Becoming a Life Giving Mentor

It seems everyone is talking about mentoring these days. It appears to be the cry of a new generation. We’re all looking for a mentor. As I help churches, companies and universities to establish healthy mentoring communities—I am discovering something odd. Mentors and mentees begin well, but along the way, the relationship runs out of gas and evaporates. After researching this phenomenon, I think I know why. The mentors are offering information not life. They are not “life giving mentors.”


One of my favorite portraits of a life giving mentor went on display before the entire world at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Derrick Redmond, a British athlete, had qualified to compete in the 400 meter event despite the fact that he’d had 22 surgeries on his Achilles heel. It was a miracle he was able to qualify for the Olympics.

It was at the event, however, that tragedy struck. Midway through the race Derrick pulled up short and fell to the ground. He had pulled a hamstring and faced still another injury. At least one of the cameras stayed glued to this athlete as he got up and limped forward, wincing in pain. His hopes of winning were dashed, but he wanted desperately to finish the race. Watching him, however, even this looked impossible. Derrick wept as he hobbled forward, realizing it was all over for him. 

Enter his mentor. Sitting in the stands, second row from the top, was Jim Redmond, Derrick’s father and mentor. He could not imagine watching passively. He pushed his way past the huge crowd separating him from the track. He persistently moved toward the gate and sifted through the security guards. They would not keep this man from his mentee. Jim had been Derrick’s biggest fan through the years, and this move was the only logical one for him. The cameras quickly focused on this intruder running toward the pitiful athlete from the UK. Jim put his arm around his son. It must have been a familiar touch because Derrick took a few more steps and stopped. In tears, Derrick fell into his father’s arms, and wept. The two exchanged words for a moment. I am sure Jim asked Derrick if he was sure he wanted to finish the race. When Derrick replied that he did, Jim said what I consider to be classic mentor words: “Derrick, we started this thing together. We are going to finish this thing together.” Then Jim did what all great mentors do for their mentees. Jim lifted Derrick up, put his son’s arm over his own shoulder, and the two finished the 400 meter race together.

I remember watching this scene with tears in my eyes. I didn’t expect to see such an act of love that day—to receive such a clear snapshot of someone investing in the life of another. I can remember the crowd applauding for the two of them as loudly as they did the winner of the race that day. Whether he knew it or not, Jim Redmond gave the world a picture of a life-giving mentor: one who walks beside another and says, “I’m going to help you finish your race well.”

The more I travel and speak on this subject, the more I’m discovering how new it is to most people. It’s not so much that the idea is new—but the practice life-giving relationships is rare, indeed. Most mentoring relationships are reduced to either fellowship or facts. The first fosters no growth. The second fosters no life. We’re better at dispensing information than providing life. Mentees feel something is missing. Consequently, the idea of mentoring is vogue, but it’s also still vague.

Most adults I meet don’t get this. I believe the future depends on this. Leaders cannot be mass-produced, but are developed through life-on-life mentoring. There’s no life-change without life-exchange. I fear if we don’t grasp what life-giving relationships look like, we will reproduce another empty, disconnected, wounded, and disappointed generation of people graduating from our schools and leading our churches and nation. Generation Y isn’t looking for a “sage on the stage” but a guide on the side. They’re in need of life-giving mentors. We must nurture environments that are safe places to experience life-giving relationships.

What Is Supposed To Happen In A Mentoring Relationship?

So—what is it we are called to do if we’re to be life-giving mentors? Good question. Over the last several years I have made it my aim to distill the ingredients that make a good mentoring experience. The following word-pictures represent what I believe are the most helpful goals you can shoot for as you attempt to invest in someone.


Pictures stick, longer than mere words. Your mentee likely grew up in the digital generation—with MTV, photographs, videos, DVDs and movies. There are screens everywhere and images abound. I believe the surest way to deliver a memorable message is to paint a picture in their mind. Use metaphors, images, word pictures and stories to drive home the principle you want them to catch. I try to live by the axiom: give them a point for their head and a picture for their heart.


Everyone possesses some knowledge of truth. Most people, however, are hard pressed to own it in such a way they can use it in everyday life. Simply put, “handles” are things we can grab onto. Every door has a handle; every drawer has a handle. We give people “handles” when we summarize truths or insights in a user-friendly fashion so they can wrap their arms around it. Truth becomes a principle they can live by. When someone has a “handle” on something, it means they “own it” and can practice it as well as communicate it to others. A good mentor can distill or crystallize truth so that the complex becomes simple. For instance mentors may provide a “handle” for their mentees by summarizing the truth they are discussing into a brief phrase, slogan, metaphor or jingle. They may choose to add a memorable experience together. An example for service may be working in a soup kitchen or serving in a retirement home.


