Reflections on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Pt 1

I committed to walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela on an impulse. A friend casually asked if I would be interested in walking it with him one day. Immediately, without thinking it through, I was hooked and determined to make it happen. This is not normal behaviour for me. Although I still can’t fully explain it, I think there was something of a tug from the Holy Spirit involved. Yes, there was an appeal to my sense of adventure, but the Camino is not just any old walking trail. This is a bona fide pilgrimage– one of the big three that date back to medieval times: Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. So perhaps I was also motivated by my love of history and connecting with ancient practices of discipleship. And yet I knew in some visceral way that my urge to go on pilgrimage was far more than an educational history excursion. It was to do with working out how I would follow Jesus right here, right now.

Getting ready to go took me two years. I’m sure others could manage to get themselves organised more quickly but that’s how it was for me. Those two years form the boundary between my ministry in the past and my ministry in the future. It’s been two years of realigning myself to a new call, and the Camino was to be a pivotal moment in that transition. When getting ready for a major pilgrimage, there are four major areas of preparation to be attended to. I’ll go through them one by one because each of these areas has direct relevance to disciplines and practices that may sustain and develop a missional life in our communities. I won’t tediously spell out specific applications of implied principles but I encourage you to make the connections that relate to your particular context.

Firstly, you have to prepare your schedule. That means clearing the necessary time in your diary. In my case that was five weeks – not an easy task! And it involves researching and planning your route. There are several Camino pathways. They all end in Santiago de Compostela but you can start in many different places. I ended up choosing to walk the 800-kilometre Camino Frances route, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. John Brierley’s Pilgrim’s Guidewas very helpful in planning daily stages. Preparing your schedule builds anticipation and resolve. As your imagination gets fired up you start enjoying the journey before you have even taken one step.

Secondly, you have to prepare your kit. I was not at all experienced in outdoor pursuits and had very little of the necessary gear. On pilgrimage, when you’re carrying everything on your back, you don’t want to be lugging stuff you don’t really need. And you want whatever you do take to be efficient, light, strong, durable, multi-purpose and easy to use/wear. Some obvious life lessons to be drawn from that. My biggest surprise in this area was to realise the usefulness of walking poles. In my vanity, I thought they looked a bit silly and a bit unnecessary for an able-bodied man, so I almost didn’t buy a pair. That would have been a serious mistake.

Thirdly, you have to prepare your body. I had only a basic level of fitness when I decided to walk the Camino, so my body needed some serious training. My schedule for the Camino required me to walk an average of 27 kilometres each day. The first time I tried walking that distance in one go in training I really hurt myself. There was so much to learn about hydration, stretching, massage, blister prevention and so on. I began walking 5 kilometres daily in the boots I intended to wear on the Camino. I built this up to 10 kilometres per day over the course of a year, with the occasional longer walk. By the time I headed to Spain I was confident I had done the necessary preparation. I was wrong. Three days into the Camino I was in a lot of pain with dreadful blisters. If not for the help of the Spanish woman who ran one of the albergues I don’t know what I’d have done.

Fourthly, you have to prepare your soul. Well, maybe you don’t haveto. But if you want to approach the Camino as a pilgrimage and not just a long walk, some soul work is crucial. My processes for preparation were reading, praying and conversations. I devoured several books to get in touch with the issues. Martin Robinson’s Sacred Places, Pilgrim Paths is full of fabulous quotes arranged around some thoughtfully crafted themes. In terms of soul preparation I was especially grateful for Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey. I can’t recommend that book highly enough. I also read through Exodus and spent many hours meditating on Psalm 84. My prayers centred on the question of what God wanted to do in me over the month I was away. Early on I was keen to be prepared to witness to others on the Camino but I became convinced this was not the first matter on God’s agenda. My soul work in prayer was to get to a place of receptivity. Conversations with a few people who had walked pilgrimages were useful, mostly for dispelling romantic expectations of Damascus Road experiences! 

