I serve as Director of Field Education at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. Part of my work involves talking to students about their relationship with their pastoral mentors. Since 1987, I have mentored men preparing for ordination. While serving on Boston’s North Shore, I served as a mentor for many men in the Gordon-Conwell field education program. Before coming to RTS, I employed men pursuing ordination. Mentoring has been a major part of my pastoral ministry.
What follows are my thoughts on what makes a good mentor. I am acutely aware of my own weaknesses as a mentor. Much of what follows I learned from my own mentors and have sought to put into practice, however imperfectly. One of the advantages of holding my position at RTS is that I continue to learn from superbly skilled mentors who serve our students.
What 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 this 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 is 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 good will between the church and community. On the way to events, they share what will take place. On the way back, they will talk about their visits. When a young man serves as a church’s intern, he has to make scores of these visits if they are to meaningfully shape his future ministry.
- pray with and for their interns, that they will continually cultivate the character and skills necessary for a long and fruitful ministry.
- make sure 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.
- ensure 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.
What Good Mentors Don’t Do
Good mentors don’t:
- 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 broad 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 the mentor relationship is to offer the intern hands-on and practical opportunities of ministry. I try to discuss books they are already reading at seminary, and how they might inform pastoral practice.
- run from difficult conversations. Over time, it becomes clear that some men are not qualified for ministry. The mentor pastor must have courage, and explain to a man why it appears unlikely that he should pursue ordination.
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” (Philippians 4:9).