Roadmaps give us direction in our journey and a view of the “big picture.” When we give someone a “roadmap,” we are passing on a life compass to them. In the same way that maps help us travel on roads we’ve never been on, these life roadmaps show us where we are; they help people not only to see the right road, but to see that road in relation to all the other roads. They also help a person stay off the wrong roads. They provide perspective on the whole picture. This generally happens only when we communicate intentionally, not accidentally. While there is a place for spontaneous interaction, planned opportunities to speak into a mentee’s life are necessary. Friendship may happen by chance, mentoring happens on purpose. Roadmaps help mentees navigate their way through life.


When we provide “laboratories” for our mentees, we are giving them a place to practice the principles we’ve discussed with them. Do you remember science class in college? Science always included a lecture and a “lab.” By definition, laboratories are safe places in which to experiment. We all need a “lab” to accompany all the “lectures” we get in life. In these “labs,” we learn the right questions to ask, the appropriate exercises to practice, an understanding of the issues, and experiential knowledge of what our agenda should be in life. Good laboratories are measurable; they can be evaluated together; and they provide ideas for life-application. In these labs, mentors can supervise their mentees like a coach. They can oversee their experimentation like a professor. They can interpret life like a parent. Every time I meet with my mentees, I have a “laboratory” idea to accompany the principle I want them to learn. This forces me to be creative, but I believe in the axiom: information without application leads to constipation!


One of the most crucial goals mentors ought to have for their mentees is to give them “roots and wings.” This popular phrase describes everyone’s need for foundations to be laid and for the freedom to soar and broaden their horizons. The foundation we must help to lay in our mentees involves the construction of a “character-based life” versus an “emotion-based life.” This means we help them develop core values to live by. They should leave us possessing strong convictions by which they can live their lives and the self-esteem to stand behind those convictions. The deeper the roots, the taller a tree can grow, and the more durable that tree is during a storm.


The final word picture that describes what a mentor must give a mentee is “wings.” We give someone wings when we enable them to think big and expect big things from God, from life and from themselves. When someone possesses wings, they are free to explore and to plumb the depths of their own potential. When mentors give wings, they help mentees soar to new heights in their future. Consequently, it’s as important to teach them how to ask questions as how to obtain answers. Mentors should empower mentees to take the limits off what they might accomplish with their lives—and cheer when their mentees surpass their own level of personal achievement.

This is the kind of mindset that fosters healthy and hungry mentees. When we provide handles, pictures, roadmaps, laboratories, roots and wings, we spawn strong, growing leaders who are healthy and effective. The ingredients of “grace and truth” take on new meaning. This is what empowers mentees—grace and truth. Grace is the relational love that knows no conditions; it is the warm, personal side of mentoring. Truth is the firm, steady, objective guide that provides a stable foundation for life. In short, mentors have a compass in their heads and a magnet in their hearts.

Deanna was a high school student who always made good grades—until she took chemistry. Somehow she just didn’t get it, no matter how hard she tried. As a matter of fact, she ended up failing the course. Fortunately, her teacher was also a life-giving mentor. He knew how devastating it would be to Deanna and her family to see an “F” on her report card. Still, he had to give her the grade. He vacillated over how to deal with the situation. Finally, he found the answer by offering both grace and truth. On her report card, he simply put an “F” next to the subject of Chemistry. However, on the same line he wrote these words: “We cannot all be chemists…but oh, how we would all love to be Deanna’s.”

Think about it. As you look over the list of gifts again, none of them have to do with possessing an extremely high IQ, lots of talent, good looks or fame. They are gifts that anyone can give away. I cannot think of a wiser investment of our time and energy than in the people who are right under our noses. They are people with potential and gifts within them. I believe we were designed for that kind of satisfying life-giving investment.

Almost a hundred years ago, a young boy was scarred for life by his parents as he grew up during World War I in Germany. His family, the Schicklewubers, had developed distorted priorities that left the boy emotionally alone and confused. He overheard his father talk about moving away one evening, and assumed that he would be abandoned. His dad had scorned his ideas for a career as an artist and priest. The boy decided then to toughen up and find refuge in things outside of love and family. He would never let someone inside his heart again. The world has suffered much from that decision; for you and I know this young boy as Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. I have to wonder how history might have been altered if young Adolf had had a life-giving mentor available to him. It’s up to us to make sure this never happens again.

life-GIVING-MentorsInterested in learning more? Check out Life Giving Mentors: A Guide to Investing Your Life in Others.

Becoming a Life Giving Mentor