Q: Parish ministry is learned largely through experience. How do I find a mentor to guide and challenge me now that I am out of seminary? My denomination seems more inclined to give me additional study requirements than to provide help in learning about ministry.
A: Mentoring is a form of coaching or teaching (often by example) that is usually initiated when an experienced person takes a younger colleague under his or her wing. Your experience of a lack of mentors for congregational leaders is shared by a lot of other people. There was once a good deal more of this informal leadership development being exercised in congregations, for the benefit of both clergy and leading members. For the present, it seems as if overburdened schedules, the less hierarchical nature of our congregations and denominations, concerns over exclusiveness, and perhaps a few other issues have conspired to minimize opportunities for mentoring. Also, differences between generations regarding assumptions and expectations has limited the mentoring that does occur.
I would invite you to consider three ideas:
1. Ask to be mentored You do not need to waith to be invited or simply hope to fall into a mentoring relationship. Look around for a person whose skills and insight attract you. Do not limit yourself by looking only at denominational colleagues or at people who share your role. Clergy have often found laity who are leaders in business or nonreligious professions to be wonderful mentors, and lay people have often turned to clergy for mentoring. However, when you talk to the person you have selected as a mentor, be as clear and precise as you can about what role or function of leadership you would like to address. The mentoring relationship is purposeful, and you will want to find someone who can offer both guidance and challenge in your chosen areas. Being clear about what you hope to work on can help both of you assess whether your time together will be beneficial.
2. Consider peer mentoring. As generational expectations create larger differences between younger and older clergy in the understanding and practice of ministry, peer learning becomes important. You may want to consider “reciprocal mentoring,” in which you agree with peers in ministry to study together and to practice a structured and systematic review of your ministry. An increasing number of peer mentoring groups are being formed whose participants, having found one another because they are facing similar questions or challenges, are convenanting to work and learn together. It is not uncommon for such a group to call in one of our Alban consultants for a one- or two-day learning experience and then follow up with reading and discussion on a regular basis. Often these groups intentionally use case study methods to review their own practice.
3. Commit to ongoing learning. Whether you work alone, with another individual, or with a group who shares your questions, please know the importance of a commitment to ongoing learning. In this sense, you may want to think about what it means to mentor yourself. Be aware of where your questions lie and where you feel uncomfortable, and do your prayer, reading, studying, and discussion in these areas. Many leaders fall into the trap of always studying and learning in those areas in which they already feel well prepared and comfortable. The need to pursue mastery in an area where we seem to know what we are doing is understandable. But ministry is the practice of a generalist who is able to stand firmly in the teaching and traditions of the faith and who can also work broadly—and across disciplines—to address the multiple and varied conditions of humanity.
Rev. Dr. Gil Rendle is a former senior consultant at the Alban Institute. His areas of expertise include strategic planning, change management, coping with congregational conflict, team building, and leadership.