I can tell that I have been out of a degree program for a year. In trying to write a simple review for Miroslav Volf’s new book on Allah, I have become lost in the thrill of critical writing. I have only covered four chapters and already have more than two thousand words. Needless to say, this review may become my Chinese Democracy – Axl and I can sit in a dark corner together and twitch about the genius nobody appreciates.
So, I am going to take a short break from my opus of academic book reviewing, and post in a more parochial direction. I spend a lot of time watching people and thinking about relationships. I am especially interested in people who are either very successful or utterly disastrous at maintaining their relationships. I don’t necessarily intend this post to be about a certain type of relationship, whether it be romantic, filial, congregational, or professional. I think my advice applies to all relationships. In fact, I have begun to notice a trend. What makes the difference between people who fail in their relationships and those who are successful? I don’t think it is time spent. The people I know whose records are poor in the relationship department spend what might be inordinate amounts of time worrying about their relationships. I don’t think it is sincerity. The people I know that struggle in the interpersonal arena are some of the most sincere people I have met. I don’t even think it is communication skills. I can think of a couple of specific examples – people who are very good at getting their feelings across. Their relationships? Total disaster.
I think one of the major contributing factors is imbalance in the type of relationships that people maintain. In my humble opinion, people who want healthy, happy relational experiences should be cultivating three types of relationships in their lives. If we want a happy, healthy church, then we need to be facilitating these relationships within our communities.
First, everyone should have at least one “Mentor” relationship in their life. I fully expect that I will never arrive at a place where I no longer need someone to provide wisdom and insight. I am somewhat of a “perspective miner.” I have several mentor relationships in my life, and I make contact with them regularly – not just to get help with trouble. I have sought out people who live the kind of life to which I aspire, and have submitted myself to them in order to learn. I have access to some individuals that many may see as inaccessible, but you’d be surprised how willing people who God has used in tremendous ways are to invest in other’s lives. When I see people in my life that seem to be struggling with some element of their lives, when I see Christians that seem to be struggling with some element of their faith, these people often have no mentoring relationships. These kinds of relationships seem easy to come by in most institutional settings like schools. They seem more difficult to come by in professional settings like corporations. Oddly, the place you would expect to see the most mentoring happening, the church, is the place where I see people struggling the most to find and benefit from a mentor. The significance of a mentor relationships does not come in having successful tactics modeled for you. The significance of a mentor relationship comes from the fact that you are personally willing to acknowledge that someone is “over” you. We all have had parents, pastors, and principals. It doesn’t mean that we were all willing to submit to their authority. A mentor relationship done right, is a process of acknowledging that you need someone to mold your life. This is a relationship where you are almost entirely the beneficiary. Yes, mentoring offers rewards, but the amount of benefit you receive from a mentor is decidedly in your favor.
Second, everyone should have strong peer relationships. This may seem like the default setting of most people’s interpersonal lives, but you’d be surprised how many people I run into that do not have genuine peer level friendships. I have a few relationships that make my life worth living. They are people who genuinely “get” me. I do not have to temper my personality or my words. I do not have to wonder how they feel about me. They accept me for who I am, and (importantly) they can hear the inner me without fear of rejection. This is perhaps an issue that comes in degrees. The degree to which I need people to accept and interact with my true self may be different from what others need. I can say this, though, people who I know that have trouble with relationships have no outlet for what is really going on inside of them. A real peer relationship is a process of giving and receiving from the other person, it is mutually beneficial.
Third, everyone should have disciples. I imagine most people will immediately see the common sense of the previous two categories. However, I am not so certain everyone always appreciates how much a mentor needs to have a mentee. So, at the same time mentors are pouring into our lives and peers are enriching our lives – we NEED to be giving ourselves up for others. Many of us have run into a peculiar, even paradoxical, bit of wisdom in living life: when things get tough, you must seek out people for whom you can sacrifice yourself. Nothing gets you out of life’s tough spots like helping someone else out of a tough spot. It is actually quite remarkable what a sense of responsibility for the welfare of other people can do for Christians. (Let’s be clear here; I am not talking about becoming the spiritual police or a legalist – I am talking about giving yourself up to make someone else better). Without fail, I ask people who are having a hard time being in community, if they are discipling anyone. Without fail, they always give me a look of questioning my sanity. As if to say, “why would I, in my broken down state, have anything to give someone else.” The answer, of course, is that people rarely need you to be perfect or for you to have all the answers. They need you to share your life with them. If you are a Christian and you are not giving yourself up in real (and sometimes painful) ways, then you are missing out on what it means to imitate Christ – and all of your relationships will suffer.
There you have it, my pastoral advice for the week. Go out and enjoy community with God’s people!