Photo courtesy of the Australian Christian Mentoring Network
Rarely does one get the opportunity to learn from an expert in the field when their purpose with you is to share their legacy. Having been a pastor and a theological seminary principal, as well is a registered clinical psychologist, Dr Keith Farmer has been mentoring the top echelon of Christian leaders in Australasia for over a decade.
In passing the baton Keith shared information on what is mentoring, his personal model, the qualifications of Christian mentors, information on the Australian context, a demonstration of his model, going deeper in order to be able to go further, confidentiality and safety, conflict of interest, financial issues, regularity and time issues, the development of mentoring ministry, gender issues, sabbatical leave, mentoring and advocacy, supportive administration, networking and mentoring.
Dr Farmer talked about some of the contemporary work, including his own, Rick Lewis’s, particularly the historicity and biblicity of mentoring, as well as Tim Dyer’s work. He urged us all to take his model as simply one way among many, and to take what was valuable.
At mentoring’s most basic, says Keith,
it’s all about 1) listening and 2) asking good questions.
it’s all about 1) listening and 2) asking good questions.
Dr Farmer suggested that the role of mentoring today for Christian leadership was both urgent and important; there is much more support needed for our Christian leaders. He stated that mentoring is discipleship 101, and only occasionally 201 or 301, in that it was advocacy for the basic tenets of the gospel for living and maturity. Mentors are commended not to limit their mentoring to within their own networks or denominations, nor even be limited to own gender — if a curly question is asked, the mentoree can be directed to their GP. The mentoring process, aim, and delivery is cross-functional, and if need be mentor from a safe public like a café, and give your spouse and supervisor right of veto.
Mentors are not coaches. They work on who you are, not what you do. They can work for an indefinite period with an organic process, whereas coaching is structured with goals and deliverables in a timeframe. Dr Farmer depicted mentoring and coaching along a continuum with himself very close to the mentoring end, Rick Lewis about the midway, and Tim Dyer further toward the coaching end.
The key watch-point for Farmer is for burnout — the biggest risk the mentor assists with. Keith started mentoring having been approached by Mark and Nicole Conner, then of CityLife Church, Melbourne. He could smell a ‘whiff of burnout’ in them. After some reluctance, Keith mentioned to his wife, Margaret, ‘I think this might be God.’ Soon he was mentoring three other ministry couples connected with the Conners. The mentoring ministry grew from there.
Pastor Monica O’Neil, Director or Vose Leadership, gave a session on mentoring’s historical and biblical etymology, profiling to the current day how many leaders describe this practice of intentional relating, as opposed to spiritual direction, counselling, supervision, and coaching. My only contention, personally, is that these used to be all parts of the pastor’s role. Any pastor will benefit, however, from assistance in all these areas for development in their own journey. Monica, as an executive member, profiled the Australian Christian Mentoring Network (ACMN) for whom Keith represents. Mentoring, it was stated, helps uncover God-given potential. It notices what God is already doing, especially in the mess that often resembles the canvas of ministry. Mentoring sets its sights on uncovering for the mentoree what is present though unrealised, what is within reach, what is a stretch, and what requires a search. I resonated with the statement, that the heart of mentoring is ‘identifying and promoting the work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life.’ Mentors offer deep patience. It differs from supervision, which fulfils regulatory, teaching, and restorative functions relating to practice, though those elements have varying degrees of occasional application in mentoring.
Mentoring, according to Dr Farmer, is discipleship. It uses a whole-of-life model. It’s open to the whole of the mentoree’s life. Like a GP check-up, there may be no symptoms or signs of ill-health, but in the process, something might come up. The major qualifications to be a mentor are to be healthy, deeply in love with God, family, the church, and people generally, and be avid in confessing and repenting of sin. Mentoring is generally an informal way of adding structure and accountability for a Christian leader.
Mentoring is not typical pastoral care. On average, Keith meets his mentorees four times per year for two hours at a time. He will Skype but does at least 50 percent of sessions face-to-face, because a significant part of mentoring is being present. Keith likes to see what his mentoree looks like, to encounter them, especially if he can do that in their context. Couples are mentored for three-hour sessions. He likes to go to their office, church or home, and loves to have access to the spouse to really get a true indication of the state of play.
The first questions asked in a session surround the ‘how are you?’ issues… ‘how are you going?’ and ‘how are you right now?’ Mentorees usually start by stating they’re ‘good’, but by the end of sessions there is usually an accepted realisation that things are ‘not so good’. Most people, even at the best of times, are swimming with their heads just above the water line.
The second question is ‘how are you and God?’ If Keith gets the impression that there’s an authentic, ‘we are friends’ he’s relieved. Dr Farmer recognises that intimate friendship with God is often born out of crisis. Mentoring helps release people from the pressure to perform perfectly; that it’s okay to just be okay.
The third question comes in two parts: do you know God likes you? (In other words, do you connect with his unconditional love?), and, do you like Him?