Exactly what makes walking the Camino de Santiago so impactful is hard to express. Part of it has to do with being away from the myriad of annoying little details that complicate normal daily existence. A decision has to be made about how ‘in touch’ one wants to be on pilgrimage. It’s a very personal matter, with no right or wrong. Apart from a phone call to my wife every few days, I chose to switch off all my devices – no phone, iPod or computer, no Facebook, Twitter or email – and I was very glad of that choice. Life became very simple on the Camino. It gave space to think, space to talk with others without the pressure of time or agenda, space to simply be. Another source of the deep impact is the earthiness of the experience. Walking is an effective way to get connected to a landscape and the people and culture embedded within that landscape. It’s a very different experience than travelling in a car or bus or train. And, of course, when walking significant distances you become very aware of your body – both the pain and the strength – which is an experience that gets pretty earthy. Engaging in pilgrimage as a deeply spiritual exercise is a powerful antidote to Gnosticism.

Walking through Spain on this pilgrim path creates wonderful memories, but the deeper value of it is in the personal transformation that takes place. No doubt this is slightly different for everyone who does the Camino, with, perhaps, some common threads here and there. What was the personal transformation that happened in me? I need to be a bit careful here because it’s too early to tell whether, in fact, I have undergone personal change or have simply become aware of areas of my life that are in need of transformation. I hope that at least a start has been made in certain aspects of my character. So, at the risk of setting myself up, I’ll have a shot at naming them. Something in me is shifting in terms of patience, perseverance, tolerance and acceptance of others, gratitude for simple things and resisting drivenness so I can manage my energy levels wisely. I cannot transform myself in these areas through the effort of will, but God’s Spirit can change me. The Camino has focussed my attention so that I am now tuned in to cooperate with his power at work on those things. It’s the process Paul was talking about in Colossians 1:29.

Super-stressed? Try a reset

When super-stressed at work, try a 5-minute ‘reset’. Five stages, one minute each:

1. Stop – listen to your breathing or, if you prefer to walk, feel the rhythm of your footsteps.

2. Imagine yourself coming into God’s presence. You must put down all the things you are carrying and empty your pockets of everything. In your imagination (or literally!) take off your footwear.

3. Hear Him say your name and see Him look straight into your eyes.

4. Hear Him say, ‘I am with you.’ Take the full minute to really hear this.

5. Hear Him say, ‘I am giving you…’ Listen for what it is that He is giving you.

Five minutes is up, you are reset, time to return to work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Context for Understanding Christian Mentoring

Where does the word ‘mentoring’ come from? What is the history of this discipline? Is it a Biblical thing? People seem to mean different things when they talk about mentoring. Is there more than one kind of Christian mentoring?

Keith Farmer recently invited me to present a session at his ‘Passing the Baton’ seminars providing some background and context for understanding Christian mentoring in terms of history, Biblical basis and varieties of approach. Click on the link below to find a PDF of that Powerpoint presentation.

Context for Understanding Mentoring

Intentionality: A Critical Factor for Effective Mentoring

When someone comments to me that their mentoring partnership is not going so well the first thing I investigate is the level of intentionality. In my experience, low levels of intentionality are the most common cause of unsatisfying mentoring. With inadequate intention, mentoring sessions tend to meander along without ever actually getting anywhere. The times together in conversation may be pleasant enough but end up as a bland, boring waste of time for people who were hoping for more.

But what is this ‘intentionality’? In practical detail, what does this rather broad term mean, precisely? I suggest we can unpack intentionality into four elements: clarity, structure, intensity and continuity.

  1. Clarity

In an intentional mentoring partnership both the mentor and mentoree will be able to clearly express in a few words why they meet together. They will both have the same understanding of the process they are following and how they will go about it. This is especially important in a process like mentoring where there exist such varied definitions and understandings of what this discipline is all about.

Intentionality in mentoring may be enhanced by clearing up fuzzy or misaligned notions of the purpose and methodologies that the partners will pursue together and keeping these sharp at each regular review of the partnership.

  1. Structure

This element of intentionality has to do with arrangements. It includes planning appointments in advance with starting and finishing times and working out a place to meet or what form of telecommunication will be used. It will involve settling questions of costs, what level of accessibility is appropriate, who is responsible for taking initiative, mutual expectations, confidentiality and privacy.

Depending on the clear understanding of the purpose and methodologies of a particular mentoring partnership (discussed above) it might also be helpful to specify key themes to be regularly addressed in mentoring conversations and the outcomes desired by the mentoree.

