Handling the subtleties of vocation mentoring

Handling the subtleties of vocation mentoring

By Carole A. Riley C.D.P.

Usually a 10 p.m. phone call signals a student canceling an appointment. As I answered the telephone, Molly said, “You’re the most spiritual person I know; could I be a nun?”

This 22-year-old engineering student had never called me before, but I have known her informally for several years. Reflecting on her efficient use of words I wondered how long she had rehearsed that one liner. She gingerly described exploring relationships in what I characterize as a counter-cultural celibate fashion. With each sentence, I marveled at the directness of her questions, her precise articulation, the struggle with emotionally deep relationships, her investigation into family history and her emerging spirituality. She has become disillusioned with organized religion. She goes to church but feels life must mean more than just attending church and living right. As she talked, I realized she didn’t know about religious opportunities—volunteer programs, charisms, life styles, and the ethnic composition of many religious communities.

I am convinced that we in religious life need to be available for chance encounters like this. The new religious generation, of every age group, want people with whom they can process their call. She asked to keep in touch. I committed myself to being available and to getting her in touch with several communities. She is definitely at the beginning of her vocational journey. As we venture forth on this journey, I must ask myself what my hopes are for our mentoring. What could go right or wrong? To answer these questions I have grouped my reflections around five issues, namely, identity, intimacy, respect, confidentiality and culture.

Identity and desire to please

Molly’s first step is to discover who she can be in new and different situations. She will need a personal identity strong enough to embrace and integrate an identity as religious within a certain congregation. My role will be to stay deeply in my own skin: woman, religious, professional and with friends of my own. Molly does not desire friendship from me despite the fact we have many similarities both in personality and preferences. A potential landmine in Molly’s struggle for identity in a community could be my, the mentor’s, own lack of self-knowledge. As mentors we must be leaning posts of groundedness.

Another difficulty at this early stage is a desire to please the candidate that might keep the mentor from reflecting on counter-transferences and tranferences, that is, reflecting on how the thoughts, feelings and wishes of one party in the mentoring relationship are taken on by the other party. Perhaps the good times are too comforting to me as a mentor. I may feel happy to be so helpful, energized at our “successful” meetings. Or our interactions are emotionally devastating to me, producing anger, disappointment, envy, extreme sadness. I need to be alert to the possible toomuchness of our relationship.

My emotional needs ought to be met by others, not primarily by Molly. I can help myself help Molly by keeping a journal of our interactions and my emotional reactions. I can commit to sharing the troublesome or notable moments with a trusted confidante. Every relationship benefits from transference and countertrans- ference. The problem emerges in the “too-muchness.” Initially, Molly will naturally seek to please me or the community contact. She will emphasize the similarities. I need to balance the similarities with the differences. Infatuation is common in the beginning. The idealization or infatuation can later help a candidate to weather the storms of adaptation. Infatuation is like a honeymoon period, and it’s an expected norm even for older candidates. One healthy way of progressing through the infatuation phase is for the mentor to foster other relationships in his or her life. Other relationships will not take the place of the mentor relationship. But if the mentor “has a life,” the candidate will adapt more smoothly and with less emotional turmoil. This progression is enhanced by a mentor with developed intimacy and conflict management skills.

Intimacy skills and compatibility

Molly will benefit from my liking her, an example of positive transference. I hope she finds someone in each community she investigates who likes her. How do we learn to appropriately communicate our likes, dislikes, observations and needs? Many of us suf fer underdevelopment of intimacy skills. We give mixed messages that confuse the candidate. Although a mentor has a relationship of intensity with the new candidate, we are not a friend to the new candidate. Our role includes cheerleading, supporting, observing, listening and critiquing. We need conflict management skills to hear the candidate’s reactions without defensiveness.

As candidates move out of the initial period of infatuation, they will reflect on the woundedness and dysfunctionalism of our religious living situations. If they are right, great! The candidates join what is and help us make it what it ought to be. But we are who and how we are at this point in time. The mentor need not apologize for the process of the community. With developed intimacy skills we can withstand the negativity that accompanies disillusionment with the system. Disillusionment is a necessary step in incorporation. A good mentor supports the candidate here yet gently observes the opportunity for growth in both the candidate and the community.

The fear associated with declining membership may set off landmines of dependency or overcompensation. Have you heard any of these remarks? “Who will take my place when I am gone? How will we continue our ministry if you don’t join us?” These are not the essential questions. One is easily tempted to deny the communal sinfulness and to hide in justification or endless explanations. We can misuse the trust and power of our mentoring position if these questions fuel guilt feelings in the candidate.

If we like the potential candidate, we usually find ourselves reflecting on “How is God calling you? Where is the energy in living for you? Do you feel at home with us? Are you willing to accompany us in the not-yet? If we don’t like the candidate, or have too small a vision of who could be a vowed member, we must provide another mentor for the person. The unconscious motivation for entrance for each of us is only gradually revealed. Patience and love are important companions. Honest feedback is important and is based on respect for the individual and the communal process.

Respect for individual and communal processes

Individual and communal processes benefit from a delicate balance. Efforts to maintain this delicate balance can help or hinder the selection process of the mentor. How are the mentors selected? In some communities the vocation team and the council select mentors based on compatibility with the leadership and community “goodness.” Those not selected may feel left out or judged. Those selected may exploit their position by overbearing and manipulative postures. When the community uses a selective rather than volunteer method for choosing mentors, the process clearly says that some members are not perceived as good community models. An in-out list emerges, with those omitted wondering: “What prevented me from making the list?” This exclusivity presents the question: If someone approaches me for entrance, will he or she automatically have a harder time adjusting because of the leadership’s perception of me?

I suggest each professed member have the opportunity to volunteer and train for mentoring. We are different personalities. Allowing people to choose mentor training does not prevent the administrative or vocational team from wielding control. Control of the process does seem to be at the heart of exclusionary approaches. Ideally all those concerned can be respected while protecting the role of both the vocation personnel and administrators. The community could give input about the mentor-selection process. This invitation to participate fits the philosophy of most vocation ministers: that each person is a vocation minister, assuming responsibility for the continuance of religious life. The primary challenge here is to trust and respect one another and to reflect these attitudes in our processes. A simple question to the entire community about who is interested in training to be a mentor could suffice. The training aspect is essential. It develops an understanding of the incorporation process. It also helps determine the prospective mentor’s intimacy and conflict management skills as well as the amount of time he or she has for this undertaking. A good religious is not enough. This mentoring process requires not only a good priest, sister or brother, but also one with training.

As I examine the subtleties of mentoring, I hope Molly will be able to choose her mentor. Most communities choose the vocation person to be the second contact. For Molly I am the first, even though I may not belong to the community she eventually chooses. I have a significant role. I need to keep the conversation avenues open and give her space to explore. How are you addressing your personal and communal shadows: racism, gender or personality biases, ageism, ethnic biases? Are you clear about the community’s expectations and capacity for growth? Is your community training the mentors? What is the selection process? Once the relationship begins, what is the nature of the dialogue? What are the expectations of self disclosure, the parameters of confidentiality?

Confidentiality and secrecy

Who knows what? With smaller numbers of entrants, a candidate ought not feel like a specimen. How do we protect the person’s reputation and possible future with us? Is the mentoring helping the candidate meet a variety of community members? Are there significant opportunities for personal involvement? How focused is the gathering of information for discernment? To gather data one needs experience. In providing Molly’s name to several communities and programs, she has a first hand experience of the literature. I and the people in the communities stay in the wings.

I hope each candidate has a spiritual director who is impartial about which lifestyle the candidate chooses. The hazard of re-creating the past looms high in the area of self disclosure. And once again, the candidate ought to be free to self-disclose. But the mentor shouldn't always be this free; nothing the mentor shares ought to be a burden to the candidate.

