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Mentoring vital to keeping ministry alive

A UMNS Report by the Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan
7:00 A.M. ET Aug. 19, 2013 | PARK RIDGE, Ill.

The day I almost quit ministry was not the day my paycheck bounced or the day the staff-parish chair resigned rather than work with me on planning for my maternity leave. It was the day the woman who had criticized nearly everything I'd done since being appointed complained about the stamps I'd picked for sending out the newsletter.

That's right. Postage stamps nearly drove me from the pulpit.

In my provisional years in a small, dying church, our small-town post office only carried two books: United States flags and "vegetables of Latin America." Feeling strange about sending out messages for the Body of Christ adorned with the flag of Caesar, I went with the latter.This woman, who'd stopped by the office for some reason, thought they were stupid, and questioned the judgment of someone who would choose peppers over flags.

I was accustomed to her dissatisfaction with pretty much everything - except my preaching, oddly enough. What nearly broke the camel's back was the inanity of her complaint, the banality of her criticism. The church was foundering, and I had to defend my stamp choices?

Worn down by stupid arguments and constant sniping, I think I would have quit if I hadn't been able to get my mentor on the phone. She knew me, knew the context of my ministry and knew I didn't really want to quit. But she knew I needed to hear that my work was meaningful, that I needed some tips for countering this antagonist.

Pros and cons of the process

In a complex bureaucratic system such as The United Methodist Church, doing the work of becoming a pastor is multifaceted and involves both personal and administrative work. Critical to both is the presence of mentors in the lives of new clergy, young and otherwise.

There are two different types of mentorship: candidacy and clergy. Candidacy mentors work with clergy candidates until they are appointed. Clergy mentors work with pastors in the early years of their ministry. The district committee on ordained ministry assigns mentors.

Some provide spiritual and vocational guidance and support. Some offer help in navigating different stages and requirements of the board of ordained ministry. Some keep young pastors from giving up the ghost on soul-crushing days. The best mentor/mentee relationships become close pastoral friendships, opportunities for warmth and growth; the worst are frustrating, a mere item on a checklist of gatekeeping requirements.

Postage stamps nearly drove the Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan from the pulpit. Illustration by iStockphoto.
Postage stamps nearly drove the Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan from the pulpit. Illustration by iStockphoto.

The Rev. Karl Sokol, now leading a church plant, Compassion United Methodist Church in Brookfield, Ill., cherished the support of his mentor, the Rev. John Meyers. Sokol said there was a time in his first church when "things went kind of crazy, and John had genuinely been through everything in his varied contexts of ministry. He reminded me that when things are hard, it might mean something is happening in the congregation."

Particularly in that crazy time, Sokol was perhaps overly cautious in his ministry, trying hard not to say anything controversial, trying not to be unpopular. But his mentor helped him to "set better boundaries and to use the pulpit as the wonderful resource for teaching and prophetic ministry that it is."

Sokol, though, considers himself lucky. While his mentor was wonderful, the quality of these relationships is often hit-or-miss. Everyone I talked to for this story had recollections of wonderful relationships and some terrible ones.

The Rev. Matthew Franks, pastor of Calumet and Red Rock United Methodist churches in Oklahoma, had three mentors throughout his years in the process. All three have been helpful, and Franks still feels that he could go to any of them for spiritual support. But there were moments when he felt as though the mentoring role was ambiguous and could easily have devolved into simply "signing a paper."

The thing that made him most anxious, Franks said, was that "[the board of ordained ministry] picked someone you didn't know. Here's this thing I've worked really hard for, and I don't even know who I'm working with."

The assigned nature of the mentor is both curse and blessing and is somewhat unique to our church. But there is a grace to be discovered in mentor relationships that, at the outset, seem like odd pairings.

The Rev. Carol Hill, currently serving as associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Ill., had two mentors as she completed the ordination process. One was endlessly supportive, and at their first meetings, Hill often brought her young daughter, Katie, with her.

"Katie broke the ice," she said, "and it helped me immensely as a new mom in ministry to have her presence welcomed."

Her second mentor, the Rev. Carol Brown, offered Hill resistance as well as support, something for which she was immensely grateful.

"I learned from her," Hill said. "She lets me be me, but she is honest in offering feedback, in letting me know what was missing from my ordination papers, in challenging me to think more deeply and see through my blind spots."

"She lets me be me, but she is honest in offering feedback, in letting me know what was missing from my ordination papers, in challenging me to think more deeply and see through my blind spots."
- the Rev. Carol Hill

Hill, like Sokol, considered herself lucky to have found a mentor relationship that "bore fruit," and that eventually developed a sense of mutuality. She wonders, though, if annual conferences are always equipping and training mentors to share constructive criticism as well as affirmation.

