The Value of Mentoring Younger Clergy

May 16th, 2017

When Mary learned that she was pregnant, she “got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Elizabeth’s home and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 2:38 CEB). It seems clear that Mary knew exactly to whom she should turn in this strange and difficult time. When the young Christ-follower Timothy needed guidance, he turned to the Apostle Paul. Paul referred to Timothy as “my true child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2).

Do you have someone to “hurry to” or turn to when you need guidance or company on the journey of ministry? Do you have a mentor? Do you have someone who will come alongside you and gently encourage you, wisely advise you, kindly ward off the feelings of isolation and remind you that you are not on this journey alone?

Over the course of my ministry I have sought out people who would be mentors for me. The campus minister during my college days has always been willing to help me and encourage me. One mentor was a wise and deeply spiritual retired bishop who always found time to answer my questions and always saw more in me than I could see in myself. Another mentor is a prophetic pastor who is known for his passion for social justice issues. And there are many friends and peers whose presence in my life provide a constant stream of grace.

Throughout my ministry, I have had the privilege of mentoring younger clergy. For the past ten years, I have served as a pastor at Belmont United Methodist Church, a church located within walking distance of the two largest private universities in Tennessee (including Vanderbilt Divinity School). Belmont is a teaching church with a vibrant intern ministry. I have been honored to serve as a mentor to many of these interns and have been assigned to mentor young clergy through my work with the Board of Ministry.

Now, after forty-three years of service to the church, and after much prayer and discernment, I have decided to retire. It was a difficult decision, but I feel confident that this is the right time. It will be difficult to leave Belmont, a wonderful and courageous congregation in heart of Nashville. It will be difficult to leave the role of active pastoral ministry.

But I do not plan to leave the fulfilling role of mentoring younger clergy. In fact, I feel a renewed sense of calling to this work; it is the place where I find what Frederick Buechner called “deep gladness.” It is not unusual to receive at least half a dozen texts, emails, or calls during a week from younger clergy asking for a few minutes to connect. Sometimes we talk on the phone and sometimes we sit over coffee. Sometimes they have questions or concerns, but often they simply want to talk and stay in touch.

I asked some of the people I mentor what this relationship means to them. One said, “It has given me confidence over the years to have your oversight on decisions and sermons until I felt sure enough to stand on my own. No pastor should do their work alone, especially a young one.” Another said, “Having a mentor is the gift of a relationship that is freeing and empowering. I am invited to recognize that tears are healthy, ministry is hard, and annoyances are inevitable, while simultaneously seeing that the work is worth it as it leads to transformed lives and to becoming a person filled with love and grace.” And another, “There is a creative and skillful art to helping someone see themselves in new and life-giving ways that help them continue to develop often illusive and unrecognized gifts and abilities.”

While I love these words, I have to add that mentoring is always reciprocal. These young pastors have a strong sense of calling to pastoral ministry and a desire to make a difference in the world. They insist that every conversation be honest and authentic. I find this so refreshing. By their presence in my life, they hold me accountable and make me a better pastor and a better person. Each morning I begin my day with prayer for each of them, giving thanks for all they have come to mean to me.

I’m sure retirement for me will require some adjustments, and I’ve been getting lots of advice from others who have made the journey before me. But retirement will also give me an opportunity to follow the call to come alongside those who may need my presence for a time. Retirement need not be the end of a pastor’s wide and lasting impact on the church. Remember Elizabeth? Remember Paul? Invite God to use your gifts and wisdom in retirement so young pastors and others called to ministry have someone to “hurry to.”

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