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LYN PACE: What does it mean to be a good mentor?
Lyn Pace
Lyn Pace - photo by Special Photo

Recently I was invited to lead a brief session on what it means to be a mentor for three sophomores at Oxford who are getting ready to lead one of our signature leadership programs, Leadership Oxford or LO. 

LO has been in place since the late 1980s and involves a week of leadership development activities that culminate in a weekend retreat at a local camp. It started in the Chaplain’s office all those years ago and now resides in Campus Life, but they still let me tag along. 

I’ve written about some of my mentors here before in hopes it might spark your own reflections about those people who have been meaningful to you in your own development as a person. I would love to hear from you in the next week or so about these folks and why you consider them to be mentors. 

As I prepare for this session, I am wondering about the most relevant characteristics of a good mentor. What are they?  

A few years ago, the youth group at a church I used to attend in South Carolina was meeting to do their winter planning and one of the first things they discussed was “Revolution,” an exciting gathering of youth from across the state for worship and service. Walter, a senior in high school, leaned over to Tyler, a sixth-grader, and encouraged him to go. The pastor of that church, a friend of mine from college, in his comments on this exchange, said, “That’s a big deal. Seniors don’t always have time for, or interest in, sixth-graders. Walter could, easily, have decided that the sixth-graders who have just joined the youth group are annoying or too immature or a hindrance.”  

Humility and the ability to overcome one’s own self-importance feels like a good start. In the story above, Walter welcomed his new sixth-grade friend when he could have easily ignored him or worse, written him off. Instead, he knew of his own experiences at this state-wide youth gathering, and he decided it was important for Walter to have an experience like this too. Not the same experience, but the potential for an experience that could be formative and fun.

That leads me to my second insight about mentors – potential. Mentors can see things and people not just as they are but as they might or could be. I had a college chaplain who was good at this. When I was a student at Wofford, he offered me leadership roles in the Wesley Fellowship and at worship as a first-year student. He saw something in me, created a safe space where I could fail, and then supported me in the process, especially by reflecting on the experience with me. 

Finally, mentors are people who draw the circle wider instead of narrower. One of the main goals of the Christian life is to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. I think this is a goal of life in general as we are constantly discerning who is our neighbor. 

An early monastic and leader in the church, Dorotheos of Gaza helps us think about this question of love and neighbor by supposing we take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The circle is the world and God is at the center, the very center point made from the compass. The straight lines drawn from the circumference of the center are the lives of human beings. To move toward God means that human beings are also moving toward one another. The closer to God, the closer we are to one another — to our neighbor.

I suspect I’ll share something of the above with our three students when I meet with them in a couple of weeks. I think I’ll do a values activity with them, having them unearth their own values for reflection. After all, everything I named above has to do with values and how we employ those values for good in the world. 

I wonder if any of these reflections resonate with your own experience of mentors or as mentors. If you’re inclined, drop me a note and let me know this week at

The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University and lives in Oxford with his spouse and 10-year-old. His new book published by the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate Press is “The Sacred Year: A Contemplative Journey Through the Liturgical Year.”