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Asking for Direction - Pepperdine Magazine

Asking for Direction

Students seek spiritual mentors to help guide them toward a deeper relationship with God

The Bible contains numerous illustrations of spiritual mentorship. Figures like Moses, David, Naomi, John, Paul—and of course Jesus himself—lovingly and patiently imparted their knowledge of God with community members in an effort to develop future leaders to guide the next generation of believers. Inspired by Jesus’ example when mentoring his own disciples, the practice of spiritual mentorship focuses on reconciliation between humanity and God, requires leading by example, and actively embraces spiritual disciplines and friendship.


Pepperdine chaplain Sara Barton explains that to be truly formed, people should be in relationships with individuals who have overcome spiritual obstacles similar to their own. “One misconception about mentorship is that people will grow if you just provide them with information, which is a very Western way of approaching spiritual growth,” she says. “Instead of more information, people need a relationship with someone who is experienced in their spiritual journey.”

According to Barton, the student demand for spiritual mentorship has increased substantially at Seaver College over the last few years, especially among seniors. In order to effectively meet this demand, the Office of the Chaplain pairs interested student mentees with faculty and staff mentors. In some cases, students act as mentors to help guide their peers.

With more than 20 years of combined spiritual direction, coaching, and mentorship experience under his belt, associate chaplain Eric Wilson explains that around the year 2000, Christian communities nationwide witnessed a notable rise in youth ministries, school campus ministries, and faith-based camps for kids and teens. As a result, current college students who grew up in that era are familiar with—perhaps even reliant on—receiving spiritual counseling. Now on the verge of leaving the comfortable environment they have called home for the last four years, students suddenly sense a need to seek spiritual counseling to ensure they are equipped to make sound decisions as independent adults.

“In this 18-year span, the power and the strength of Protestant and Catholic churches have waned because people are searching for actions much more significant and robust than just going to the same church, hearing the same sermons, and practicing the same rituals,” Wilson says. “Freshmen in college may feel off-balance and overwhelmed, so they understand the value of a competent spiritual mentor normalizing their experiences for them. During their senior year, they want a mentor to help them understand the mysteries that lie ahead in the real world.”

For students like Madison Chisholm, the spiritual mentorship she receives at Pepperdine is one of the only practices that has helped form and reinforce her spiritual identity. “I’m the only Christian in my family,” reveals the Seaver College junior who admits she found it difficult to nurture her faith at home. Growing up ambivalent about the notion of institutionalized religion, Chisholm turned to Barton for spiritual mentorship at the beginning of her junior year. The relationship became particularly meaningful when Chisholm offered to lead a Club Convo group that examined the most notable women of the Old Testament.

“It’s helpful to get guidance from someone with such strong convictions, especially when you’re teaching girls how to find their voice within the Bible and become empowered by viewing the women in the Bible as role models,” notes Chisholm.

Through her sessions with Barton, the political science major learned how to historically analyze the Old Testament and urged club members to imagine themselves experiencing the same scenarios that they were reading about, along the way evaluating the hardships and blessings of women like Leah, Rachel, Ruth, and Esther.

“The Old Testament can be intimidating and therefore deter people from seeing how women were treated in the years before Christ,” Chisholm shares. “But Sara taught me to explore how God used these women in the context that they were in and how we can appreciate the foundations that they established.”

To moderate engaging conversations rather than present a scripted lecture, Chisholm tapped into Barton’s public speaking and teaching expertise to better understand how to maintain the young women’s interests and inspire them to participate. After consulting with her spiritual mentor, Chisholm intentionally paused at different points in each chapter to ask what stood out to each group member, how it related to her personal experiences, and what lessons could be learned from the story. After weeks of hosting rich, honest discussions in an encouraging, nonjudgmental space, Chisholm found deeper connections with her Club Convo members as each one uncovered internal conflicts they would have otherwise kept concealed.

“This experience showed me that if you’re struggling to define your identity and looking to the Bible for affirmation, there is so much to appreciate about the Old Testament and the routines people applied before Jesus stepped into human history and came to teach us about life,” Chisholm explains. “Because of my time with Sara and the Club Convo, I grew tremendously in my ability to look toward the Old Testament as well as the New Testament for guidance.”

When it comes to connecting Seaver College mentees with mentors, Wilson points out that while cases vary based on individual needs and goals, each relationship is founded upon intentionality and a commitment to invest in the process. As Wilson puts it, “Mentors are intentionally leveraging their own relationships with God for the sake of bettering students’ relationships with God.”

Pauline Van Backle (MS ’16), a graduate student who meets with Wilson for spiritual mentorship and who acts as a mentor to undergraduates, has certainly proven Wilson’s philosophy to be correct. Van Backle, who is currently enrolled in the master’s in divinity program at Seaver College and serves as a student affairs intern in the Office of the Chaplain, mentors select students about how to ease the massive pressures of competing commitments among academics, athletics, relationships, family, and impending careers. Managing various social, professional, and scholastic elements herself, Van Backle combines principles from her ministry education at Pepperdine, self-care and soul care routines, and yoga-based breathing techniques to help students cope with a busy season.

“My goal is to encourage students to think about how they can tend to their spiritual lives while remaining invested in multiple demanding projects,” she notes. “I ask them to take a step back and consider how they can successfully maintain their daily responsibilities alongside God, rather than placing God in a corner and slaving away alone.”

Through her multidimensional approach, Van Backle assists students in exploring their spirituality on a daily basis so that they can eventually form their own method of regaining peace by continually communing with God.

“Rather than provide answers, I help them come up with their own solutions. Spiritual mentorship is about being in discovery with the students—meeting them where they are and discovering the journey with them,” Van Backle says.

“At the end of the day, spirituality is not just one single aspect of our lives. It is a life process that we have to express regularly, and one way to do that is through relationships with each other and with God.”