Leave Neediness Out of Mentoring
"God doesn't need me."
Written with dry erase marker on my mirror, this phrase greeted me every morning in 2009. I had just started a job in youth ministry and loved it! Teaching the Bible to high school girls and modeling a life of prayerfulness and obedience to God was my dream job.
But over time, neediness intruded into some of these otherwise healthy mentorship relationships. They needed to talk to me, needed my advice, needed my wisdom. The pressure and anxiety that resulted when I couldn't meet every need prompted me to take up a marker and put the truth in front of my face each morning: God. Does. Not. Need. Me.
No longer in youth ministry, I now teach Bible study classes at church and help lead a college homegroup. And still the weeds of neediness pop up. Sometimes it's them: A college girl decides that if she just met with me, she'd find freedom from that sin. Sometimes it's me: I convince myself I am the only one who could possibly help in a certain situation. Either way, these weeds of neediness must be pulled out or they threaten to subvert the very purpose of mentorship: cultivating dependency on Christ.
It's hard to believe that a well-intentioned mentoring relationship could ever become unhealthy, but it happens. Neediness and codependency can creep in unannounced, pushing Christ to the sidelines. I've seen it happen in my own heart and the hearts of others.
Signs of Drift
But how can a desire to pour into someone else's life for the sake of the gospel go wrong? The desire certainly isn't wrong. But our prone-to-wander hearts and our crafty, disguised-as-an-angel-of-light enemy can distort God's good design if we aren't sober-minded and watchful (1 Peter 5:8).
How can you tell if a mentoring relationship is beginning to veer off into the ditch of neediness? Here are a few tell-tale signs:
1. It fosters exclusivity and ownership.
There is nothing wrong with meeting one-on-one with a mentor. But if our security becomes attached to the mentoring relationship, it can become ingrown, developing symptoms of ownership (she's my mentor/she's my disciple) and exclusivity (no one else is allowed in our circle). How can you tell if this is happening? If you feel jealous when she spends time with someone else or are hesitant to let others in, there’s a problem. Let's remember that while Jesus addressed individual needs, He was more often around the twelve disciples or around the three, Peter, James, and John.
2. The mentee is growing in dependency on the mentor, not Christ.
Of course it's easier to go to a person who can tell you an answer rather than learn to grow in wisdom and discernment. It's easier to rely on the skill set of a person you can see than work to grow in these skills yourself. But the goal of mentorship is to model and cultivate dependency on Christ, not another person. If, over time, we are more in need of our mentor than of Christ, something is off.
3. The mentor enjoys being needed
instead of being concerned by neediness.
Let's be honest: It can feel great to be needed, to be necessary to someone else. And not in a "I'm needed by my crying infant or elderly parents" sort of way, but in a "you're spiritual and I look up to you" sort of way. It can be hard to tell when we've begun to go to the broken cistern of "I feel valuable when others need me," but we would do well to be watchful over our hearts for this temptation. If we sense someone feels they need us to be okay, we should be concerned—not satisfied.
Lessons from John the Baptist
Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let's remember that we actually need mentoring friendships! More experienced Christians actually have something to offer those just starting out. The question is, what is the veteran Christian primarily offering? Herself or Christ?
This is why I love John the Baptist. He consistently offered Christ to those who followed him. He truly embodied the prophecy about him in Isaiah 40:3:
A voice cries:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
John lives, speaks, and acts in such a way that screams “I am not the Christ but I know who is.” He readied the hearts of others to meet Jesus and then follow Him. In John 1:35–37, we see him model one of the purest and simplest forms of discipleship:
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
John used all of his life to point to Jesus. He was an expert at making his disciples followers of Jesus, not himself. So much so that some of his disciples become concerned about John's declining ministry:
And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, he who was with you [Jesus] across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him" (John 3:26).
John's response to their concern provide us with three principles as we seek to mentor others.
1. Know who you aren't.
"You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him'" (John 3:28).
Like John, we need to be keenly aware that we are not the savior of the world. While that may seem like a simple enough truth that we affirm in our minds, our actions often betray that this is not so easy to live out.
How often do you act out of a "If I don't do ______, no one else will" mindset? Do you believe you are the only one gifted and capable to help? Do have a hard time saying “no” to things because you're afraid of what may happen if you don't help?
God doesn't need us. He is an able Savior for us and for those around us. We are not the Christ, and it is good to bear witness to this truth when others begin to come to us as if we were.
2. Know your job.
"The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete" (John 3:29).
Jesus is the Bridegroom. The Church is His Bride. And John saw himself merely as a friend of the Bridegroom who rejoiced at seeing the union of Christ's people to Christ Himself. His job was to prepare hearts to be united to Christ, to point the people of God to their Bridegroom, their true Husband.
In mentorship, my goal isn't to create mini-Kellys or to secure followers for myself. My goal is to consistently and relentlessly point those in my life to their heavenly Bridegroom and to rejoice in their growing dependency on Him.
I am also part of this Bride, which means sometimes those whom I have mentored become the ones pointing me to Jesus when I go astray. Though humbling, this is right and good and as it should be!
3. Know your goal.
"He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).
John's goal was never to increase his own influence or ministry but to accentuate and expand the ministry of Christ. This wasn't an optional goal; it was a must. He must increase. I must decrease. We would do well to emulate John in this. It must be non-negotiable that that those we influence see Christ as greater and greater. In every encounter, we must decrease under the shadow of Christ.
Weeding the Garden
Whether you are the older or younger woman in a mentoring relationship, it takes all of us to pull out the weeds of neediness.
Older women: Do your actions communicate "you need me, run to me" or "you need Jesus, run to Him”? Are you modeling dependency on methods you've figured out or dependency on Christ alone? Are you appropriately concerned if a younger woman seems unable to thrive without you in her life? These are weeds you need to pull from the beautiful garden of mentorship.
Younger women: Are you putting the pressure on one older woman to help you grow? Or do you have a handful of godly women you can turn to? Are you doing the work to go to Christ before you go to a mentor? These are weeds you need to pull from this garden.
These multigenerational friendships are too precious and too important to allow unhealthy neediness to infect them. We need to see dependency on Jesus modeled in the lives of others who have walked a few steps ahead of us. Let's fight to keep Christ at the center of all our mentor relationships.