It’s alright to just be pals

We seem to live in an age that loves to formalise everything. Everything must be labelled as something. Nothing, it seems, can just be.

Christians are particularly adept at this stuff too. I don’t know whether it is some sense that redeeming the time means we have to justify every second of our day, as though rest or fun for their own sake (yes, to the glory of God!) is somehow a problem. The only things that are acceptable are prayer, reading the Bible, evangelism or things we can semi-justify as having some sort of spiritual benefit.

I am reminded of the friends I knew who set up a ‘Christian film group’. The line was that Christians would get together, watch a film and then discuss its spiritual merits. Now, if you want to do that, I’m not saying don’t. It’s a perfectly fine thing to do. But I couldn’t help feeling here were a bunch of lads who liked films and just wanted to watch them but they didn’t feel free to do that for its own sake so created some sort of pseudo-spiritual reason for doing what they really wanted to do. Maybe I am being unfair – and I’m not saying there is no value in thinking about films from a Christian worldview – but it is alright to just enjoy films too, if that’s your bag.

But I think something of this plays into the desire of some to seek out mentors. It will surprise almost nobody to know that I have never been anybody’s mentor. It will surprise everybody to know that I have been asked before (more than once, in fact). It may or may not surprise some that I said no.

Except, I didn’t say no for the reasons you all think. It’s not because I took great pleasure in watching people reach out to me only to shoot them down in a ball of flames (yes, I know… I’m just saying that’s not the reason I said no). The reason I said no is because, in every case it has happened (and, again I will surprise nobody, there haven’t been many) I was already friends with the person who was asking. They wanted to formalise something that, as far as I was concerned, didn’t need formalising. They wanted to stick a label on something – to make me seem far more important than I should be to them and them seem less significant than they were to me – that we were essentially already doing as mates.

In one case, I asked the person what they wanted to get out of it. They told me they wanted someone they could approach to chew over pastoral issues and discuss matters related to the church. When I pointed out that we had been doing that already (we were having a beer and doing literally that at the point they asked) and I told them I valued their input on those things as much as (if not more than) they valued mine, I asked them what they thought we would gain by slapping the label ‘mentor’ on something that was already happening as friends. We decided it wasn’t necessary and we carried on as we did before.

Now, if you find having a mentor a really valuable thing, I’m not knocking that. It’s a perfectly fine thing to have if you want it. But I wonder whether, a bit like that Christian film group, we are sometimes just looking for a pseudo-spiritual reason to hang out with a friend? It is fine to just be mates with someone. As far as I can see, the best sort of mentoring and support might just happen when we hang out with mates upon whom we have no specific expectations. They are just the people we spend time with and chew the fat with as pals and equals, not necessarily as mentor and mentee.

Of course, there is always the possibility that somebody is all too quick to offer themselves as a mentor to you. Again, let me be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with mentoring somebody. And if they’ve asked you and you both think that’s a solid idea, that’s all to the good. But there is a kind of person who might just want to foist themselves on you as a mentor. You didn’t ask or they were very quick to leap on the opportunity.

Rather than ask what might be gained from formalising a relationship in that way, they are quick to affirm that they should be your mentor and you should be the eager student to sit at their feet. Whilst I understand those looking for a bit of guidance who want such a relationship, I am extremely wary of those who are keen to adopt that mentor role. It takes a special kind of arrogance, I think, to offer it apropos of nothing, especially if all those same things could be achieved without one of you taking (what some would believe to be) a superior mentor role.

I can’t say enough, if you (and whoever you’ve asked) want that sort of relationship, there is nothing wrong with that. There may even be some very good things to be had from it. But let’s also remember that it is absolutely fine to just be pals. It is perfectly legitimate to hang out and be mates – and even support one another – without having to turn that into some sort of special spiritual role. It’s OK to just be friends.