What Came First – the Mentor or the Mentee?

Originally posted on The Presbyterian Leader on May 30, 2012 . . .

Last week, I was at the Korean-American Clergywomen Conference at San Francisco Theological Seminary. For the past twenty-one years, this group of women have been meeting to provide support, advocacy, and resources for each other in a world where they receive few to none. Among us are first, 1.5 (those that emigrated around ages 9-16), and second generation. For me, these women showed me that it was possible for a woman, let alone a Korean woman, to be a pastor. Hearing their stories of courage, struggle, and survival gave me the strength in my ministry. These women have not only been my sisters, my colleagues, and my friends, but also my mentors.

Over the years, I have participated in many mentor programs, sometimes as a mentor, sometimes as a mentee. In my first call, I was part of a three-year first-call pastors program that paired us up with seasoned pastors in the presbytery as well as regional small groups. I have also been a part of mentor programs, where we were expected to name a mentee to guide and support. In many of my experiences, these programs struggled to provide adequate mentor/mentee relationships.

The art of mentoring has changed. It is no longer just someone wiser and older bestowing their wisdom on a fresh, wide-eyed young’un. For one, what has worked in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in the future. Secondly, we live in a time that calls all of us to think creatively and problem solve in ways we never imagined before.

So, what are the right ingredients of a mentor/mentee relationship? What is the proven formula? Is it about a mentor recognizing the gifts in someone and taking them under their wing? Or is it about a mentee choosing a mentor that they feel possesses the experience and skill to nurture them?

Organic and Natural

A relationship between a mentor and a mentee has to be organic and natural and not forced or manipulated. Therefore, it isn’t so much as a mentor choosing a mentee, but a mentee choosing a mentor. While mentors often recognize gifts in others, it is the mentor who is created by the mentee because of the gifts they see in that person to provide guidance.

Intentional, Guided, and Organized

Mentor/Mentee relationships, although organic and natural, still need to be intentional, guided, and organized. Successful mentoring programs seem to balance the two. The Company of New Pastors, a PCUSA program out of the Office of Theology and Worship, targets a specific group of seminarians where they gather for theological reflection and fellowship. Each participant is expected to input and share in the leadership.


This leads me to the nature of a mentor/mentee relationship, which should be collegial and mutual, meaning both the mentor and the mentee have something to learn and have something to gain. It shouldn’t be one-dimensional. While certainly, many of us second generation gain so much from the first generation Korean-American clergywomen, they also learn from us. Times have changed. Needs have changed. The leadership of the second generation is needed if this group is going to stay relevant for future Korean-American clergywomen.

For Such a Time as This

Mentor/Mentee relationships are finite. Although the relationship itself can last for years, it doesn’t mean that the relationship will remain as mentor and mentee. So many that have mentored me in the past are now considered dear friends of mine. Although, I do treasure their advice, it is no longer in the same capacity as when I sought their advice before.

And – Action!

For me, one of the best thing about a mentor/mentee relationship is the opportunity it gives to speak truth, open doors, and give courage. These are valuable actions that a mentor can offer to a mentee – to speak truth in the gifts and growing edges they see, to open doors for new opportunities, and give courage to take on challenging yet exciting new chapters in life.

Mentors are important. But in a time when we need leaders to possess certain skills to lead ministries in the present and future, where do we find mentors to guide and shape these new leaders? It calls for new models, new standards, and expectations.

In San Francisco where I am a pastor, we have many churches that are hungry for pastors to journey with them into the future and it is challenging to know whether there are pastors or seminarians who are equipped for the job. Some ideas that we are putting in place is offering the churches that can’t afford an installed pastor to be a training post for seminarians or recent graduates – to give them hands on training where they take on all the pastoral duties needed and a group of local, seasoned pastors provides the guidance and support needed for that person.

Who have been your mentors? What has been successful for you as a mentor or a mentee? What do you feel is needed for leaders to be mentored in the 21st century?

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