6 Hallmarks of Catholic Mentorship

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

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I started my career before I was old enough to drink. I had almost no experience and had landed the job not by any merit of mine but because I was the only one available for a position they desperately needed to fill.  I stumbled through my first few years, making mistakes I cringe at in retrospect. It took a lot of trial and error and even more humility to learn things that now seem obvious to me about how to conduct oneself in the workplace.

Outside of work, I sought ways to grow in prayer and community. I built relationships with people who walked the same path and found models whose authentic faith and relationship with Jesus I sought to emulate. These relationships were invaluable to my growth as a person of faith, but I can’t help but wonder whether, if I’d had someone similar in my field — a mentor, someone with whom to share my professional struggles and walk with in my professional life — perhaps I might have learned those lessons more quickly and less painfully.  Perhaps I would have been more prepared to offer my own gifts and wisdom as well.

As Catholics, we know that we are called to community, to support and encourage each other, and to walk alongside one another on our pilgrimage toward Heaven. While it is not always appropriate to use this type of spiritual language in the workplace, we can draw on the rich tradition of the Catholic Church to inform our approach our professional relationships, particularly mentorship. Whether you work in a secular office or professional ministry, keeping these six hallmarks of Catholic mentorship in mind will infuse these relationships with the spirit of faith.

1. Hospitality

A spirit of welcome is a gift in all our relationships. In mentorship, we can offer hospitality by welcoming others as they are. As St. Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Hebrews, hospitality is essential, “..for some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).  It can be tempting to try to offer assistance by remaking others in our own image. Instead, hospitality is about being attentive to the needs and particularities of the person in front of us. People are more receptive when they feel known, understood and cared for. Embracing a spirit of hospitality as a mentor (or a mentee) means receiving the other person as they are before taking stock of what we might have to offer them.

2. Care of the Whole Person

Along those lines, Catholic mentorship requires care for others in their totality. A person’s needs are not limited to the professional realm. While there are certainly boundaries that need to be respected, mentorship should never be limited strictly to the business arena. Infused with genuine love for the other person, Catholic mentorship seeks to help others develop as whole, integrated persons. That might mean offering advice that seems contrary to achievement or personal success, such as making time for rest or cultivating work/life balance.

3. Affirmation

It may seem obvious that all mentors should affirm gifts, draw out skills and offer encouragement. The key is that this affirmation shouldn’t stop at a mentoring relationships. Encouragement should be a habitual practice.  As St. Paul advises, “Acknowledge those who work hard among you ... Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

Mentorship is not just about drawing out the gifts of others but also helping mentees do so for others. Likewise, mentees should reciprocate; mentors need to hear that what they are doing is impactful. This kind of feedback is a simple way of offering thanks for the gift of mentorship and encourages mentors to continue giving of themselves.

4. Authenticity

While authenticity has become a buzzword, in part because of its importance to millennials, it’s also very Catholic. The most fruitful mentoring relationships nurture growth based on real experience. Mentees don’t need jargon, slogans or pithy sayings on desk ornaments. They also don’t need blind optimism or a sugar-coated version of reality. What they need is the truth. 

The truth is especially powerful when shared in the context of a relationship. In an age when answers to almost any question are at the tips of one’s fingertips, what transforms is not more information but relationship. Honest feedback and genuine encouragement from someone who has taken the time to truly know us isn’t something we can find online, and it is invaluable.

5. Mutuality

Authentic relationships involve vulnerability and receptivity. We need to avoid a “top-down” mentality, instead seeing each person as a gift. In an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ refers to this attitude as kinship, or “exquisite mutuality.” Christ dwells in each of us. Keeping this in mind opens our eyes to see His face and our ears to hear His voice in all of our relationships.

6. Joy

Relationships must have a foundation of joy. This is true for us as a Church, within our families, as team members working toward a common goal and in mentorship. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, the wind in our sails the propels us forward. While we need to avoid blind optimism and be willing to face and tackle setbacks, we must do so with joy.

Joy is especially essential for mentoring relationships that occur within the same company and for professions or fields where individuals are likely to encounter the same roadblocks, frustrating red tape and flawed system. Rather than become discouraged or add to the discord, it is critical that we seek ways to improve and move forward. As St. Paul urges, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8).

If you find that can’t offer these six gifts as a mentor, it might be time to reevaluate your position, take some time off and ask yourself whether you might be experiencing burnout. And if your mentor models behavior like gossip or is often publicly negative or critical in ways that seek to tear down rather than build up, that behavior is a good indicator that you need to seek mentorship elsewhere.

There will always be challenges; that is part of the thrill of persevering and building something wonderful. There will always be brokeness; that is part of our flawed human nature.  We are called not to sit in the darkness of the tomb but to go forward and proclaim its emptiness to the world — an emptiness that is full of hope, possibility and new life.

Samantha Stephenson has master’s degrees in theology and bioethics. After eight years in the field of education, she shifted her career path to be more available to her husband and their two children. Currently, she works from home as an online course facilitator for the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame and a freelance writer on themes of prayer, vocation and the Church. You can find her at SpiritualityoftheOrdinary.com.