in-law were particularly valuable sounding boards when they were still alive.
3. Friends – once in a while I’ve felt close enough with someone – usually someone with whom I’ve served – to ask for advice on a spiritual matter. It may have been a gospel question or a particular decision I’m trying to make an with which I’m struggling to get an answer.
4. My spouse – I value my wife’s view very highly. She is thoughtful and actively seeks the Lord’s influence in her life; she actively seeks the guidance of the spirit as a parent and in her callings. I will talk to her about questions I have or thoughts I’m considering to get her point of view.

Interestingly, missing from my spiritual mentors list are home teachers. I’ve never felt that closeness, and I’ve always felt my home teachers are for my family, not for me alone. That’s probably not completely reasonable thinking on my part, especially thinking back on the quality of my home teachers (excellent!) and their dedication (also excellent!) over time.

I’ve thought about why I haven’t had specific spiritual mentors, and I can think of a few reasons, some cultural and some more doctrinal:

1. We value self-reliance. For as long as I can remember we’ve taught self-reliance in the church. We teach Moroni 10 and D&C 6, 8 and 9 – we can get our answers to prayer, our own revelation. We were actively taught for a number of years in our area to “get off the bishop’s worry list,” which most of us translated as being spiritually self-reliant. While I agree it’s good for the bishop to have fewer people on his worry list, it’s probably not accurate to think in terms of spiritual self-reliance since we all are reliant upon the Savior and his atoning sacrifice for our redemption.
2. There’s no calling of mentor. In the church we are happy to sustain people in the positions to which they have been called. We answer assignments from priesthood leaders because we sustain them. We prepare for Sunday School class because we sustain the teacher. We sing in the choir because we sustain the choir director. If someone is called to lead us, we follow. But rarely do we follow someone who is not called to lead us. We don’t appoint ourselves over others, and we don’t appoint others over ourselves. As I mentioned above, a home- or visiting-teacher might naturally fit in a mentoring role, but I’ve never had that experience, either as a home teacher or a home teachee.
3. We’re all alike. Because we are a lay church, we accept that we’re more or less all the same. Some of us are called to lead the rest of us from time to time, but otherwise we’re pretty similar. There are obvious differences: new members may feel less prepared than more seasoned ones. Members returning to activity after a long time away may feel more like new members. But except for temporary differences in callings, we’re all pretty much cut from the same cloth, so we don’t naturally assume that we can be mentored by someone else or that we could mentor someone else.
4. Those who do have more experience or wisdom (read: who are older) are also busy. There are some wise folks in our wards, people who have been around the block, who have been where we are at one point of another. But often they are the busy ones, either serving in high-pressure callings or having high-pressure situations at home. So we’re reluctant to reach out and seek their mentoring wisdom. Or maybe we’re just embarrassed to ask for help and we use their potential busy-ness as an excuse.

That said, I think there’s potential value in mentors in the church. Certainly for new members or members in transition (think Young Women moving into Relief Society or Young Men moving into the Elders Quorum), a mentor fills that role of Friend that President Hinckley said we all need. But even more established members can benefit from a listening ear, an understanding heart and wise experience.

Sometimes we draw that wisdom and counsel out of general circumstances to apply to our specific situations. We apply the teachings of a conference talk or a Relief Society lesson to our own lives.

But sometimes it would be nice to have that relationship that a mentor could provide – a regular sounding board as we navigate unknown waters, a voice of experience as we face new things, an alternate point of view as we evaluate options.

Of course there are some risks. A mentor cannot and should not take the place of personal revelation. Nor should the mentor replace the inspired counsel of a loving priesthood leader who has keys and responsibility. (I heard that second idea reinforced in recent seminary teacher training I attended. We were reminded that seminary teachers are not to replace bishops in the lives of their students, but should point students to their priesthood leaders. I’m aware that the professionals at LDS Family Services are trained to do the same.)

Have you had spiritual mentors in your life?


  1. Hi there Paul. I hadn't thought about this topic very deeply but it is one that has been active in my life for some time. The mentor I was speaking about was the father of my best friend in High School. I had a turbulent relationship with my parents at that time and spent most of my free time with that friend at her home. Her dad would wait up for us to come home from dates and etc and when we arrived would sit us down in the living room and have a conversation about the Gospel. He did this every weekend. He challenged our beliefs and had us find the answers in the scriptures. It got to be that I looked forward to these late night scripture sessions more than the activities that preceded them.

    I also had several other people over time fit the bill of mentor. A YW leader, my parents and a grandmother, a teacher at BYUI, and others.

    These relationships grew organically and were the product of love and trust between me and people I admired. Now that I think of it they have always been older and wiser.

    There was never a formal framework for these relationships but I have benefited immensely from them.

    I think sometimes the idea that we must be spiritually self-sufficient gives us the idea that it is not good to rely on others at all. The Gospel is about unity, we lift each other, we teach each other. To seek out wisdom from others should be natural.

    Certainly, care needs to be taken to ensure that we are relying on the Spirit and receiving answers for ourselves. That comes from building a relationship with the Savior but these types of relationships can be sweet and the vehicle for growth.

  2. Brenda, thanks for adding to the conversation! I think the idea of adults acting as mentors to youth is natural anb comfortable in the church. In fact, I've lived in units where there's been a more or less organized effort to assign mentors, particularly to the most at risk youth. How fortunate that your friend's dad played the role he did.

    I agree with your concern about the tension between spiritual self-sufficiency and relying on others. That's an interesting boundary that I continue to ponder.