When Mentors Disappoint


Karl Barth in his book “The Humanity of God” wrote,

One day in early August I 914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wtlhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, I 9th century theology no longer held any future.

Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans., J.N. Thomas and T Weiser (Richmond, VA: John Knox, l 960) 19.

Mentors disappoint. Serving in a counseling center, I see religious leaders fall… often in spectacular fashion. In my limited experience, something like half of them who fall due to moral lapse truly want to learn, grow, and be restored. The other half, want to maintain their behavior but have the repercussions of the behavior go away. It may be sad to see that happen, but it is even more sad the ripple effect this has on those who look up to them.

I have had that happen as well. Perhaps not in spectacular fashion, but I have had people I looked up to as paragons of faith disappoint in years later. I have had people (I am thinking of one in particular) I respected for their wisdom and virtue not only justify what seems clearly to be wrong, but try to talk me in to the same behavior. I won’t share details for two reasons. First, I believe that person is a good person overall. Second, what he was attempting to get me do is something that many Christians in my faith tradition would agree with. While I am quite confimed in my own understanding of the issue, I have no great desire to argue with people who passionately disagree with me. Right or wrong, in the case I am referring to, I saw it as a mentor failing.

So what does one do? On the bad side, one can lose faith. But if one does that, it perhaps indicates a need for a bit of soul-searching. A spiritual mentor should point a person to God not to himself or herself. If one’s faith is destroyed by the failing of a mentor, then perhaps the mentor did a poor job of mentoring, or perhaps the mentee has simply placed his/her faith in the wrong place. Now, I don’t want to take it too far. I have heard people use this argument and extend it into victim-blaming. They would say, if a mentor fails and the mentee loses faith, that is the fault of the mentee. I don’t think so. A real mentor is responsible to some extent for the mentee, and cannot simply accept no responsibility for the harm done to the mentee. But, again, a mentee should take time to reflect on whether his or her faith is based on who Jesus is, or who the mentor was, or is.

I would argue, however, that there are some good things that can come from the failure of a mentor.

  1. It can point one to God rather than the mentor. (I already spoke about this.)
  2. It can bring an opportunity to reflect on one’s own perspectives. Is the judgmentalism, self-pride, or other poor views that need to be addressed? Every mentor will fail in some way. No one is perfect, so it is good that each of us learn this in some way or another.
  3. In some cases, the “fall” of the mentor may have been for doing something right rather than wrong (martyrdom is full of these) and so the mentor may provide an opportunity for new inspiration.
  4. Other times, like described by Barth above, one must say that the mentor had led one down the wrong road, and it is time to choose a better road.

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