Mentoring: a need that can be met

Amazing as it now seems, when I first was a minister of a church, there was nobody to guide me. At the age of 27 I was in sole pastoral charge of a church which then had 83 members. In Baptist terms, I had not ‘senior friend’ to talk to – or in Anglican terms, no ‘training vicar’ to work with. I was on my own. To make matters worse, my ministry training had been minimal. I had received no guidance on pastoral visiting or on leading meetings or on conducting weddings and funerals – I had not even been shown how to baptise. No wonder most of my college contemporaries failed to stay in ministry very long. It was a matter of ‘sink or swim’.

Thank God, things are very different for ‘newly accredited ministers’ (NAMs). For the first three years no NAM is left on their own – instead there is a rigorous system of mentoring, and as a result few NAMs fall by the wayside. Once the probationary period is over, however, the mentoring falls by the wayside and most ministers tend to ‘power’ on by themselves – with continuing ministerial education an option taken up only by the few.

The more I reflect on mentoring, the more strongly I feel that mentoring – along with annual reviews and continuing ministerial education – should be normative for every stage in ministry. Yet throughout the first thirteen years of pastoring my first church, I had none. However, within a month or so of returning to pastoral ministry after six years as a college principal, a retired Baptist minister offered to meet with me on a regular basis – we didn’t use the term ‘mentor’, but this is effectively what he was. A qualified counsellor, he was extraordinarily wise. And of course, that is what a mentor is – a mentor has been defined as ‘a wise and trusted counsellor and teacher’.

The actual term ‘mentor’ is derived from a character in Homer’s classic epic poem, The Odyssey, where Mentor, an old and trusted friend of Odysseus, is left behind, as the warriors embarked for Troy, to keep an eye on Odysseus’ household, and in particular to be a wise counsellor to Telemachus, the headstrong but sometimes wavering son of Odysseus. Mentor helped Telemachus link the wisdom of the past to the uncertainties of the future.

Although the term ‘mentor’ is not found in the Bible, the Bible nonetheless provides many examples of ‘mentoring’ relationships: for instance, Jethro and Moses, Moses and Joshua, Ruth and Naomi, Levi and Samuel, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and his ‘team’ of helpers (especially Timothy) – and, above all, Jesus and the Twelve. However, probably the truly foundational passage on mentoring in the Bible is found in Proverbs 1-9, where the ‘teacher’ uses his knowledge and experience to provide direction for the ‘learner’. The American scholar William Estes commented: “The ultimate goals… is that the learner will develop independent competence in living responsibly in Yahweh’s world…. The teacher is at times an expert, at times a facilitator, but always the guide, pointing the learners toward their own independent competence” (Hear, my son: teaching and learning in Proverbs 1-9, Apollos, Nottingham 1997).

If, as I propose, every minister should have the services of a mentor, where can suitably qualified mentors be found? For those embarking on ministry, mentors tend to be more experienced ministers. One of the privileges I had as a ‘team leader’ within a local church was mentoring younger colleagues – twelve in total. But what about those more experienced ministers – where might they find a mentor? From the ranks of the retired ministers! I don’t know what the proportion in the Church of England is of ministers in retirement to ministers in pastoral charge, but I do know that in the Baptist Union of Great Britain there are one thousand ministers in retirement compared to two thousand ‘active’ ministers – what a great resource of pastoral wisdom and experience that is. True, not every retired minister may be an appropriate mentor. What’s more, not every retired minister may want to serve as a mentor – but many are keen and eager to be there for the younger generation.

There is a massive need for mentoring – the good news is that need can be met!

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