I still remember the first time I was called “pastor.” I was just out of seminary and a small church had called me to be their pastor. I had not been there long when I received a phone call that the treasurer and his wife had been in an accident. As I walked into the hospital waiting room, I saw the faces of the family instantly relax. Immediately I was struck with fear, thinking, How can they trust that all will be fine just because I walked in the room?
I realized quickly that it is one thing to preach a sermon, lead a Bible Study, or pray at a potluck, but it is another thing to be a pastor. This leads to the question: How is it that a person comes to embody the role of pastor? A natural response might be to say that it just takes time. While that is certainly true, I would also suggest that having a mentor can be extremely beneficial in this process.
The Focus of Mentoring
Mentoring has become a popular topic. In fact, there is so much talk about mentoring that it can be difficult to sort through the many voices. So, in the midst of all of this, how do we know what mentoring really is? At its most basic level, mentoring is a relationship of influence that is focused on the growth or development of the mentored. When we focus on mentoring pastors, I would suggest that there are three primary areas of focus: character formation, vocational identity, and practical skills.
A life of a pastor is always demanding, but the early days of ministry can be overwhelming. With all there is to learn and do, areas of character formation, vocational identity, and practical skill development can take a backseat to a never- ending to-do list. That is why having a mentor can be so beneficial in one’s early days of ministry. Much of formal clergy preparation is focused on education. However, pastors are called to not only proclaim the good news of Jesus, but also to embody it. This is why character matters and why it is so critical for pastors to create time and space for God’s sanctifying grace to be made manifest in their life.
At the same time, pastors are often asked to perform many functions: social worker, counselor, engaging speaker, administrator, and so on. In the midst of a job description that seems to have no end, what does it mean to be a pastor? Without opportunities to process and reflect, it is easy for one’s pastoral identity to be formed by the demands of others rather than be shaped by God’s call.
Finally, while character and calling make one fit for ministry, the mastery of skills makes a person ready for ministry. There are many skills that pastors should be familiar with, but pastoral ministry has weekly rhythms that shape much of what we do: the leading of corporate worship (preaching and sacraments), nurturing of the congregation (pastoral care and discipleship), and administration. Experience in these areas is certainly helpful, but the chance to reflect on experience, with the wisdom and perspective of another, is invaluable.
There are certain traits that are characteristic of good mentors. All mentors should value the uniqueness and individuality of their mentees. This is rooted in the conviction that God works in and through all of God’s people. Based on this conviction, mentors seek to identify where God is at work in the lives of those they mentor. The best mentors are godly people who have fully and heartily embraced God’s calling, are humble enough to realize they do not know it all, and yet, are experienced enough to be able to share from their own journey.
The Practice of Mentoring
Since mentoring is about the ongoing formation of an individual, rather than the acquisition of basic skills, mentoring typically occurs in the midst of the demands and responsibilities of ministry. For this reason, I am a strong proponent of an action-reflection model of mentoring. The action side refers to the actual doing of ministry: preaching a sermon, leading a board meeting, dealing with conflict, managing one’s time, etc. Experience in these areas of ministry is important, but action without reflection is a missed opportunity. Reflection provides the space to learn and grow from our experiences, and this is where a mentor can be truly beneficial.
At times it might be helpful for a mentor to share from his or her own experiences and the ways in which God formed and shaped their life. However, often a mentor simply creates time and a safe place for reflection to occur. There are all sorts of questions that a mentor might ask, such as: How is God forming you through this experience? What are you learning about what it means to be a pastor in this unique context? In what ways did you handle this situation well? How would you handle this situation differently next time? Creating an opportunity for reflection allows the mentee to learn and grow from their experiences as he or she lives into the calling of Christ upon his or her life.
The call to pastoral ministry is a high and holy calling, and the life of a pastor is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging. A mentor is a helpful companion on this journey. By offering his or her life, space, humility, and prayer, a mentor helps to create a fertile space in which the mentee can discover the mystery, joy, and power of God’s call to be “Pastor.”