Mentoring: A Great Idea I’d Never Heard Of

My pastor, Mike Miller, tells of the time he was about to go into a church business meeting where the natives were restless. The inmates were about to riot. Members of the flock were ready to fleece the shepherd.

And a lot of metaphors like that.

It was going to be bad.

Five minutes before the meeting, Mike picked up the phone and called his former pastor in Texas for a word of counsel. As he tells it, Mike was loaded for bear that night and ready to wage war.

His pastor heard him out, then said, “Mike, I want you to go in there and stand before those people and tell them how much you love them.”

Mike said, “But you don’t understand.” And he went through the situation again.

The pastor said, “Mike, stand before them and tell them how much you love them.”

As Mike stammered, the pastor said, “Let me lead us in prayer.” He prayed that Mike would stand before those people and tell them how much he loved them.

A minute later, Mike walked into the sanctuary, looked out at his congregation, and began, “Folks, regardless what happens tonight, I want you to know that I love you very much.”

Nothing happened. Nada. Zip.

The meeting was uneventful, no one had a contrary word, and they got out on time.

Mike Miller believes in the concept of mentoring.

Today, at the start of the masters’ level seminary class Dr. Loretta Rivers and I team-teach, I spent a good half-hour or more trying to convince the 22 students on the importance of putting themselves into a mentoring relationship. At the conclusion, Dr. Rivers said, “I’d like to ask a question. How many of you have a mentor?”

Over half the class raised their hands.

I was stunned. Not what I had expected.

In planning this lesson and delivering it, I had fallen into a time-worn trap of teachers and pastors through the ages: projected my own experience onto the audience. I assumed they were as reluctant as I would have been to put themselves in a mentoring relationship.

They’re not. They’re wiser than I ever was.

Mentoring is all through Scripture. Elijah mentored Elisha. The Lord Jesus mentored the 12 apostles. Barnabas mentored Saul. After he became Paul and took the lead in the relationship, the two friends split and mentored others: Paul took Silas and Timothy; Barnabas took John Mark.

According to Wikipedia, in Greek mythology Mentor was an old teacher asked by Odysseus to look after his son Telemachus while he, Odysseus, went off to the Trojan War. The old gentleman contributed his name to the process whereby an older, more experienced person guides and shapes a younger one.

The nomenclature varies and is probably irrelevant: mentor and mentee, teacher and pupil, master and apprentice, senior and junior. One is the role model, the other the imitator or learner.

Sure wish I’d had one early in my ministry….

At the age of 22, I finished college, got married, and took a job for a couple of years to pay some bills and save some money before we headed to seminary. In the meantime, I wanted to preach and if possible, pastor a church.

The problem was, my degree came from a Methodist college and I was Southern Baptist. (I had joined an SBC church near the campus and was called into the ministry my senior year.)

I had had no preparation for pastoring or preaching other than occupying a pew and listening to hundreds of sermons over the two-plus decades of my life. I knew precious few pastors and not the first theological professor.

Upon the recommendation of my brother Ron’s pastor, Bob Shields, tiny Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama, took a chance on me. Looking back, I’m confident they felt they had nothing to offer a preacher and so chose one with nothing to offer them. It’s what we call a symbiotic relationship: anything each does for the other will be a benefit.

They were patient, give them credit. And I tried. But my efforts were pitiful.

In the office where I worked, I would search the Bible on the lunch hour, scouring for texts that might work into sermons. The ones I chose were catchy turns of phrases, such as Isaiah 1:8 where God tells wayward Israel that she is left as isolated as “a house in a cucumber patch.” Why that appealed to me, I have no idea.

I preached obscure texts such as Song of Solomon 2:15 where the “little foxes spoil the vines.”

I neglected the grand themes of Scripture such as salvation by grace through faith or the Person of Jesus or His deeds and teaching.

If ever a kid preacher needed a friend, I was the one.

Looking back, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, was loaded with mentors. Every church of any size was staffed by a trained pastor who would have gladly responded to my request to meet and advise me. Pastors love doing this. But they’re not going to force it on someone they don’t know. They need to be asked.

I didn’t know to ask.

At the end of the year 1963, completing my 14th month at Unity, I resigned. Margaret and I and our baby would be heading to seminary in a few months. Morris Freeman, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tarrant City, where we lived and my job with the cast iron pipe plant was located, had casually suggested that if I wanted to be his associate for a brief time, no money would be involved but we could live in the church’s old pastorium and save the rent. The job of the associate would be whatever I made it.

Morris was making himself available. If I had only paid attention.

A more gracious man never existed. I preached for him when he was out, made visits to prospects who came to our services, and held one funeral while he attended the Southern Baptist Convention. But I made no attempts to pick his brain or draw from his wisdom and experience.

Seminary made a world of difference for me. I took to it like a potted plant to the sunlight. Toward the end of my first year at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the Paradis Baptist Church of the bayou community of that name called me as pastor. God was good to me in sending me there.

