In the span of 18 days this summer, two of my mentors died, and it caused me to do some serious reflection about their roles in my life.
Mentor #1: Roger Counsil
Roger Counsil died on August 8. Counsil was my gymnastics coach at Indiana State University (ISU) from 1974 to 1978. After I won my event in the Indiana High School State Championship as a junior, Coach Counsil recruited me to come to ISU in Terre Haute, IN. If you have never been to Terre Haute, it’s hard to describe. Let’s just say it is not Madison. Counsil, however, built one of the most successful gymnastics programs in the country, and young men who could have gone to Stanford, UC Berkeley, Penn State, and other top programs were going to ISU instead. Indeed, we won the NCAA championship in 1977 (40 years ago! Yikes!). Counsil went on to become coach of the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 and executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation.
All of my trophies, except one, are boxed up and in the basement now. None of you know me as a gymnast. But gymnastics dominated my life for 10 years. When I started at ISU I was clearly not one of the better gymnasts. I wanted to quit after almost every practice my first year. Competition to make the team was fierce and the workouts were brutal. I did not make the competing team until I was a junior. I was constantly discouraged. But Coach Counsil kept me in the gym. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He put me in an environment where mediocre effort was simply not tolerated. He was a tough coach–just what I needed.
Without Coach Counsil I would never have gone to ISU or stayed in Terre Haute. It’s a good thing I stayed because that’s where I met Sunshine. It’s also where I met the journalist who would eventually disciple me when I was brand new to following Christ. The Lord used Coach Counsil to change the direction of my life.
Mentor #2: Haddon Robinson
Haddon Robinson died on July 22. Unlike Counsil, I’ve mentioned Haddon many times, and he actually spoke at Blackhawk once in the late 1990s. Haddon was the “prince of preachers.” His fingerprints are all over my life. Haddon was my spiritual mentor and a kind of father figure.
Before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years ago, I would see Haddon for one week every May at a retreat center in Lake Geneva. Every evening we would go for a long walk to a local Starbucks and I would ask Haddon all kinds of questions about life. When we got back to our rooms, I would head for the computer and type like crazy for an hour or more, trying to capture the gist of those conversations. Haddon’s impact on my preaching was profound but his imprint on my character was even greater. I have a picture of Haddon in my home office to remind me of the kind of man I want to be. Haddon was a living model of Christ to me.
I wanted to share these stories to remind us about the difference a mentor can make in our lives. As life gets busier, deep relationships can inadvertently get crowded out. But these kinds of relationships are so important. They are worth the time and investment.
If you don’t have a mentor, I would encourage you to take the initiative to pursue that kind of relationship in your life. People often ask me if I could help them find a mentor, but in my experience, mentorship doesn’t work like that. A personal connection has to be made between you and the mentor.
There’s no magical program for finding a mentor, but I would encourage you to start by finding ways to connect with someone who’s been down the road you’re on. Look for someone who is willing to share what they’ve learned from their mistakes. Much of what Haddon shared with me were things that he had not done or things he wished he’d done differently. “Let me tell you about a mistake I made once” was the way a lot of our walks started off.
And let me offer a pro tip about your approach. If you start by asking someone, “Will you mentor me?” you might freak them out. But if you say, “Can we get a coffee sometime?” that might work a little better.
It can take time to develop a mentoring relationship, but don’t give up. Pray about it regularly and make it a priority in your schedule. As I reflect on the time I spent with two of my own mentors, I can assure you that the time and effort is well worth it.