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Just Be Friends: Spiritual Discipleship, Simplified

Sadie Vanderzyden and Abby Sanders in Ashland, Ohio

“Entering into a mentoring relationship” sounds really intimidating, but Jesus, the model for such invitations, simply invited people to walk with him. “Come, follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Sometimes it was just, “Follow me,” let’s do life together.

That’s how Sadie Vanderzyden and Abby Sanders have viewed mentorship.

“We talked about the importance of mentoring and discipleship in youth leadership,” Abby said. She was a sophomore in high school at Park Street Brethren Church at the time, and Sadie was a working adult in her mid-20s, helping lead the high school youth group. “We were meeting weekly to discuss the book series, Habitudes. I thought, ‘Sadie seems pretty great.’” So Abby asked her if she’d disciple her.

They began meeting every other week or at least once a month. At first, their meetings revolved around food—getting breakfast, lunch, ice cream, or coffee—but eventually, Abby told Sadie they didn’t have to go somewhere. “I just wanted to talk, so I’d come to Sadie’s office and hang out.”

Abby didn’t know it at the time, but Sadie was organized in her approach to mentorship. “I created categories of check-ins—how are your family relationships, any updates on boys you have crushes on, how about God, how about sports,” Sadie shared. High school is a time of transition, so Sadie asked a lot of questions about Abby’s future, what she wanted to do after high school, and how Abby was navigating her relationship with her parents. As someone who had been down that road before, Sadie was a sounding board for Abby.

“I didn’t want to become another adult who could tell Abby what to do,” Sadie said. Instead, the two spent most of their time externally processing life.

Early on in their relationship, Abby shared with Sadie that she had been struggling with doubt. 

“I told Sadie, ‘I don’t know if I’m buying into this whole Christianity thing,’ and she told me, ‘You can ask God to prove him wrong. I think you can ask God whatever you want.’” No one had given her that kind of permission before. “I’ve used that advice with my brother – ask God to prove you wrong, and he’ll show up,” Abby said.

Sometimes life was too busy to meet formally, so Sadie would invite Abby to the grocery store to chat while she shopped.

“One time, I had a list of things to discuss in the pocket of my jacket,” Abby said, laughing. “Here’s what’s happened since last we met.”

The mentorship relationship is often a two-way gift. “Watching Abby struggle through difficult family dynamics was impactful for me,” Sadie said. “Even if she was nervous or scared she would confront them anyway, trusting that the Lord was with her.” 

“She’s grown a lot,” said Sadie, adding, “It probably has nothing to do with me besides being here to question all the time.”

The two of them met on a regular basis for two and a half years, until Abby graduated from high school. Now, Abby meets with another mentor and is mentoring another young girl. Both Sadie and Abby hope that others will be willing to form relationships like theirs with others. 

Abby Sanders at her high school graduation. Image: Abby Sanders. 

Mentoring someone is more like a spiritual friendship. It’ll look different for everyone—find something you both enjoy doing together on a schedule that makes sense for your lives, and go for it.

“Don’t assume on either side that you have to have all the answers, or that your mentor will have all the answers,” Sadie shared. In fact, Sadie and Abby both said it was important for them to remember neither of them are professional counselors, and while they’re both happy to walk alongside someone who is struggling, they are also quick to encourage their mentees to talk to a professional therapist if needed. 

But outside of heavier stuff, like mental health issues, Sadie feels strongly that anyone can be a mentor. “I think you’re tricking yourself into thinking that there’s a time in your life where you will feel equipped. So do it when you’re nervous. As long as you are a person who is willing to commit to pray for and with someone, then the Holy Spirit is going to show up.”

Abby agreed. “You don’t have to take a test and pass it to qualify. If you have the Holy Spirit in you that will qualify. The Holy Spirit is going to take things over if you don’t have the answers.”

“They need to see you be a real person,” Sadie said. “And that will probably make you feel vulnerable, but that’s not bad. I would discourage people from trying to present that you have it all together because then you aren’t really relatable and that person will probably feel worse.”

Maybe it’s the label “mentorship” or “discipleship” that causes people to hesitate, but “In the most kind and loving way, stop making it so weird,” Sadie said. “It doesn’t have to be intense and deeply personal all the time. Just make a friend. And add God into it. Calm down! You aren’t psychoanalyzing them – just be friends!”

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