Monday, October 01, 2012

Mentoring Matters- part of the "Ministers Matter" blog tour

Note- this piece was originally a chapter in Beyond the Burning Bush: Hearing and Answering God's Call, which was published by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church in 2009. I am reposting it here as part of's "Ministers Matter" blog tour. The minster who matters in this piece is Will Penner, who is still a dear friend, colleague, a mentor fourteen years after the events I describe in this post.

“You’re not going to any church right now? Cool! You’re our newest member!”

I had known Will for all of ten minutes and he was already recruiting me to be part of his youth group. I didn’t protest. After spending ten minutes with this youth group and their youth director I knew there was something there I wanted to be a part of. Those ten minutes helped set the course for the next ten years of my life.

It was true. I hadn’t been going to any church for a while. I had drifted away from the church in which I had grown up near the end of my junior year in high school for a variety of reasons, but it basically came down to the fact that I didn’t feel at home there any more. So for a couple months I floated around not really knowing what to do. Sundays were especially depressing because church had been such a big part of my life ever since I had dedicated my life to serving God on a mission trip at thirteen. I wasn’t sure where God was leading me next, only that it was somewhere different from what I’d known before. So when a friend invited me to her church’s party after our school’s football game, I decided to go for the heck of it, and within ten minutes I discovered that this was where God wanted me to be.

After a few weeks as part of this new youth group, Will surprised me again. I was hanging out with him after youth one Sunday evening practicing some new worship songs on the guitar when he started asking me what I planned on doing with my future. I said I wasn’t really sure, so Will decided that since I was a senior, I would become his assistant and learn how to be a youth pastor. So for the rest of my senior year, I watched and learned as Will explained how he planned weekly youth meetings, led Bible studies, visited school campuses, and interacted with the Senior Pastor and other staff. I even filled in for him in his other role as Choir Director when he was absent one Sunday, despite having zero experience at conducting. I figured that this experience would help prepare me for a possible church job later on in life. What I didn’t know was that “later on” would be a few months down the road.

The summer after graduation I was working at a church camp when a church group from Indianapolis, where I would begin college in the fall, ended the camp week by offering me a job. I had grown close to the youth and adults from this church during the week, and since they were looking for a new youth director, they decided to offer me the job even though neither their pastor nor a single member of their Staff-Parish Committee was in camp that week. The fact that I was eighteen years old, straight out of high school, barely older than some of the kids, and had zero experience didn’t seem to matter (although my innumerable rookie mistakes may have made them question their choice later on).

The first thing I did as soon as I got home was to make a frantic phone call to Will. “What do I do?” I asked, freaking out about taking on an actual “adult” role. Will gave me a sideways puzzled look as if he couldn’t comprehend why I was so worried. “You’ve spent the past year watching what I do and practicing it yourself. You know what to do.”

Will was right, at least in part. I knew how to run a decent youth group meeting. I could plan and lead a Bible study. I could rehearse a praise band and organize mission trips and fundraisers. But at the same time, I didn’t know how to “be” a pastor to youth and their families. I didn’t know what to do when I got a frantic phone call or e-mail from a teenager in crisis. I knew how to do the nuts and bolts of ministry, but the more intangible aspects were a mystery to me.

Thankfully Will was there for me then, too. During my first year in youth ministry I probably called him at least once a week grilling him with questions on everything from how to deal with an agitated parent to how to delicately address girls being dressed inappropriately for church. What I began to learn is that while you can learn the basic functions of ministry by watching someone else do them and practicing a bit, the more intangible parts, the “being” of ministry, if you will, is a lot more complicated. You don’t learn how to handle most situations until you’re in them, so you figure it out as you go. If you handle them well, you figure out why and make sure to repeat those actions in the future. If you mess up (which you will more often than not), you process, regroup, learn from your mistakes, apologize if need be, and do better the next time.

I could have learned all about the “doing” of ministry from a book or a training seminar. There is no shortage of good ones out there. The “doing” is relatively easy. But I never could have learned about the “being” of ministry without a mentor who was willing to take me under his wing, allowing me to watch and learn from what he did, and having the patience and grace to endure my endless questioning and self doubt once I was out on my own. This mentoring relationship has given me valuable insights that the best book or class never could.

In the ten years since I walked into that youth group party, my life has changed dramatically. I have graduated from college and seminary. My own understanding of calling has led me to go from being a youth pastor, to an associate pastor, and eventually to pastoring my own congregation. Will is still active in youth ministry, and I still talk with him often and seek his advice. I’ve met and learned from other mentors along the way. But none of this would have happened had I not met a mentor who helped me begin discerning my calling by seeing potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.

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