We all need mentors. With so many voices telling us what to do, it’s vitally important that we have godly, thoughtful, experienced people showing us what to do. Preparing for a life in ministry is demanding work—and I’m not just talking about your seminary workload. You need real-life pastoral experience under the direction of a mentor.
I serve as director of field education at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Much of my work involves talking to students about their relationships with their pastoral mentors. Since 1987, I’ve mentored men preparing for ordination. While serving on Boston’s North Shore, I mentored many men in the Gordon-Conwell field education program. Before coming to RTS, I employed men pursuing ordination. Mentoring has been a key part of my pastoral ministry.
With so many voices telling us what to do, it’s vitally important that we have godly, thoughtful, experienced people showing us what to do.
What follows are my thoughts on what makes a good mentor. While I’m acutely aware of my weaknesses, much of what I know I learned from my mentors and have sought to put into practice, however imperfectly. One of the advantages of my job is that I continue to learn from the superbly skilled mentors who serve our students. As you search for a mentor, what should you be looking for?
Good mentors do:
- Introduce pastoral interns to all areas of the minister’s work. This includes preaching, teaching, visitation, administration, assisting with funerals, leading worship, serving the poor, and chairing meetings. Whenever appropriate, I involve interns in pastoral counseling sessions. My goal is simple: when a man arrives at his first church, I want him to have experience in every aspect of pastoral work. Many of the difficulties young men face in their first church arises from inexperience in the common duties of pastoral ministry. I strive to eliminate the unknown.
- Arrange regular preaching opportunities for their interns. Too many men accept an intern position, preach a handful of times a year, and then seek a pastoral call without serious preaching experience. Their congregations suffer needlessly from their inexperience. It’s the mentor’s job to provide sufficient preaching opportunities and to evaluate their student’s quality of preparation and sermon delivery.
- Share their work. They take their students on pastoral visits to homes, prisons, hospitals, and nursing homes. They make evangelistic calls with them. They take them to community schools, businesses, and civic clubs, and seek to build goodwill between the church and community. On the way to events, they share what will take place. On the way back, they talk about their visits. When a young man serves as a church’s intern, he must make scores of these visits if they’re to meaningfully shape his future ministry.
- Pray with and for their interns, that they’ll continually cultivate the character and skills necessary for a long and fruitful ministry.
- Ensure that interns with families are devoting themselves wholeheartedly to their roles as husbands and fathers. If necessary, they help interns learn to manage household finances.
- Teach good pastoral manners. How to dress properly, speak properly, and put people at ease in all social settings. They teach how to be attentive to the emotionally distraught. What constitutes good manners varies from region to region. A mentor-pastor is culturally sensitive.
- Prepare young men for a job without regular hours. When there is a death, serious injury, or family crisis, the minister must go to the hurting. So, too, must the intern. Ministry is not the place for men who resent inconveniences and who want regular office hours.
- Make certain that their interns are ready for ordination exams. This also affords time to discuss theology, biblical and theological studies, and church history.
In all things, good mentors encourage the intern’s progress in life and doctrine. But there are pitfalls, too.
Good mentors don’t:
- Thoughtlessly hire young men to manage an aspect of their church’s life (e.g., youth groups), and then lose touch with them. That’s not mentoring; it’s filling a job slot. Pastors-in-training need to be prepared for the broader work of ministry.
- Treat their interns like “errand boys,” sending them off to get coffee, mail, and the like. When they do, they diminish the collegial relationship that should mark those who work together in serving God’s church. Inasmuch as possible, I strive to treat my interns like I would any fellow minister.
- Avoid talking about their own failures in pastoral ministry. We learn from our mistakes, errors of judgment, and sin. Our interns can learn from them, too.
- Weigh down their interns with excessive reading. The primary purpose of this relationship is to offer the intern hands-on and practical opportunities in ministry. I try to discuss books they’re already reading at seminary, and how they might inform pastoral practice.
- Run from difficult conversations. Over time, it may become clear that some men aren’t qualified for ministry. The mentor-pastor must have courage, and explain why it appears unlikely that he should pursue ordination.
Use these suggestions to frame the questions that you’ll ask potential mentors. Will I have preaching opportunities? Will you share your work with me? Will you help prepare me for my ordination exams? Eliminate unnecessary frustration: make sure both you and your mentor-pastor have clear expectations for the work ahead—this should be a time for both of you to grow in faith and godliness.
Mentoring young men is one of the joys of pastoral ministry. No mentor performs his mentoring work flawlessly. But a mentor’s general tenor of life and ministry should enable him to say with integrity, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil. 4:9).