The structure of an intentional mentoring partnership does not have to be rigid, but it does need to be agreed and have some measure of stability and predictability. With a higher level of intentionality these structural items may be documented in a written covenant.

  1. Intensity

Two kinds of intensity underpin intentionality in mentoring: mental intensity and emotional intensity.

Mental intensity sticks with difficult, complex questions and resists the tendency to shrug them off when it all gets a bit puzzling. It takes hard work and serious concentration to both figure out what’s really going on and to craft a positive, creative response. It can be awkward to deal with the silence that comes when a deep question has you stumped. However, without this element of intentionality, mentoring conversations only ever deal with the obvious and superficial which is clearly going to get pretty tedious.

Emotional intensity is the preparedness to press on with a topic that stirs up strong feelings. Intentionality in mentoring is sometimes blunted by the desire to keep things bright and breezy and pleasant. Yet breakthroughs in personal growth are often attended by emotional responses – sadness, fear, anger and sometimes great elation. It should not be the aim to provoke emotional reactions but if they should emerge then both mentor and mentoree express intentionality by staying with the process.

  1. Continuity

The final element of intentionality deals with connecting mentoring sessions into an ongoing, coherent conversation. While there may be real benefit in a stand-alone conversation that opens up a fresh understanding in that moment, much more is possible when conversations are linked together over time.

Intentional mentoring sessions will refer back to previous sessions to draw on a range of related insights and weave them into a rich appreciation of the interconnectedness of all that is going on in the life of the mentoree. In addition, an intentional approach will cast forward to the next session, setting up points of accountability that greatly enhance traction for change.

Maintaining continuity in this way will usually involve keeping written notes. Perhaps this is not necessary where both mentor and mentoree have outstanding memories. But that runs the risk of little gems of insight being forgotten and points of accountability drifting or being unintentionally revised.

An important caution

It’s true that lack of intentionality can render a mentoring partnership ineffective and disappointing. But it’s also true that you can drive intentionality too hard.

  • You can make things so clear and defined that it becomes clinical and soulless
  • Structure can be overdone to the point that it becomes inflexible and stifling
  • Mental and emotional intensity taken too far can be frightening and invasive
  • Continuity over-emphasised can descend into fastidious legalism

As a mentor, if you drive intentionality too hard you will cause your mentoree to recoil and either shut down or withdraw from mentoring. To assess the appropriate level of intentionality many factors will need to be considered: the person’s age and maturity, pressures of life they are dealing with at the time, their experience of mentoring, the level of personal security they exhibit and so on.

However, the most important factor in my view is the level of trust between mentor and mentoree. In practice this means that you should take your time to build trust into the relationship before discussing lifting the mentoring partnership to greater levels of intentionality, always be open and transparent about this kind of shift and only move forward with informed agreement from your mentoree.

Resilience Factors: Learning How to Bounce Back

In my work as a mentor of Christian leaders I regularly find myself in conversations with extraordinarily able people who are struggling with low energy levels as a result of becoming emotionally drained. Of course, this is not a condition experienced only by Christian leaders – any one of us can become emotionally drained. Yet I would contend that the nature of leaders’ roles within Christian organisations exposes them to vocational hazards beyond the normal range that not only bring them to exhaustion but also tax their ability to bounce back. This has made the matter of resilience for Christian leaders one of the most critical issues for sustainable ministry and ministry today.

Even if you agree with this assessment of the special stresses and strains experienced by Christian leaders, you may still be wondering about the most constructive ways to address the problem. Nobody I know is perfectly resilient, but some leaders I’ve mentored do seem to do better than others. What can be learned from them?

Drawing from observations I have made and linking them with insights from the Bible, I want to suggest ten factors conducive to personal resilience. These factors could be developed in the context of a mentoring partnership, or applied in some other process of support for leaders. I want to stress that the resilient leaders I have in mind were not immune to becoming emotionally drained. The point is that when they did become drained, they were able to bounce back in a relatively short period of time to a state of energy, hope and joy, making their ministries healthy and sustainable.

