The early years of ministry are often beset with predictable anxieties and questions. Even with the best of seminary training, new pastors quickly discover that their formal education did not prepare them fully for the challenges and responsibilities they encounter in the practice of ministry. It is not hard to appreciate why a wise and trusted mentor can be a tremendous resource in making a good start — in developing what Caroline J. Simon calls “practical wisdom.” But practical wisdom is gained only through the experience that comes where theory meets reality. Mentoring is an exercise in sharing and developing practical wisdom.
Research shows that focusing clearly on identified ministry issues is the most important factor in determining the impact of mentoring on the growth and success of clergy.
Good mentoring has tremendous potential for helping clergy meet the challenges they face when entering ministry. The Lewis Center’s work and research with those beginning ministry suggest that mentoring is one of the most helpful developmental tools available to clergy in their early years. In fact, survey research conducted over a five-year period among all newly ordained United Methodist clergy indicates that mentoring is the most helpful aspect of the provisional process. One of the major recommendations of this research was that mentoring should be put “front and center” in the process for guiding the development of new clergy.
What makes for good mentoring?
The Lewis Center’s research identified a number of practical variables that contribute to effective mentoring.
- Good Communication. It is important that there be regular, meaningful, effective communication between mentor and mentee.
- Clarity about roles. Mentoring is more effective when the mentors are clear about their role and value the process.
- Frequency of contact. Research indicates that meeting about once a month is important to success, while meeting more often than monthly does not increase the effectiveness of mentoring.
- A good match. Having a good match between mentor and mentee is another key variable.
The importance of maintaining a focus on ministry issues
While all of these variables have proven significant, research shows that focusing clearly on identified ministry issues is the most important factor in determining the impact of mentoring on the growth and success of clergy. It is easy to get off track or lose focus in mentoring conversations, particularly as time goes by and the relationship matures. It can be enjoyable to get together and just talk. But it is the mentor’s responsibility to keep the mentoring exchanges focused on a set of mutually identified ministry issues. Case studies, readings that mentor and mentee discuss together, a
One-on-one and group mentoring equally effective
Clergy mentoring sometimes occurs one-on-one and sometimes in mentoring groups. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. But Lewis Center research indicates that they can be equally effective. Clergy receiving one-on-one mentoring and those in group mentoring rate the mentoring contribution to their growth and success at virtually the same levels.
Sometimes mentoring groups also function as covenant groups — and this approach can work well so long as the essential components of both mentoring and covenant groups are included. This requires effective leadership and facilitation by the mentor. The quality of the facilitation is key to the success. Also important is the combination of a focus on spiritual formation and on ministry topics.
Taking clergy mentoring to the next level
While mentoring has significant potential for helping newer clergy develop and grow, it is also clear that good mentoring cannot be taken for granted. One of the most significant needs identified in our research was for enhanced training for clergy mentors — not replacing the kinds of training provided by denominations, but supplementing it so that the mentor relationships fulfill their great promise. From biblical times until now, mentoring remains an important leadership development strategy that God uses to achieve more effective and fruitful ministry.