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by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA, FACP, FACPE
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2010

I look across the table as Ashley* tells me that there are things no one knows about her, and that her Christian friends would never accept her if they knew . . . that she can’t really believe that God can accept her, since He knows. For some reason, she decided to share them with me.

I attend my medical student Bible study though today it is inconvenient, and I have a bad attitude. I almost cancelled, but I’m so glad I didn’t. When Megan* asks to meet with me after the study, she says, “I’ve been holding out for three days till I could talk to you. I kept telling myself, ‘I just have to make it till Tuesday so I can talk to Dr. Galbreath.’”

I brush back tears listening to Madeleine’s* shame over choices she has made. I hear her pain and wish I could erase the hurt. I cry with her as she talks, and I sit with her in the midst of her pain.

I swell with pride as I watch Sarah* stand in front of the WIMD conference giving a talk about managing a disease in her sub-specialty. Having led a small group she was in for five years during her medical school and internship, I continue to feel maternal, even though she now has more medical training and better credentials than I do.

Mentoring. We hear about it a lot, but what is it, really? Mentoring can be defined as a personal relationship between two people in which a more experienced (usually older) person teaches, encourages, or counsels a less experienced one.** The word actually originated from Greek mythology: Odysseus put his friend Mentor in charge of his son Telemachus and his palace while he was fighting the Trojan War. Mentor served as a resource and guide for Telemachus while his father was away.

This definition implies that the mentor sacrificially gives time and expertise for the sole benefit of the mentee. And since I know your life is just as crazy and full as mine, I hear you protesting:

  • “I just don’t have time for that. My family needs my time right now.”
  • “I don’t know what I would teach medical students anyway. I certainly don’t have it together enough to show anyone else how to do it!”
  • “Someone else can do this. What about the faculty at the medical school, the local CMDA staff, the pastors at church . . . aren’t they paid to do this?”

If these are your ideas about mentoring, you don’t have the whole picture. The vignettes above are conglomerates of some of my most meaningful mentoring moments. They are meaningful not because I was spiritual enough to set aside time from more important things in order to minister to medical students in need. They are meaningful because they were moments spent with my friends, with women who have become precious to me and who happen to be a number of steps behind me on the path of life and career. They are meaningful to me because they were special moments in my life, not because I was participating in a one-way relationship with these women. As I have mentored medical students over the past fifteen years, I have celebrated joys, weathered challenges, lived alongside them — I have had the privilege of playing a small part in their lives. And I have been richly rewarded.

I can’t say that I have ever been mentored in the way that I hoped, so much of the mentoring that I do is based on what I always wanted someone to do for me. As a student and resident, I longed for a woman who was “doing it well” to show me how she juggled her roles as wife, mom, doctor, and Christian. There was a dearth of women in medicine ahead of me, and few of the ones I met appeared to share my definition of “doing it well.” The ones who did were far too busy to spend time with me. And so I stumbled along, trying to forge my own path, often looking back thinking, “If I had only known, I would have. . . .”

Of course, I have since learned that “doing it well” is a lot messier than I had hoped and that there is no simple answer to life as a Christian in medicine. But I don’t have to have it all together in order to have something to offer to the students around me. In fact, students don’t even want me to give them a plan for how to fix their lives. They want me to give them my time, to speak the truth to them, and to earn their trust. Only after that will I become a part of their lives and a source of exhortation. As with most things, ultimately I must lead them by example.

  1. Time — This is the commodity in shortest supply in all of our lives, and, therefore, the first concern we raise when thinking about mentoring. Our time is in demand by God, our spouses, our children, our aging parents, our patients, our colleagues, our administrators, our churches, our volunteer ministries . . . and the list goes on. How do we make time for one more thing? I have found that mentoring is not a separate compartment in my life. Students need to see my life in action. Over the years, I have led student Bible studies, sharing my time in the Word with them. I have had students in my home, sharing my family life with them. I have had students in my clinic, sharing my professional life with them. There have certainly been occasions when a student needed me to make time to sit with her face-to-face. But if my schedule can’t accommodate an hour here or there to meet with a person in need, maybe I need a little more margin in my life!
  2. Truth — Obviously, as Christian mentors, we should be speaking truth to the students with whom we interact. Even with students who are not Christians, and even in settings where we cannot easily share our faith, we can still impart Biblical principles about medical practice and personal life choices. However, I believe that the idea of truth-in-mentoring goes beyond this. I have found that I must have an honest, authentic relationship with students in order to develop a meaningful relationship with them. If they see me as one who has everything together and has all the answers, then they aren’t seeing the real me. In addition, the more together they think I am, the less willing they will be to share their own struggles and failures. This makes the relationship superficial, and it dramatically lessens my impact on the lives of the students. Of course, discernment is required to determine how much to share in a mentoring relationship versus the personal accountability relationships in my life. But if I am putting on a face before students that does not reflect who I really am, I am not speaking truth to them.
  3. Trust — As I spend time and speak truth, trust naturally develops. Trust is a two-way street, but it has to be initiated by the mentor. As I trust students with the truth of my failings and struggles, they will trust me with theirs. As they trust me with their struggles, I have the joy of walking alongside them in the midst of their pain.
  4. Exhortation — Sadly, in Christian circles we often try to jump into a mentoring relationship at this step, skipping the first three. Someone asks for our help, or we think they need our help, and we step up to the plate with Scripture and instructions to get them back onto the right path. However, without authentic relationship as the foundation, exhortation can be intrusive and can even push someone further from the right path. Exhortation is legitimized by a relationship of care and concern, by walking alongside someone in their struggles. Only then will they be able to hear the love and concern from which we speak.
  5. Example — This is both the first and the last step. I am ill-equipped to mentor others if the primary purpose of my own life is not glorifying God in word and deed. This does not equal having it all together. I, for one, absolutely do not have it all together. I continue to struggle mightily in several different areas, and I do not have easy answers for students. But I do know The Answer to all of life, and if I am living in and through Him in the midst of my struggles and imperfections, I can continue to point students to Him. No mentoring relationship is forever, and eventually they will move on. But if my example is a life infused with Christ, I can equip them to take the Ultimate Mentor with them as they move to the next stage of life.

* Names and details changed.

**While not necessarily true of workplace mentoring, Christian mentoring involving spiritual and emotional issues is most effective and most appropriate when mentor and mentee are the same gender.


Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA, FACP, FACPE, is an internist in San Antonio, Texas. She serves as Clinic Medical Director for the Texas MedClinic and teaches part-time at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where she loves working with medical students. She also leads a weekly Bible study for female medical students through the local CMDA chapter. She and her husband, David, have three children: Coggin, Mary Eleanor, and Norah.

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