Advice for New Pastors 4

This past year Allan Hugh Cole, professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, has edited a book for new pastors, From Midterms to Ministry (Eerdmans). I was asked to write a chapter in the volume, recounting my own journey from seminary to the parish, drawing out any implications that my experience had for new pastors.

This month, thousands of new pastors will emerge from seminary, a few of them coming to join the ranks of the North Alabama Conference. I therefore offer these thoughts in the next few weeks, hoping that they will be helpful to those of us who are new in the pastoral ministry and those who are not.

The Necessity of Mentors

One of the most important decisions that a new pastor can make is to obtain a good pastoral mentor. Ministry is a craft. I am unperturbed when new pastors sometimes say, “Seminary never really taught me actually how to do ministry.” I think seminary is best when it instills the classical theological disciplines and exposes to the classical theological resources of the church, not so good at teaching the everyday, practical, administrative and mundane tasks of the parish ministry. One learns a craft, not by reading books, but by looking over the shoulder of a master, watching the moves, learning by example, developing a critical approach that constantly evaluates and gains new skills.

Selecting a mentor can be your greatest challenge as a new pastor. Few experienced pastors have the training or the gifts for mentoring a new colleague. The “Lone Ranger” mentality afflicts many lonely pastors and their work shows the results of their failure to obey Jesus’ sending of the Seventy “two by two” (Luke 10:1). Some senior colleagues are often threatened by your youth, or your idealism, or your talent, seeing their own failures and disappointments in the light of your future promise. You will encounter those experienced pastors whose main experience has been that of accommodation, appeasement, and disillusionment with the meager impact of their ministry. They have a personal stake in robbing you of your youthful energy and expectation for ministry. Their goal is to get you to say, “Well, I thought that ministry in the name of Jesus would be a great advent ure but now I’ve settled in and turned it into a modestly well paying job.”

Yet in asking someone to be your mentor, to look into your life, to show you how to do ministry as they have done it, is one of the most flattering and affirming things you can do for a senior colleague. The Christian ministry is too tough to be done alone. There is something built into the practice of Christian ministry that requires apprenticeship from Paul mentoring young Timothy to Ambrose guiding the willful Augustine, to Carlyle Marney putting his arm around me and saying, “Here’s what a kid like you has got to watch out for.” In my experience, one of the most revealing questions that I can ask a new pastor is, “Who are your models for ministry? Whose example are you following?”

One of the most decisive examples given to me, in my first months of ministry, was a negative one. I was attending my first Annual Conference. Between one of the sessions, an older, self-presumed wiser pastor took me aside and said, “Son, you seem ambitious and talented. Let me give you some advice that I wish someone had given me when I was at your age. Buy property at Junaluska (Lake Junaluska, the retreat center now Methodist resort near our Conference).”

Property at Junaluska?” I asked in wide-eyed stupidity.

“Right. Doesn’t have to be a house. Perhaps start with an undeveloped lot. Eventually move up to a home at Junaluska,” he continued. “Name me one person on the Bishop’s Cabinet who doesn’t have a house at Junaluska,” he responded before moving on to offer advice to some other promising young pastor.

I thought to myself, “Four years of college. Three years of seminary. Three years of graduate school for the purpose of a lousy mortgage at Lake Junaluska. This is what it’s all about?”

That interchange was one of the most significant in my first days as a United Methodist minister. It was encouragement for me to lay hold of the vocation that had taken hold of me. Standing there in the lobby of the auditorium, I prayed, “Lord, you have my permission to strike me dead if I ever degrade my vocation as that guy has degraded his.”

That I am here today, over thirty years after my transition from seminary to the pastoral ministry, writing this essay, suggests to me that I kept the solemn vow I made that day. More likely is that the Lord is infinite in mercy, full of forgiveness, and patient with those whom the Lord calls to ministry.

Will Willimon

P.S. Last year I asked our churches to send us, as lay members to Annual Conference, their most promising, new, young leaders. Our theme this year is around our priority of empowering a new generation of United Methodist Christians. We will plan to equip EVERY congregation to reach more people in this new generation. I just received word that our lively First UMC Decatur will be sending lay members who are 23 and 24 years old! We are discovering that we CAN reach a new generation IF we will invite them and welcome them into the leadership of our churches. See you at Annual Conference and at the “Rush of Fools” concert at the ending of Conference!

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