What’s Missing in Ministry? Mentors

Written by Dick Alexander, Retired Minister & Leadership Capital Mentor

I knew I was in over my head. After 20 years of doing mostly student ministry, I was in the lead pastor chair. It was a church with a lot of opportunity but also one with some recent challenges. I prayed for a mentor—someone a generation older than myself who could tell me where the landmines were. My dream was maybe lunch once a month, with a chance for me to ask questions and get guidance that would help me avoid making dumb mistakes.

I’d had years of useful experience in student ministry, but now there was a new set of issues—budgeting and financial management, how to lead a capital campaign, how to grow elders when they are your bosses, hiring and (sometimes) dismissing staff, handling anonymous letters, how to not let organizational issues overwhelm my spiritual life, and more.

But no mentor materialized.

I think I was less effective, and I know I was more anxious than if I’d had guidance. In the years since, church and life in general have become far more complex.

Growing Pressures

In the last few years the topic of mentoring has exploded in ministry discussions. A couple of generations back, most people thought church was a good idea. If a minister could preach an interesting sermon—at least as good as his predecessor and the pastor down the road—do decent weddings and funerals, and willingly make hospital calls, he could survive and the church might grow.

Today it’s a different, often hostile world. Many churches struggle for survival, and for those that are growing, there’s pressure to go to the next level. A pastor must be a compelling communicator, an entrepreneur, a marketer, a visionary leader, a developer of leaders, adept at social media, and do amazing things with limited resources on a short time line.

The weekend is coming. Relentlessly. It’s a pressure cooker.

Christian colleges and seminaries have taken heat for not adequately preparing men and women for ministry. But they can’t do it all. Classroom teaching can provide valuable foundational knowledge, but much ministry is only learned on the job, with coaching.

Today it’s not just young leaders who are asking for guidance—leaders of all ages are reaching out to those a few steps ahead in the journey. A university president recently confided his feelings of inadequacy for the complex tasks he faces. Learning ministry is a lifelong process.

Learning ministry is a lifelong process. —@heavensoon

Life to Life

Jesus modeled this as He taught the Twelve how to live and how to serve. He sent them out to teach and to heal. One day they came back frustrated, having failed at casting out demons. He reviewed with them the basics of fasting and prayer in dealing with demonic powers. It’s likely this wasn’t all new information, but there are limits to what can be absorbed through lectures. Some critical lessons of ministry are learned situationally, on a need-to-know basis.

The heart of Jesus’ development of the Twelve wasn’t a class or a program—it was life to life. Much of the best ministry education comes through mentoring.

Mentoring doesn’t require one of the people to be an “expert”—just to have a little more experience. It’s not always about having the right answers and perfect solutions. It’s often sharing mistakes to avoid—things the mentor would have done differently, given present knowledge.

At its best, mentoring isn’t just about how to do the job—it’s also about how to live. Most pastoral failures aren’t because of lack of knowledge of correct debt ratios—they are because of personal meltdowns. Good mentoring relationships take many forms:

  • Some are structured, with regular meeting times and formats. Others are informal and irregular—but with significant depth in conversation.
  • All good mentoring relationships involve open dialogue and frank discussion of personal issues, with challenge and correction when needed.
  • Leaders find it hard to get good feedback. They tend to hear from their fans and their critics—neither of which is especially helpful. A good mentor brings objectivity into play.
  • A key to effective mentoring is that it’s not one size fits all—it is by nature personalized. Mentoring is sometimes done effectively in groups. But it is more often one-to-one, as that allows for the maximum personalization.

Mentoring doesn’t require one of the people to be an “expert”—just to have a little more experience. —@heavensoon

Into the Future

On the one hand, mentoring sounds like a no-brainer. But everybody is busy, and getting together for conversation requires time. Prioritizing leadership development is critical.

There are other challenges as well. Today a growing number of women are moving into a broader range of leadership roles. If the repository of leadership knowledge and experience is with men who are not sharing that with women, the church will be far less than it could be.

The last couple of generations of male pastors have grown up with the “Billy Graham rule” that a man should not meet alone with a woman. This has served an excellent purpose, but it has also severely limited the transfer of knowledge and experience to female leaders. Is it possible in the context of fully God-honoring relationships to find ways for women to benefit from the generations of ministry experience of their male coworkers?

Like most good things, mentoring isn’t a one-way street. Both parties are stretched to learn and grow. One retired pastor friend says the people he mentors help give meaning to his days. When I mentored someone from a different culture, the friendship caused me to think beyond my community, beyond my own style of communication. Immense joy comes from developing these new relationships.

Mentoring at its very best isn’t a program. It’s a culture of sharing knowledge and experience, where every leader is growing and willing to help others in the journey.

Some of the team from The Ascent 2018, including Dick Alexander (back row, center), CDF Leadership Capital Mentor.

Mentoring is a culture of sharing knowledge and experience, where every leader is growing and willing to help others in the journey. —@heavensoon

New Opportunities

In the Christian Church movement, several excellent efforts are being made to expand mentoring opportunities. One of those is CDF Leadership Capital’s leadership cohorts.

The Ascent is the largest cohort of a dozen or so men and women meeting three times during the year, each time with a different high-capacity leader. The gatherings usually take place in the leader’s home, with the recorder off. They are a pull-back-the-curtain, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of Christian leaders who live under bright spotlights. Their knowledge, experience, transparency, and vulnerability provide invaluable insight into handling the complexities and pressures of leadership.

Additionally, each cohort in The Ascent has a coach and a guide who are available individually to help participants process what they learned from the gatherings and to work through personal and ministry questions. Participants find not only the access to the high-capacity leaders and the connections with the coaches and guides helpful, but frequently lasting peer relationships develop in the groups as well.

My own experience as a guide in The Ascent has been rewarding. In a context designed to be safe, these leaders have freely discussed their challenges and struggles. I’ve been privileged to come alongside men and women in the midst of staff conflicts, organizational confusion, personal malaise, career changes, job searches, and just the normal week-to-week questions of ministry for which leaders frequently lack support and guidance.

As I watch these leadership cohorts and several other efforts develop in the Christian Church movement for ministry mentoring and soul care, I confess I’m a bit jealous, thinking how much more effective I could have been had I had access to those experiences years ago. But I’m extremely grateful that multiple efforts are being made now in these directions.

The more effectively church leaders today develop cultures of mentoring within our congregations, the more effective our ministries will be. There is no substitute for one life impacting another.