My top resilience factors, in no particular order, are these:

  1. Supportive relationships of love, trust and encouragement

Resilient leaders typically are not loners. They put energy into developing friendships in the good times that become a lifeline when things get tough. Their families are able to be supportive and understanding when the leader is emotionally unavailable for brief periods because they have been well-loved.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

  1. Wise care of one’s physical health

The state of our physical body has a powerful effect on our emotional and spiritual well-being. Even leaders who freely acknowledge this truth may still fail to eat properly, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep or take their annual leave when it is due. Looking after one’s physical health is a vital early step to foster resilience.

In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves. Psalm 127:2

  1. A metanarrative that provides a basis for hope

With an immediate and vibrant sense of the big picture, the over-arching story, resilient leaders are able to put short-term ‘hits’ and even medium-term frustrations into perspective. This must be more than propositional theology; resilience requires an instinctive reassurance that God is good, ever-present, and that he is ultimately in control.

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord ’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23

  1. Positive role models

When it’s hard to bounce back to an energised state positive role models can help leaders in two ways. Firstly, talking with or reflecting upon the life of someone who has gone before and successfully handled similar pressures may suggest alternative ways of dealing with a dispiriting situation that would not otherwise come to mind. Secondly, feelings of defeat and hopelessness about one’s own predicament may be overcome by reflecting on the positive outcomes experienced by others who have walked a difficult path.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Hebrews 13:7

  1. Realistic assessment of and confidence in one’s abilities and strengths

Well-intentioned attempts at encouragement received by leaders (not to mention their own inclination to pride) can leave them with an inflated idea of their capacities, thus setting them up for disappointment, disillusionment and a sense of failure to live up to what they had believed was their potential. On the other hand, a mistaken belief that one lack the necessary capacity to address current challenges chokes off resilience. Self-awareness developed through honest feedback and critical reflection provides a better basis for resilience.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3

  1. Willingness to develop and draw on others’ strengths

Resilient leaders love to be part of a team and share responsibility with others. Those who have an over-developed sense of responsibility get into the habit of assuming they have to make every decision and do everything themselves. That is a sure recipe for becoming exhausted and staying that way. Preparing others to share the load and allowing them to do so gives a wise leader the chance to recover their own energy.

But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you. Deuteronomy 1:12-13

  1. Self-restraint to manage strong feelings and impulses

Leaders who have lost their energy are not in the best frame of mind to make great decisions. In difficult circumstances fear may rise up and lead to irrational catastrophising. Leadership instincts may be skewed by powerful emotions, or the complete lack of them. Impulsive or panicky leadership actions intended to end a painful situation can actually make things worse and prolong the difficulty. Those leaders who school themselves in self-restraint can exercise the necessary patience to resist unwise ‘knee-jerk’ solutions.

Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret —it leads only to evil. Psalm 37:7-8

  1. Capacity to construct and implement realistic plans

After receiving devastating news that brought him undone emotionally, Nehemiah mourned in prayer for days on end. After working through his strong feelings he was able to bounce back and find his feet in leadership partly by developing a detailed plan, moving the focus of his attention from problem to practical solution. His strategy was ready to swing into action the moment the opportunity arose.

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” Nehemiah 2:4-5

  1. Engaging regularly in reflective practice

This resilience factor is a process item that catalyses some of the factors above and helps to break the trap of negative thinking patterns. Reflective practices may be personal – meditation, retreating and journalling are examples – or relational, such as mentoring conversations or psychotherapy. Christian reflective practices stimulate hope because they affirm the presence and power of God in the midst of difficult circumstances and draw attention toward his goodness and grace.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

  1. Humility before God

Resilience may be thwarted by an overblown sense of entitlement such as that handed to us by a consumerist culture. Some leaders get stuck in a low-energy state wondering how the adversity they suffer could have happened to them. Deep inside they believe they deserve better and feel wronged by those they lead, by their team, by ‘the system’ or even by God himself. Resilience rises up from humility that accepts that hardship and loss are part and parcel of leading in Christ’s name.