Recruitment of mentors has been spotty across conferences, too. Sometimes, it is simply the result of an open call or announcement, another task for already overburdened district superintendents. Other conferences have had the same people serving as mentors for years, with little rolling off of those who are burned out or disinterested, and little opportunity for involvement for those in their first decade of ministry to serve their near-peers. Differences between the age, interests, vocational goals, personalities and types of churches that exist between many assigned mentors and mentees prove to be insuperable gaps.

Elizabeth Ingram Schindler is part of a group of young United Methodist clergy that received a grant from the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Her group is focusing their two-year project on personal spiritual practices and corporate worship as critical to effective ministry. While all of the members of Schindler's cohort had conference-assigned mentors, she said she found that the support and learning in this group of peers was at least as valuable, if not more so, to her work in ministry.

Asking critical questions

My ministry has certainly benefited from various networks of my peers, but I also have been grateful for pastors in their second, third and sixth decades of ministry who have offered empathy, wisdom, good humor, a sharp eye and a commitment to the church universal for the long haul. Both assigned mentors and those found in seminary and other circles have bolstered me more times than I can count.

There are differences in choosing one's mentors and having them assigned. I feel totally at ease with those I "found," though I fear sometimes they even support me in my faults. Alternatively, it took time to learn to trust my assigned mentors, but the practice of growing into a role-based relationship has been integral to learning how to be a pastor, a role that has defined how I interact with and love parishioners. It was important to learn what things are constants across various ministry settings, things like accountability and attending to the multiple parts of my identity, about courage and integrity.

The shortcomings of existing mentor programs should not be overlooked, but seeds have already been planted: Young clergy are now serving on boards of ordained ministry across the connection and asking critical questions as programs are evaluated and redesigned.

"My ministry has certainly benefited from various networks of my peers, but I also have been grateful for pastors in their second, third and sixth decades of ministry who have offered empathy, wisdom, good humor, a sharp eye and a commitment to the church universal for the long haul."
- the Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan

The Rev. Josh Hale serves Perritte Memorial United Methodist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is on his conference's board. Based on difficulties he experienced in the ordination process, Hale and his team asked, "If we could design any candidacy, given restraints, what would it look like?" Their response identified different needs at different stages of the ordination process and assigned different mentors. Mutual accountability was a key focus, and group mentoring capitalized on peer empathy and wisdom of the sort that Schindler's cohort enjoys.

To address the lack of gifted mentors, many annual conferences have begun group mentoring during the candidacy process. Candidates first attend an orientation retreat where they meet their mentors. They then meet in their mentoring groups six times over the next four months. Without the pressure of finding a mentor for each candidate, the conference is able to select clergy who feel called to the task.

The Kansas East Annual (regional) Conference's Young Adult Team is conceiving how to make the most of their upcoming merger with Kansas West and Nebraska conferences in 2014. They've identified mentoring as a major point of attention and action, with particular focus on how gifted mentors are identified and recruited, how the mentors' responsibilities are articulated, and how the responsibility for a successful mentor/mentee relationship can be more effectively shared between both individuals.

Difficulties and joys of ministry

I was 26 at the time of my "stamp crisis," one of the only 5.6 percent of ordained and provisional clergy in The United Methodist Church under 35. This is a troubling statistic. If there are no young clergy, how will we counter the assumptions of young adults that the church is for the aged? Baby-boomer clergy are retiring in droves, so who will serve the churches? Who will want to?

To address this very real need, the 2012 General Conference established the $7 million Young Clergy Initiative Fund. Administered by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, this fund is the beginning of a three-quadrennium effort to enhance the church's presence in "discernment, recruitment, nurturing, education and support of young clergy leaders."

The Rev. Meg Lassiat, who will be administering the fund for the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, shares that excitement in her own call as a young clergywoman.

As the board begins to plan the ways in which the fund will be used, Lassiat said, "We've already hosted a young clergy summit, and begun looking at what is working in some conferences doing innovative things. The next step will be to develop a strategic plan and timeline based on information we are receiving from a variety of groups across the denomination."

In addition to the wonderful possibilities a fund of this size makes possible, Lassiat is confident that the confluence of this work of her agency, of conference boards of ordained ministry, and of individual mentors will lead to a time of flourishing for young clergy, excited and equipped to serve the church for years to come, just as their mentors have before them.

Stories like mine are far from rare, but difficult personalities and congregational dynamics shouldn't keep young adults from pursuing ordained ministry. I work with ministry students who regularly attest to their excitement about a call to do something important and hard: to live as disciples, forming disciples. I hope to nurture that excitement through my own mentoring, passing along a witness to the difficulties and joys of ministry, as my mentors witnessed to me.

*McCleneghan is associate for congregational life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago. She is also author of "Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People."

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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