Mentoring Into Ministry

Dr. Will Willimon

Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry
Used with permission of the Author

Craig Kocher, who has endured much mentoring by me, came across a Thoreau quote that sounded as if it had been said by me:

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose of life.

When he interviewed me for the job of Dean of Duke Chapel, the first question Terry Sanford asked was, “Who are your mentors?” It’s a revealing question to put to a pastor. We get our word mentor from Homer’s Odyssey, in which old Mentor led young Telemachus into life. The Greeks knew that most of us journey no further than our mentors are able to take us.

As Bishop I met regularly with my new and young pastors, asking them how I could support their leadership. Their most frequent request: give us more mentors. Their request made me feel old. As a young pastor in the late 60s, I would never have asked some old guy to mentor me. If our parents were wrong about Viet Nam and Civil Rights, there was a good chance they were wrong on everything. So our generation’s plea was, Get out of the way and let us take over!

Through the years I have been privileged, as a theology professor and as Bishop, to mentor dozens of developing pastoral leaders. Many of the skills required to be a good mentor are the same required to be a good coach. One must know well the young person being mentored, when criticize and when to praise, and a host of other skills including the ability not to come across as an insufferable old bore when talking to callow youth.

Being back at Duke Divinity School has again given me the opportunity to cultivate my love of mentoring. It’s quite a rush to have some young supplicant to ask, “Have you got time to give me some advice?” Yet I’ve also been reminded of the challenge developing clergy face in being mentored by old guys like me.

Hegel said that history is our best teacher and that we move forward by learning from the past. Trouble is, Hegel also noted that current, unexpected events keep disrupting history and invalidating what we thought we knew from past experience, rendering history useless. Therein is the problem faced by those who would submit to mentoring.

Mainline Protestantism is not doing well. Have you noticed? The present age presents us with new challenges. I am unclear about the precise directions the church ought to take, but I know enough to know that our churches must be led differently if we are to have a different future than the rather diminished one to which many feel we are fated.

Thus I began my Introduction to Christian Leadership class by admitting to the students that it was going to be tough for me to get through all of this material on ordained leadership in one semester. Then I told the students that their job was more difficult than mine. They had not only to soak up any insights gained from my experience, inculcate my best practices, and to profit from any wisdom I had to offer, at the same time they had to keep telling themselves, “This old guy did ministry the way he knew how, in the way he was most comfortable, given his limitations. I’ve got to serve the church in a world other than that in which he served. Furthermore, we work for a living, sovereign God, not an easily managed idol. Lord, give me the wisdom to know what of this professor’s wisdom must be tossed if I am faithfully to lead your church into your future.”

In our appointment of clergy, my church tends to privilege experience, years served, and seniority, even though no seniority system is mentioned in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The sad results of this boring approach to clergy deployment are all around us. We choke to death o the geriatric virtues of maturity, balance, and careful procedure when what our moribund system needs are more clergy who are young, brash, reckless, and stupid. That is new pastoral leaders who will give God enough room to get in this staid old church and do the sort of resurrection that this God does so well.

So go ahead. Humor me. Listen to my war stories (including the ones about how I rescued Alabama Methodism with my bare hands). Write down my knock down, absolutely effective principles for good ecclesiastical leadership. But promise me that you will then silently pray, “Lord, please help me to get past this old guy’s advice. You have called me to set right the stuff he messed up. Forgive him Lord. He’s never been in the church that you, Lord want me to lead. Amen.”

All you young new clergy listen to me. Write this down. I have lots of experience and wisdom. I know what I’m talking about. Write this down.