“God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5-7

I have resisted listing renewal by the power of the Holy Spirit as a separate item because it is of a higher order than any of these factors. In fact, the ministry of the Holy Spirit to restore our inner being is behind all that I have presented and extends well beyond it. In the end, the resilience we need as Christian leaders comes from the Lord. Yet it is good for us to remember that there are wise ways in which we can cooperate with his grace at work in our lives to run the race he has marked out for us to the very end.

 

Footnote: I have previously written on this subject in Mentoring Matters(2009). Keith Farmer has also written an excellent article to be found on the Australian Christian Mentoring Network website. Fil Anderson’s Running on Empty(2004) made an important contribution to our understanding of how Christian leaders become depleted. From an Australian perspective, Paul and Libby Whetham’s Hard to Be Holy(2000) drew on representative stories of sixty Christian leaders to put a human face on theoretical insights. Most recently Alan Craddock’s Driven to Despair (2013) offers incisive psychological and theological insights on this phenomenon particularly as it applies to Christian leaders. I commend these articles to you for further reading and note that more and more articles are appearing on this topic at the present time. You may be aware of other studies that describe how and why leaders especially struggle with resilience. I encourage you to keep researching this subject as together we seek to help those whom we mentor be more effective in their chosen vocations.

Asking Questions to Discern Emotional Health

Why ask questions about emotions?

Emotions in themselves are not susceptible to moral evaluation; they simply are what they are, neither wrong nor right. Yet it’s important to track emotions in Christian mentoring. Three reasons for this are:

  • They can be predicated on an accurate or an inaccurate reading of the circumstances that give rise to the emotion. If they come from an inaccurate reading, then those emotions may be inappropriate.
  • They are often very powerful, behind-the-scenes drivers behind our actions, our decisions and the way we perceive and relate with others, and those things do bring us into moral territory.
  • They can indicate a trajectory towards personal health and thriving or toward dysfunctional and unsustainable patterns of living.

 

In such a huge field, where do you begin?

Our human emotions are so many and varied it’s hard to know where to start to ask about a person’s emotional health. Which emotions are we trying to track?

One very popular mnemonic is ‘mad, sad, glad, scared’. If you can get a reading on these four fundamental emotions you are most of the way there to having a useful understanding of a person’s emotional health. However, I have found it helpful to add a 5thcategory of ‘keen’ to explore emotions that relate to desire, enthusiasm, passion and hope. The following questions might provide a springboard into investigating ‘mad, sad, glad, scared and keen.’

Mad

  • What has been making you cross lately?
  • When have you recently had to consciously keep your anger in check?
  • Over what things has your irritation spilled out in the last few weeks?
  • How are you responding to injustice in your circle of influence?

Sad

  • When was the last time you wept, and what was that about?
  • What losses are you dealing with at the moment?
  • Who do you know whose suffering breaks your own heart?
  • What proportion of your typical day is spent thinking sad thoughts?

Glad

  • What brings you delight?
  • Who has affirmed you recently and what did they say?
  • What is the most fun thing you’ve done in the last month?
  • What is your most satisfying recent achievement?

Scared

  • Who are you suspicious of or cannot trust?
  • Have you had any disturbing dreams lately? What were they about?
  • What do you worry might happen to members of your family?
  • How do you fear Satan might try to wreck your ministry?

Keen

  • What are you most looking forward to in the week ahead?
  • If you could manage it, what would you love to give more time to?
  • What part of your current role are you most passionate about?
  • If God gave you one wish, what would you ask for?

 

Each of the fundamental emotions we have considered – anger, sorrow, joy, fear, desire – could lead a person in a positive or a negative direction. There is such a thing as appropriate and inappropriate, helpful and unhelpful instances of each of those emotions.

Therefore, a mentor might follow up the questions above – which are non-evaluative, information-seeking questions – with openly evaluative questions such as these:

  • In what ways does your anger reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your sorrow reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your joy reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your fear reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your desire reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?

 

 

Facilitating Change

I am firmly convinced that Christian mentoring necessarily involves helping a person consciously, deliberately and freely move from their present state of affairs to what, in God’s eyes, is a better state of affairs. That, in turn, necessarily involves the person having a clear idea of where they are, where God is calling them to be, and developing a desire to make the move forward.

But what about when a mentoree sets out on that journey to where they believe God is calling them to be and the process of change falls over? How can a mentor help to discern what is going on and why things are not progressing as first imagined? How can a mentor be a facilitator of positive change?