A big part of this third question is the segue into the parable of the prodigal son. Even though the son had his confession planned, that his heart had turned toward God and his father, and the father not knowing this still runs to the son in sheer delight to see him coming from a long way off. No matter what the son had done, his father loved him. The mentor has an opportunity, through his or her presence, to embody the Father’s love, or intrinsic liking, of the person they mentor.
God, Dr Farmer says, likes us so much, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done or do. I appreciate this view because it bridges a middle ground that used to say, ‘God loves you but hates your sin’ and it says something powerful about grace that transcends the affect and impact of our sin by the glory of God.
The character of God is likeable. Imagine a person full of grace and full of truth. We like them. This is God. If we like someone we want to be with them. If we like God, we will want to be with Him. After all, we’re more a product of our key relationships than we realise. Why would we not crave God all the more?
Dr Farmer stated the polarising truth that if a leader relates well in their home they relate well in their leadership, and gaining insight about the home life is an important glimpse as to what is.
Keith stated that he doesn’t have much of an issue of conflicts of interest in mentoring several people on the same team. He acknowledges that team issues are often draining and derailing. A good mentor can certainly use good self-discipline to keep team members on their own material, but there is also a gauge for problematic conflict and cultural indicators of concern in one mentor mentoring several team members.
Biblically, emotions are important. Special focus is given to the role of anger. It was stated that more marriages fail from out-of-control anger and probably any other reason. Self-control is highlighted in emotional and spiritual well-being intersecting. Dr Farmer stated also that he believes in mentoring leaders to develop a policy of walking away in conflict — that is to determine when the win-win objective has been lost; that to get away for reflection time is just so necessary. The idea in getting away is that so each person can resolve a position of submission. He stated that suppressed anger comes out as passive aggression or depression, and that we must steward our emotional tank well, and we have to be aware that it takes longer than 12 weeks to recover from burnout.
When it comes to stewardship we have to ask two very important questions: 1) what drains me and what energises me, and the more we do what drains us the more depleted we become, and the more we do what energises us the more replenished we are.
We must learn to stop well to go well. And we must realise what depletes us: conflict, relationships, sickness, and difficult and unsafe people. We have to get used to asking the question, how much is this relationship costing me? And when it comes down to replenishment, all we need to ask is what we can do to have fun. Dr Farmer acknowledged also the Biblical pattern of rest, which is to rest before work, that the first day of the week is the Sabbath. He also acknowledges the principle aligns with resting the land one year in seven (Leviticus 25), and just like the land doesn’t become depleted, neither do we.
Sometimes we are not the right person to mentor a particular person. Keith encourages us to not let the ego get in the way. Some people use a different method that someone else can readily supply. Keith also advocates the value of going on short walks, just so he can get his head and heart straight again, and to gain the peace and calmness that he needs to work effectively. Jesus, of course, walked away a little from his disciples quite often, to find his quiet centre, and Dr Farmer recognises, like we all should, that little things can upset us, and we are implored to attend to the self-talk that often ravages us. He stated that sleep is a natural ‘defragging’ practice, and I have personally found sleep is a natural way of walking away to refresh perspective.
Emotional depletion equals burnout. Biblically, in Exodus 18:13-14 in the Message, Jethro tells Moses, ‘why are you doing all this, and all by yourself?’ (i.e. you’ll burnout). He mentors Moses to accept his limits.
We have to deal with our replenishment needs. It’s only when we are resting that adrenaline will stop flowing. This can actually look like depression, but of course it is not. It’s just an absence of adrenaline where the sympathetic nervous system closes down and parasympathetic nervous system equalises the imbalance. Of course, burnout necessitates and teaches rest.
Some of the early signs of burnout include becoming testy and temperamental, absenting your yourself from relationships, not being present, when the energy is not there, flatness of mood, which is wrongly interpreted as depression, where passion has waned, and we can even feel like we are letting God down. Certainly, in burnout we feel distant from God, and there are fewer and fewer resources for prayer. There are also often bodily signs, including facial tics, which fire muscles around the eyes and lips involuntarily. And certainly, creativity is sapped. Burnout is a World Health Organisation recognised health problem.
Dr Farmer has worked within the WorkCover system and the typical recovery from burnout is six months off, followed by three months at one day per week, three months at half-time load, three months at three-quarter time load, before returning to full-time load at around the 15-24 month period. In burnout we need time away from what drains us.
Dr Farmer’s advice regarding the inevitable problems of waking at 2 and 3 AM in the morning is not to stress too much. It is wise not to do anything too rousing, but whether we stay in bed or get up and do something, we are encouraged to get our sleep when we feel tired enough.
It was stated by Dr Farmer, and Graham Mabury also, that preaching is an activity uniquely draining, probably because of the responsibility attached to the role, and the intense desire we have to do God’s work well. There was also mention of the role of compassion fatigue, which is a variation of burnout. Quality time with our spouses two or three times a week, and engaging our senses in favourite activities are good replenishing activities.
