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How to: What Makes a Good Mentor?

February 21, 2022

by Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University and President, Sioux Falls Seminary

One of the most common questions we get from students and people who are serving as mentors (or who have been asked to be a mentor) is, “What makes a good mentor?” It’s an understandable question. Many of us have not had experience in mentoring relationships. When students are asked to identify and invite someone to be a mentor in the program, that is often the first time they have ever done something like that. For those who are asked to consider serving as a mentor, it might be the first time they have been asked, as well. I am not surprised, therefore, that this is a common question. In the following paragraphs, I am going to highlight the two most important characteristics of people who make good mentors for students enrolled in Kairos.

So, what makes a good mentor?

Well, the answer might be a bit anticlimactic. Good mentors are 1) available and 2) responsive. I know, I know, I know. That seems a bit too simplistic. What about expertise? Degrees? Experience? I will address those kinds of things at the end of this post, but let’s look at these two important and mutually-reinforcing characteristics first.

Available

Good mentors are available. By that I mean they have the time, energy, and space to be available to walk alongside students as they progress through their journey of discipleship in Kairos.

Time
Most mentors tell us that they spend about 1 to 4 hours each month with the students they serve. A good mentor will be available to spend time with students—not “hurried” time or “agenda-driven” time but personal and unhurried time with the student.

Energy
Not only are good mentors willing to spend time with those they serve, but they are also excited to spend time with them. Good mentors desire to spend time with those they serve because they see the investment of time as an opportunity to encourage and support a fellow follower of Jesus.

Space
Finally, being available means having space—space in one’s schedule and, perhaps, most importantly space in one’s heart. Good mentors are emotionally available to those they serve. Being a mentor is not about being a “robot” that simply asks questions or evaluates assignments. A good mentor opens room in their heart to be a sojourner with the student.

Responsive

Good mentors are responsive. They are responsive to the needs of the student and responsive in their communication practices. Being available is important, but that characteristic is not enough to carry the day. Only when it is coupled with being responsive will the mentoring relationship begin to flourish.

Needs of the Student
When someone asks you to be a mentor, it can be tempting to assume your primary value will be dispensing wisdom or teaching concepts. When we succumb to that temptation, we run the risk of making assumptions about what the student needs and how we can best come alongside them. Instead, being responsive begins by listening to the student, hearing her or him describe their needs, and being a conversation partner as the student begins to articulate the “why” or “what” or “when” of their educational journey. To put that another way, being responsive to the needs of the student means asking questions with a curious heart and mind in order to develop empathy and understanding. It is from that position that we are best able to help students discern, develop, and demonstrate proficiency in their context and call.

Communication Practices
In a very pragmatic sense, this aspect of responsiveness might be the most straightforward. Being responsive means…being responsive. That could mean replying to an email, phone call, or text message within a certain period of time or reviewing material and providing feedback by a certain date. The best rhythms of communication are the ones that follow shared expectations with the mentor team as a whole. I know, that last sentence didn’t really give specifics – that was the point. I am not saying that everyone needs to reply to emails or text messages immediately in order to be responsive. I am simply saying that the mentor team should work together to clarify expectations for responsive communication within the context of that team. On one team, it could be the team has a practice of replying to emails over the course of a week. Another team may rely on monthly conversations on Zoom rather than expecting responses via email. There is no prescribed type of responsive community. A good mentor will work with the team to ensure that there is a shared expectation for responsive communication practices.

So, what about expertise? Degrees? Experience? We will talk about those in future blog posts. The reason I didn’t mention them here is that they are not the primary indicators of good mentors. If given the option of a person who is an expert in a relevant field and someone who is available and responsive in the ways listed above, I will always recommend the latter. We have been engaged in a philosophy of education that leverages mentored teamwork for the better part of the last decade. Over that time, we have worked with thousands of mentors who are spread out across six continents. Time and time again, good mentors are those who are available and responsive.

As I reflect on that reality, it seems to make sense to me. Kairos is, first and foremost, a journey of discipleship, which means it is a relational endeavor. Relationships take time and, at least in my experience, seem to work best when people are available and responsive.

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