Through my reading of the literature on change management[1], four elements emerged as tremendously important for any change process:

  • Discontent
  • Hope
  • Capacity
  • Strategy

This suggested to me a simple ‘triage’ approach to exploring in a mentoring conversation why a change process has stalled. Where has it come off the rails? Is there a lack of discontent, or hope, or capacity, or strategy or some combination of these lacks? Once you have a clearer idea of what you’re dealing with you can put your efforts where it is most needed.

Examine Discontent

Not all discontent is valid and some attempts at change are predicated on discontent that God wants to transform into humble acceptance. However, change can also stall because mentorees who have a niggle that change is needed, then become inappropriately complacent once they have taken a step or two. These feelings and thoughts of discontent must be examined. If they are found to be valid it’s important that the mentoree is not simply prepared to put up with things the way they are, tolerating a state of affairs that falls far short of God’s intentions.

This backing off from change can come from a skewed sense of what is ‘normal’, an aversion to unpleasantness, a desire not to be negative, or sheer laziness. Whatever the cause, it is not until people are sufficiently fed up with what the kingdom of this world has to offer that they will begin on the path towards the promise held out in the kingdom of God.

As people in the marketing business say, first you have to sell the problem, then you can sell the solution. The role of a mentor may be to ‘rub raw the sores of discontent’, validating dissatisfaction where appropriate and affirming righteous anger over things that are not right. There are, of course, vested interests that are determined to prevent God’s transformative work moving forward and will seek to hose down discontent through either oppression or soothing. The chief of these vested interests are spiritual forces that must be exposed and confronted.

There is a prophetic edge to this part of facilitating change in mentoring. Being a godly mentor requires courage to declare the truth; to afflict the comfortable as well as to comfort the afflicted. Be careful not to make yourself so unpopular that you have no opportunity to work with your mentoree into the next stage! Be mindful of how much discontent people can bear before they become bitter and resentful, or crushed and despairing.

Stimulate Hope

A second point at which change can come off the rails is where hope is too dim to light the pathway ahead. A failure of imagination is crippling to hope. Even a person deeply dissatisfied with the present state of affairs will not embrace change unless they can see the prospect of a better future.

Imagination may fail for two reasons: fixation on threats and obstacles, and lack of exposure to alternative scenarios. Mentors have the task of presenting a larger perspective which addresses both these problems:

  • Acknowledging threats and obstacles, but placing them in a bigger frame that also includes the stupendous power of God
  • Drawing out stories of how God has worked across the centuries and is working across the world and across the street in contexts that have resonance with the mentoree

Strengthen Capacity

Discontented with the present and hopeful for a better future, mentorees may still come unstuck if they over-reach, attempting change for which they are not equipped. Consider how the Israelites had to strengthen their capacity before they could embrace the change God had in mind for them to occupy the promised land. God tells Moses in Ex 23:29-30

‘I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.’

Change can falter because too much is attempted at once, or the process is rushed, or the intended change is unrealistic. Mentors can help to:

  • assess the correct pace of change
  • encourage steadiness, patience and perseverance
  • identify resource gaps
  • secure appropriate external support
  • encourage the mentoree to refocus the direction of change if capacity simply cannot match intentions

Capacity issues are best tackled in the context of prayer. God’s grace in its endlessly various forms is an unparalleled resource within mentoring. We can be confident that God will supply the wherewithal to follow his call, but sometimes we do not have because we do not ask. If it turns out that a refocus of direction is required, mentorees must be able to receive this message as God’s wisdom and it is in prayer that they will hear his voice.

Develop Strategy

The final element essential to any effective change process is a thoughtfully considered strategic plan that provides traction so a person can actually get moving on implementing change in practical ways. Without this a mentoree remains stuck in the realm of nice ideas, possibility and potential, good intentions and empty words.

Developing strategy will involve breaking down a large, overarching goal into smaller, more specific action steps. There are several methods for going about this but one approach I find particularly helpful when dealing with a complex change process is Kurt Lewin’s ‘Force Field Analysis’. This two-step model first identifies positive and negative forces relevant to the desired change – positive forces that could help the change to happen and negative forces that you’re up against. The second step is to identify specific actions that would strengthen the positive forces and other actions that would help to neutralise or overcome the negative forces.