Opinions are an interesting dynamic in managing emotional wellness. The presence of opinions can be a flag of emotional depletion.
Sabbatical leave is not holidays, it’s replenishment, and when we are on sabbatical we shouldn’t do any ministry, unless that ministry is something we find inherently enjoyable, and doesn’t drain us, which means it needs to be something different to what got us into burnout territory in the first place.
The key question is what lifestyle do we have? Is it sustainable? Is our eating, sleeping, exercise working well, do we have our days off, and do we get quality time with our spouse? Is there fun in our life? Do we have hope, looking forward to things?
Sleep is a huge issue. Do we get enough. Dr Farmer mentioned a Dr Arch Hart course, where he mentioned he gets 10 hours of sleep a night. We should work on at least 6.5 to 8.5 hours per night. Napping when necessary is also an excellent suggestion. And we are advised to prepare to go to sleep an hour before our head actually hits the pillow. We need to ask our mentorees about their sleep.
As far as days off are concerned, Saturdays off are not enough. A day off during the week is very important. On that day off we have to promise ourselves we will not do anything that is not both urgent and important. The important but not urgent work can wait. The urgent work that isn’t important doesn’t need to be done. And when our day off does not come about because something came up, we need to be disciplined enough to take our day in lieu.
As far as activities on the day off is concerned, Dr Farmer again repeated that we need to do things that are replenishing. If housework or work in the garden is replenishing we can do it, but if it isn’t we shouldn’t. The day off isn’t simply an excuse to do a list of things just because we have the time.
Exercise is key, and there is a lot of research to suggest that exercise alone is proactive for cancer, for those who have cancer, as well is for prevention. Keith mentioned that living in isolation or being lonely is scientifically equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
ACCOUNTABILITY / VULNERABILTIY
The opportunity of mentoring is to help people become voluntarily accountable. Just the fact that someone has a mentoring appointment coming up can be enough to motivate them to do something they know they’ll be asked about.
The key question around accountability and vulnerability is, ‘if Satan was going to get you out of this ministry, how would he do it?’ It’s not always about money, sex, and power. The number one ministry killer is, according to Dr Farmer, discouragement; the fear a Christian leader has that they won’t want to do their ministry any more or that at some point they can’t.
Mentors, therefore, have the unique opportunity to become sincere encouragers. We can hear what we can encourage, as God gives us an eye for the two or three or four things in a mentoring engagement that we can affirm specifically. We can use phrases like, ‘I can see how much better you are now than before,’ if that is sincerely the case, to remind them of what has changed. There are not many overt encouragements in leadership. Leaders typically aren’t affirmed, encouraged, or acknowledged. Not many people take the time to encourage leaders, and as mentors we are urged not to miss opportunities to encourage.
One of the most discouraging things for a leader is when significant milestones are missed. Pastors don’t get paid enough to deal with the discouragement.
The mentor has to be aware that encouragement is not flattery, that we need a moral antenna to encourage someone in truth. It is not unchristian to honour those who deserve reward.
As far as vulnerability is concerned we need to learn to live constructively with the ugly bits, remembering that the gospel is redemptive, and that vulnerability puts us in touch with reality and it isn’t a put down.
We don’t trust those who don’t love us, so the mentor is in a position where they have the role to love the person they mentor. When mentoring pastors in new roles and ministry situations it is good to remind them not to choose trusted ones too early. As mentors, we are there for them.
‘Accountability is more powerful than you can ever imagine’ — like a time when you perhaps do something regrettable, and then promise someone your accountable to, like your spouse, that if it happens again, you’ll let them know about the lapse within 24 hours.
Mentors have travelled the path of life,
they are not perfect, and
they help to guide through wisdom.
they are not perfect, and
they help to guide through wisdom.
They help those they mentor to seize the day, they confront issues, and tell the truth. Mentors help mentorees to discern what to fight for and what not to fight for. Every now and then there is something to die for. Wisdom is knowing the heart of God. It is not just knowing information, it’s having the power to live it.
Dr Farmer has a gift of recall. ‘As soon as we start talking, it’s all there,’ he was heard to state. Mentors can take notes with permission and for protection.
It’s good to take a retreat day once a month, and set these up in the diary well in advance.
It’s important that there are no line relationships in mentoring. We cannot mentor a manager or a subordinate. According to Keith it’s okay to mentor cross gender provided gender-sensitive issues are left to the GP.
Mentors can be great advocates for those they mentor. If there is an issue a mentor can advocate for, he or she should not be limited in putting a case forward.
The training event I’ve summarised was incredible value, two days full of wisdom about leading people through the support of mentoring. I’m indebted to Dr Keith Farmer and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Perth, Western Australia, for hosting.
DISCLAIMER: these notes are a personal aid. The structure herein is not precise. I pray they may be of some help to you.