Have you ever done rock climbing? Did you enjoy it? I climb mountains, but I do not enjoy rock climbing! For 39 years I have been part of a group of seven men -- all Fuller alums -- who have been climbing mountains and exploring back country wilderness together. After a foolish first trip into the local mountains we signed up for the Sierra Club's Basic Mountaineering Training Course, to learn the skills that might have prevented the mistakes of our first trip. Rock Climbing was in the curriculum. I did not enjoy it. I am afraid of falling. I climb mountains, but I am afraid of heights!
I have been out on the rock face, standing on a little ledge, one hand clinging to a small knob, the other wedged in a slivered crack. Don holds my belay rope and encourages me to search for the next hold. But I am certain I will fall. I get what we call "sewing machine leg," where my leg jiggles so violently I am sure I will slip off the tiny ledge. In ministry, in leadership, in life, there are many precariously small ledges. What comes to mind for you?
Finally, with Don's affirmation I stretch for a small handhold just beyond my arm's length. I reach...I miss...and I fall. But the fall is not fatal. I drop about 18 inches. Don is paying attention. He holds tightly to the belay rope and stops my fall, holding me secure until I can regain my footing and begin climbing again. And I needed to fall. When I fell and experienced the security of the rope, I learned to trust the rope and to trust Don. That trust gave me the courage to risk the climb, and without further thought I scampered up that rock face.
This, for me, is a powerful metaphor for the mentoring relationship. Mentoring is a mentoree initiated and directed learning relationship. As we engage the journey of life, leadership, and calling, we seek out men and women to serve as resources for learning from life. "Mentors" are not directive authorities; they seldom give advice. They are not responsible for our learning and growth -- but they hold our rope. They listen, they affirm, they ask questions to clarify and broaden our perspective. They encourage us to consider who we intend to become. They share stories of their own journey in which we can learn from their risks, success, and failures. They provide a safe space, a relationship in which we can comfortably learn from our falls and failures and regain the courage to risk growth. Mentors are wonderful at affirming our successes, but they are invaluable at encouraging learning from our failures.
The belay rope does not stop you from falling; it keeps your fall from being fatal. It holds you secure until you can regain your footing, reclaim your confidence. Don does not pull me up the mountain; he does not climb for me. He affirms, encourages, keeps my fall from being fatal, and holds me secure while I learn from my failure and determine how to continue the climb from here.
My life has been graced by mentoring relationships. God has sent men and women across my path for over 57 years to serve as mentors -- encouraging learning resources -- as I risk the next steps of my journey. What gifts!
When you find yourself on a tight ledge with shaky legs and an ambiguous path forward, who has your rope? When you call out "On Belay," who responds, "Belay On -- I am here, go ahead, take the risk, live."
Walter C. Wright, Jr. is Senior Fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary.