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The message given to developing professionals everywhere is clear and consistent: to be successful, you need a mentor. Mentors help us to improve, reflect, grow, develop, and any other number of career-enhancing verbs that are appealing and important. Anyone who has ever had a professional mentor—or a personal one—can point to the profound impact they have on our lives.

At the same time, mentors are hard to come by for women and people of color in certain fields. This is because we often look to mentor those who look most like us. As Richard Farnell writes in an HBR piece (see here), leaders “naturally invest in and advocate for the development of the subordinates who are most like them. They see less experienced versions of themselves in these folks, and so they’re inclined to believe in their potential—they want to nurture it.” While natural, this becomes problematic when leaders in a given field are predominantly men (which is the case in Christian education), and even more so when we add in the stigma of a Christian man mentoring a colleague who is a woman (see here).

In my often lone journey as a woman leader in Christian education, I can say that I never had a mentor. In fact, during a recent meeting memorializing the passing of a well-known “father” in Christian education, nearly two dozen male leaders in the room reflected (tearfully) on how they had been mentored in some fashion by him. None of the handful of women in the room, however, had been the beneficiaries of his legendary mentoring—despite all of us having known him, and some having been contemporaries with the male leaders he had mentored. Collectively, it was clear that the women in the room had missed out on something very important.

Until there are significantly more women leaders in various Christian fields who are available to mentor other women—or, until we collectively overcome barriers around mentoring a person of the opposite sex—it would seem that many women leaders are just going to have to go it alone, and forgo the benefits of a mentor. But not so fast! It turns out that even if a mentor is not in the picture, there’s a different role—that of sponsor—that we can easily play for any person, regardless of gender and role, and even in terms of race or ethnicity.

In an HBR piece Don’t Just Mentor Women and People of Color—Sponsor Them, Rosalind Chow defines sponsorship as “spending one’s social capital or using one’s influence to advocate for a protégé.” In other words, sponsors use their influence to benefit someone, versus providing direct and personal help. Based on Chow’s definitions, here are some examples of how an established leader could sponsor a protégé in Christian education:

  • Amplifying the skills or accomplishments of protégés, by speaking positively about them to others and sharing work they have produced; for example, sharing news of an innovative project or new program that a protégé has developed with other leaders in the field.
  • Boosting protégés by essentially “underwriting” their reputation with one’s own; for example, nominating a protégé for a leadership position within an association or on a conference planning committee, or even declining an invitation to speak and recommending a protégé to speak in one’s place.
  • Connecting or exposing protégés to one’s professional network and friends; for example, inviting an emerging leader to a conference, dinner, or other event that typically would not be attended by someone at the protégé’s “level.”
  • Defending or challenging others’ negative perceptions or actively reducing uncertainty around the capabilities of a protégé; for example, when someone says that a protégé may not be “ready” to do something because of lack of experience, arguing that if given a fair chance, the protégé has real potential and will rise to the occasion.

While I haven’t had the benefit of a mentor as a woman leader in Christian education, I cannot count the number of sponsors I’ve had—leaders of influence who have passed along my work to their colleagues, “put in a good word” for me, or recommended me for an opportunity to serve or speak. In fact, at every single turn in my journey, I can remember a sponsor who was willing and eager to spend their social capital on my behalf. They did so because they believed that God could use something He had deposited in me for the benefit of the Kingdom, and they were willing to put themselves out on the line based on that belief. I can see each and every one of their faces in my mind right now. And when I think of them, I am humbled and filled with profound gratitude. Through their actions, these leaders encouraged me and built me up (1 Thessalonians 5:11) when I needed it most.

How can we serve as sponsors for others—particularly those who may be lacking access to mentors? We can begin by asking, “Is there a person in my sphere of influence who is doing good work or has great potential but is unlikely to be recognized as such if I don’t intervene?” Once we’ve identified a person who falls into this category, we can ask:

  • Where can I look to amplify or share the good work that this person is doing with colleagues who themselves are people of influence?
  • Is there a way I can serve as a booster for this person, perhaps through a nomination for a leadership experience—or by giving up an opportunity that I have myself and sending this person in my place?
  • How can I connect this person to influential people in my professional network?
  • How can I defend this person against the inevitable criticism that she or he is not “experienced” enough, is too “untested,” or is simply an “unknown”?

While we may not be able to increase the number of seasoned mentors who are able and willing to serve women and people of color in Christian education, we can all do our part to sponsor emerging leaders whenever and wherever we can. We can hold the door open for others, and in doing so, usher in the next generation of dynamic and gifted leaders of all backgrounds into the high calling of Christian education.

Author Lynn Swaner

Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead editor of the books MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

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