How do you know if you would make a good mentor for someone in prison? In many ways, serving as a mentor—whether for a prisoner or for someone on the outside—is quite simple. In other ways, it’s not. The questions below should help you consider whether you are being called to a mentoring role or not.
DO I BELIEVE PEOPLE CAN CHANGE?
This is by far the most important question you should ask yourself. Since the beginning, Prison Fellowship® has been committed to this idea that no life is beyond God’s reach and that Jesus Christ can make even the most broken people whole again. When you know that transformation is a possibility, you can be confident that you are making an investment with eternal implications.
Note: It is very easy to forget that no human being can instigate change in another’s life. They can encourage and they can pray, but God is the one who is responsible for true life change.
CAN I TEACH A NEW SPORT?
The word “mentor” has found itself on an unnatural pedestal. It’s helpful to see a mentor in a more relatable context. A mentor should not be someone who views themselves in a higher position, reaching down to help someone in a lower position. Rather, the ideal mentor is someone who views himself or herself more like a coach, teaching a new player the basic skills of a sport. The mentor is someone who comes alongside, to challenge and encourage.
Because of the newness of the game for the “player,” many mentees try to get the coach to play the game for them. But the moment the coach steps off the sidelines and onto the field, the relationship immediately changes from one of genuine help to enabling. In fact, it is not only unhelpful, but disrespectful to do things for others that they can do for themselves. This can erode both self-confidence and dignity. What is better by far is to equip them with the skills to play the game for themselves and then cheer them on from a healthy distance.
CAN I SET REALISTIC GOALS?
Men and women in prison often have big dreams for their lives, but they may not have the resources or skills necessary to realize these dreams. They need someone to help them establish attainable and measurable goals that they can reach through simple, small, and faithful steps (whether preparing for release in the near future, or for many more years behind bars).
When you meet with your mentee for the first time, you will want to take a look at the current landscape of factors in the person’s life. For instance, does the person have a history of substance abuse? Do they have relationships in their lives that need healing and forgiveness? Do they lack spiritual maturity and need to grow in their relationship with God and in Christian community?
After agreeing on which areas to focus on, prioritize the most important goals to pursue.
Reminder: you are helping them identify their goals. This gives the mentee a sense of ownership and a vested interest in achieving their goals. At no time should a mentor try to force a goal on the mentee, regardless of how important the mentor thinks it is.
Special note about helping establish goals for those preparing for release:
For those getting out of prison—particularly those who have served relatively long sentences—there is a temptation to try to make up for lost time in a hurry. Consider the example of a young man who went to prison when he was 20 and is preparing for parole at 30. Many of his peers may have established families and careers by this point. Coming out of prison, he might feel an urgency to make many weighty decisions—to go to college, to buy a house, to get into a serious relationship, to start a family, etc.—very quickly. But the reality is that by taking small, achievable steps in the beginning, he can put himself farther down the road in achieving his bigger dreams in the long run.
These steps might be things like finding a decent place to rent, securing a steady job, and getting plugged into a good church community where he can start building healthy relationships.
Stay tuned for the second installment in this series, coming soon. In the meantime, here are some other helpful reading materials to help you consider whether pursuing a mentoring relationship with a former or current prisoner is for you.
Mentoring Prisoners is written by Zoe Erler and Dan Kingery.