Growing and thriving in ministry happens in many ways and is due to many factors both within and beyond our control. One significant way we can contribute to our own growth as ministers is by associating with mentors, other ministers who know things we don’t, who understand and approach the ministry differently than us, and whose habits and perspectives challenge or improve upon ours. In that way we help control the direction in which we progress. We stretch ourselves and become, in a very real sense, new creations.
Mentoring has become very popular in business and other circles; there are now many books on the subject and many formal programs developed to pair people with the right mentors. But mentoring has always informally gone on; being mentored simply means courting the company and counsel of someone who does what you do better than you currently do it. Any athlete who has played a sport—or musician, an instrument—at the same level for a long time and who suddenly gets a chance to play with a better team or group will recognize the importance of being stretched by others. It wasn’t until I got to college, for instance, that I fell in with better flutists from whom I picked up better habits. Among other things, I discovered that they listened to multiple recordings of a piece to learn different ways of playing it. I don’t think I had even known before then of the existence of listening studios available for that purpose, let alone considered that you would dedicate that much time and effort to your music. Those flutists simply set the bar higher than I would have set it for myself had I not entered the world of a good undergraduate music department. During my junior year, I attended an institution that also had a conservatory of music, and there I hung out with people who were in training to become professional musicians. I discovered that their habits and disciplines were even more rigorous still than those of an undergraduate music department; these students lived, breathed, and ate music in a way that I realized I never would. They not only spent more time in the practice room but they also put a whole different quality of effort into what they did. Changing the people who influence you helps change the quality of work you do.
My own experience in ministry confirms this wisdom. I have been consistently stretched by keeping company with new people. Sometimes this has been hard because I feel like a fish out of water when I first connect with them, but mostly it has been immensely gratifying. When I became a divinity student I found to my delight that I was immersed in a whole community of people who thought theologically. I hadn’t known you could find so many people like that in one place at one time! Their theological minds were sharp and witty and a great deal of fun. I will never forget how, during the first evening of new student orientation, one of the senior students told a denominational joke, and the others followed with one joke after another. I had never been exposed to religious humor before and realized with sudden clarity that I had entered a whole new world and wasn’t in “Kansas” anymore. Chapel services at divinity school were richer than I had ever known because of students’ facility with a wider range of liturgical traditions than my own. I met people who (unlike me) could actually cite Scripture passages in conversation and articulate their meaning. Later, when I was a newly ordained pastor and member of a denominational colleague group, and still later, when I worked with pastors and priests across Connecticut and with other field educators across North America as director of a supervised ministry program, I encountered practitioners whose depth of practice, pastoral skill, and theological agility continued to teach me new things. Every time I have moved into a new realm within the ministry, I have not only discovered new levels of excellence but have also been pressed to develop new attitudes and habits by those who have been at it longer than I.
Being mentored is about more than just hanging around the right people. You also have to set about figuring which individuals you want to cultivate relationships with. You have to be intentional, whether you want to medal at the Olympics or make disciples. I did not realize this at first, and it took me awhile into my ministry to learn to initiate relationships. I was lucky to have people who drew me under their wings. The reason I emphasize the importance even just of falling in with new people is to underscore the fact that others play a significant role in most of our achievements. We do not reinvent ourselves by ourselves. We need others. If we want to become, for example, wiser or more humble, we stand a far greater chance of doing so if we attach ourselves to people who embody wisdom and humility. All the more reason, then, to find the right individuals to turn to.
Mentoring is a relationship that develops over time. You don’t have one lunch with someone and get to call them your mentor, but if the two of you agree to have lunch once a month or once a year and make ministry your topic, that is closer to mentoring. A single conversation once influenced my work for years, but, again, I would not call that conversation partner a mentor. One of the reasons it’s important to seek out another person for regular, sustained dialogue is that if you really care about your ministerial career, you want to commit yourself to growth in it, not just to solving the problems of the moment. Even though it may seem selfish, being mentored is about you and your development, not just the things you have to learn to complete the tasks at hand. Ultimately, someone agrees to mentor you because they care about who you are and where you are headed and not simply that you do a good job.
Two other features that define mentoring are, first, that mentoring be voluntary and, second, that the mentee take at least some of the initiative. Some workplaces and institutions have mandatory mentoring programs whereby new members of the community are assigned an advisor who is supposed to meet with them and help them along. These programs have merit, but a truly effective relationship is one in which the mentee wants to be mentored. The sure way to continue in your formation is to participate actively in creating your own opportunities for growth. As an adult learner, moreover, you will likely only learn those things you have determined you want to learn. When you identify how you want to improve and who can best help you do so, you have a better chance of succeeding.
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Adapted from Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry by Barbara J. Blodgett, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.
Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership
by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones
Knowing your story is an essential component of effective leadership, but finding your story among the myriad narratives that fill your life isn’t a simple task. Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones have offered a path to finding your own story amid the powerful family and cultural narratives that may be obscuring your vision. Know Your Story and Lead with It shows leaders how to explore their story of reality, tell it to other group members, and consider how it can be used as a resource for leadership.
Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry
by Bruce G. and Katherine Gould Epperly
Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry.
A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching
by Rochelle Melander
Rochelle Melander brings the lessons and insights of the coaching world to ministers and other spiritual leaders in a way that is uplifting and relevant for their work. The tools provided in this book will help leaders understand themselves and enable them to strengthen their definitions for healthy living, raise their awareness about their own life and relationship skills, and improve their skills in relating to individuals and groups.
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