In general, when seeking to facilitate change mentors can draw attention to a few key considerations:

  • encourage mentorees to anchor their desired change in regular routines and habits
  • prompt mentorees to think ahead, considering the knock-on effects – the shock of unintended consequences can easily undermine changes that have not had time to take root
  • set a schedule for regular review and evaluation so that the change process can be tweaked in the light of ongoing developments.

Facilitating change can get complicated but giving attention to these four elements could provide a simple structure for finding a way forward.

[1]If you want to dig into this topic, try John Kotter, Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 2012, Nic Beech and Robert MacIntosh, Managing Change, Cambridge University Press, 2012, and Robert Quinn, Deep Change, Jossey-Bass, 1996

Setting Goals in Mentoring

Exercising Caution Around Goal-Setting

Both the process and the outcomes of setting goals in a mentoring context can be powerful. But that does not necessarily mean goal setting is always a good thing.

Some mentorees are what I would call ‘goal-averse’. This is usually a result of having been exposed to an approach to setting goals that they found unhelpful or even damaging. The very mention of goals makes them shudder and they might have similar reactions to terms like ‘target’, ‘objective’, ‘outcome’, ‘checkpoint’, ‘ambition’, ‘mission’ and ‘aim’. Such ‘crunchy’ language does not, for them, sit well amid a heartfelt search for how God is working in their lives and how they can respond faithfully to His work. However, different language that emphasises a ‘softer’ side may be more appealing. Words like ‘hope’, ‘dream’, ‘desire’, ‘longing’, ‘yearning’, ‘hunger’, and ‘passion’ are useful to overcome previous negative experiences of goal setting.

While I am not committed to any particular vocabulary relating to goals and goal setting, I am firmly convinced that Christian mentoring necessarily involves helping a person consciously, deliberately and freely move from their present state of affairs to what, in God’s eyes, is a better state of affairs. That, in turn, necessarily involves the person having a clear idea of where they are, where God is calling them to be, and developing a desire to make the move forward.

What might contribute to a person having a negative experience of goal setting? In their 2009 Harvard Business School Working Paper, Goals Gone Wild[1], Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky, and Bazerman came up with five ways in which goal setting can produce negative outcomes. They identify,

“specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Although their research dealt with corporate/commercial settings, the relevance for Christian organisations and Christian leaders is not hard to see.

A further caution needs to be exercised around the use in mentoring of the popular ‘SMART goals’ methodology. The SMART acrostic emphasises Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-framed goals. (There are some variations to the acrostic in the literature.) This methodology was developed in the commercial sphere and is best suited to performance goals. It’s an approach that is well suited to coaching and does have some usefulness in mentoring when dealing with more superficial, intermediate goals. But the deeper, more transformational goals of Christian mentoring will have to do with personhood – the sort of person the mentoree is becoming as a result of God’s transforming work in their lives. The SMART goals methodology is not well adapted to this sort of goal.

Developing Healthy Goal Setting Practice

Taking into account the warnings of Ordóñez and her research team, and considering the special emphasis on personhood that undergirds mentoring, we Christian mentors should seek to develop healthy goal setting practices where goals/longings:

  • are set by mentorees
rather than their mentors
  • are kept flexible and open for realignment and development
  • are not simply about performance but also take account of the inner life and being of mentoree
  • are progressively shaped around the hope God stirs within the mentoree
  • are a grateful response to grace and not a means of currying favour or avoiding punishment

If these elements are firmly in place, the articulation of goals (or longings) within mentoring has the potential to:

  • stimulate hope
  • clarify priorities
  • provoke movement
  • calibrate progress
  • prepare for celebration

Christian mentoring is built on the deeper reality of God’s already present activity in the life of a mentoree. Because this divine work is always transformative with a trajectory that begins where the person is today and arches forward into a better future where God has renewed the whole of creation, our work as Christian mentors will always have a place for the setting of goals, by the mentoree, which more and more closely reflect God’s intentions.

[1]Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Settingby Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman. Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-083, 2009