Stay in the mentoring role! To do this one needs clear boundaries. I hope Molly finds someone who will be clear about boundaries. The potential candidate matures through discussion and free expression. The candidate ought to be able to explore the full gamut of human experience verbally. A listener who can be clear on what is confidential and what will be shared is essential. We need to know our own relational style. If I can’t keep secrets, I better say so.

Keep the relationship current. Here the vocation director benefits by stating in writing the feedback needed. Behavioral observations must be the norm. Comments such as, “I just have a feeling she won’t fit,” although potentially accurate and intuitive, muddy the ability of the candidate to change perceptions or behavior. Mentors need to uncover the source of their feelings. A positive feeling can yield an affirmation; a negative feeling can give us insight into the conversion process. Both good and bad feelings of the mentor and the candidate can provide fruitful reflective tools.

Nature of the mentor’s role

To mentor is to engender trust, issue a challenge, provide encouragement and offer a vision for the journey. The mentor helps transform fear of abandonment into call for adventure. Anxiety often accompanies the candidate’s initial investigation. The anxiety can be masked as bravado or scorn. Underneath lies a deep uncertainty about the ability to succeed “later in life,” about losing face before friends or the community, about becoming a vowed religious. This is a starkly unfamiliar realm for most people. If we mentors recognize these fears for what they are, we can act to relieve them gently, rather than attempting to overcome or deny them.

Cultural adaptation and belonging

Religious life is its own culture. Our actions and reactions in cross-cultural situations are often based on what we don’t know about our own culture as much as what we don’t know about the other culture. It is helpful to be aware of our preconceptions, to be ready to admit they may be wrong and equally ready to change them. Vocation directors are probably most aware of the idiosyncrasies of the “culture” of their own communities. The passage into religious life requires putting down roots, even in a place of exile, and making meaningful commitments to the community while seeking its welfare and praying for it. Florence Bienenfield has developed a list of skills valuable for cross-cultural adaptation (see the bibliography at the end of this article). This list can be helpful in training mentors. Reflecting on this list can help mentors avoid most of the relational snafus that can surface. At the least, Bienenfield’s thoughts can provoke insightful dialogue. According to Bienenfield, mentors ought to have tolerance for ambiguity, low goal or task orientation, open-mindedness, a strong sense of self, non-judgmentalness, empathy, an ability to fail, motivation, a sense of humor, warmth in human relationships, self-reliance, curiosity, perceptiveness, communicativeness, flexibility, adaptability and tolerance for difference. Based on your experience, which of these skills would your candidates value most? Which of these skills does the larger community most value? Which do you value? How about your mentors? How are you applying these skills in daily interactions within the community? Answering these questions can begin valuable discussions.

In drawing my reflections to a close, I am reminded of some wisdom from Transitions, by William Bridges. Bridges points out that major changes require “the transformative experience of the neutral zone,” a time in which we welcome emptiness and surrender to chaos. “Chaos,” he reminds us, “is not a mess, but rather it is the primal state of pure energy to which the person returns for every true new beginning” (p. 119). Likewise, Carol Christ suggests the need for an “experience of nothingness to mediate woman’s spiritual quest for a ‘new awakening’ and a fresh naming of her self .” Likewise, we can expect the experience of mentoring to be a growth experience for both mentor and protégé. We continue with the protégé who has already begun, with God, a journey to transformation. We, as mentors, are as Christ was to the Emmaus disciples: companions in their reflection and surrender to the Mystery.


Florence Bienenfield, Conflict Resolution for couples, New Jersey, Career Press, 2000.

William Bridges, Transitions, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1980.

Carol P. Christ Diving Deep and Surfacing, Boston: Beacon Press, 1980.

Laurent A. Daloz, Effective Teaching and Mentoring, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.


Carole Riley, Contemplative Prayer and Women’s Ways of Knowing, Canfield: Alba House Publications, 1995.

Carol A. Riley, CDP is a member of the Sisters of the Divine Providence community. She is a part-time staff member at the Cenacle Retreat House in Charleston, W. V. and at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Pittsburgh, Pa. where she teaches spirituality. A professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, she is also in demand as a lecturer and retreat director.


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