That was the sweetest fellowship. The church was led by veteran believers who knew only to encourage seminary-student pastors and to demand nothing. The Holy Spirit mentored me from the inside while professors provided instruction and classmates the role models. One of those classmates was Paige Patterson, who needs no introduction to our readers. Hugh Martin of Mississippi and Bill Lowe of Georgia were others. Missionary Jerald Perrill lived across the hall. Professor Jerry Windsor was in my class.

In the last decade of my pastoring–that would be from the mid-1990s into 2004–it was my privilege to mentor several of our church members who were students in the seminary. In most cases, we met in my office.

As the director of missions for the SBC churches of metro New Orleans from 2004 to 2009, I invited anyone interested in mentoring to step up. We ended up with two groups of young pastors, one meeting on Monday afternoons at the McDonald’s near my home and the other in my office each Wednesday morning.

Every mentor does it differently, I expect. I’m as informal and unstructured as most right-brainiacs, so we played it by ear for the most part. We talked about whatever the young ministers were going through, were worried about, or were planning. We worked on sermons and we prayed. Frequently, I gave them books.

Those were some of my most enjoyable hours.

Today, I told the students about the time I walked into the office of the then-president of our seminary, Dr. Landrum Leavell, while he was on the phone with the pastor of a huge church in Texas. That pastor, also a friend, was facing a critical business meeting that very night, and had called his mentor for counsel.

In this case, Dr. Leavell told Dr. Harry Lucenay that since he had been pastor of that church for six full years, he (Harry) was the bonafide pastor and he should stand up and give bold leadership. “Lay it on the line,” he said.

It struck me that no pastor gets too big or too successful not to value the counsel of a trusted mentor in critical times.

These days, almost every week of the year, I get Facebook notes and e-mails from pastors that begin the same way: “Joe, could I tell you about a situation I’m facing?”

The odd thing is that most of these notes are from preachers I barely know. Once in a while, a pastor whom I taught somewhere along the line will write asking for my input on something he’s dealing with.

I love it. The truth is there’s almost never a situation I’ve not encountered sometime in a long ministry which began during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

The mentor does not make the decision for the mentee. All he does is suggest, reflect, opine, and prod. (I’m a good suggester, reflector, opiner, and prodder!)

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17)

I think of that as a blacksmith shop verse. For iron to sharpen iron, there must be hammering, blows, clashes, friction, a lot of heat and sometimes a little pain.

It’s the price we pay for getting sharp.

6 thoughts on “Mentoring: A Great Idea I’d Never Heard Of

  1. Joe, as always your blog is great and very timely. If I didn’t know better I’d say that you must have my head bugged somehow because you seem to always write about things that have been on my mind. I’ve been tossing around the idea of meeting with pastors from my area and “picking their brains” but I’ve only done it once as of yet with our D.O.M. I had considered writing down a few questions and sending them to the pastors ahead of time to give them a chance to ponder them. Would this be a good idea or would it be better to simply have a conversation and see where it goes? Thanks and keep up the great work. You always encourage me and I feel that even though I don’t know you personally, you have been a mentor to me as I serve bi-vocationally in my first church. I’ve been at the church two and half years but I still feel there is so much more that I need to learn and so many areas I need to improve in but your blog helps me draw from your experience and be better prepared for similar situations. God bless you and your continuing ministry to all of us new pastors.

  2. I think that concept of mentoring is a lost practice. I have heard many men refer to their “fathers” in the ministry which I suppose is the same thing. I think if more had that mentor or accountibilty, then we would have fewer enter the ministry, only to leave due to a circumstance that they chose to face alone rather than consult their mentor.

    As always, a very timely word from Joe’s heart!

  3. Wonderful words of wisdom Bro. Joe. Thank you for your words. You are indeed a wise man who has learned much in the ministry to God’s flocks!

  4. Joe: All of the articles in this group have been very insightful, challenging and up lifting. In this one where this is attached let me offer a word to the young ministers.

    When you go to a new church you can rightly be called the Pastor. The church called you to that position and you accepted. When you work among the people, share their joys and sorrows, weep with them, and at times go to court with them on various issues. When you have visited them in the hospital and shown genuine love and compassion and not just an obligatory visit. When you spend the night by their bedside in the hospital. It is then that you have earned the “right” to be called “Pastor”.

    May God bless all of you richly. When you hit the hard decision time seek out a trusted older minister that can offer counsel.

    Several years ago I was visiting the oldest of our deacons. He was still active and had a keen mind. We had been discussing a minor problem that another deacon had because I had not used the KJV all of the time. As we went on talking during our visit the Deacon offered this which I have never forgotten. Said he, ” Preacher, just remember that you attract more flies with sugar than with salt”.

    Don Cole

  5. I remember a young man in my class yrs ago at United Seminary in Monroe. He came in one night bragging about the hell-fire sermon he had preached last Sunday to his country church of 20-25 people. I asked him how many lost people were there. He blinked in surprise and said he didn’t know of any. I suggested to the class that, while we should always include evangelistic messages among our sermons, our focus should be the needs of the congregation. He needed mentoring on the difference between preaching and pastoring.

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