The mentoring program begins its fourth year, and is growing stronger
The mentoring program arose from a realization that learning, acquisition and consolidation of ministry skills continue beyond seminary training. Our program is in its fourth year, and growing stronger with more and more ministers benefiting from an expanding circle of highly-experienced mentors.
Glad Tidings, a publication of the Women’s Missionary Society and a mission magazine of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, devoted its March/April 2016 issue to mentoring. Posted below are three articles from this issue, reprinted with permission from Glad Tidings and the individual authors.
The articles are:
- “Mentorship: Walking the Talk, Together” by Denise Allen-Macartney
- “Mentors in the Line of Fire” by Christopher Clarke
- “Mentoring Groups for Ministers: A New Initiative at the Presbyterian College” by Victor C. Gavino
“Welcome to Gloucester Church,” Jan said, gathering her things to go. I was mystified.
“What’s with all the cars?” I asked. Jan laughed and pointed to the street corner where an enthusiastic crossing guard ushered kids and parents over to the public school. “First day of school,” Jan said. Then she left. I looked at Lesley. We were on our own.
At least, it felt that way.
But I haven’t been on my own. Ever.
God has provided friends. And the gift of God’s Spirit. One of God’s gifts has been my mentorship group with Presbyterian College.
Brainchild of Principal Dale Woods and Presbyterian College’s newly-minted Leadership Centre, these small groups—six and counting—meet monthly by videoconference. Each group is led by an experienced pastor. We brainstorm approaches to challenges. We study books together, share resources, talk about struggles and joys, and pray for each other.
Then, for a week in June we gather in Montreal. There’s rest, great food, and lots of prayer. There’s good teaching and good fun. What could beat Montreal in June?
Andrew Thompson says the connections he made during Mentoring Week have kept him in ministry. The father of three young children with his wife, Sarah (also a minister), Thompson accepted a call to Knox-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dutton, Ontario, last September.
Remembering his first year after ordination in 2011, Thompson says, “I found myself quite isolated.” The move from classroom life surrounded by fellow students to serving a small congregation in rural Ontario proved exciting and challenging.
“I was blessed with a supportive and gracious congregation who walked with me as I grew into my role as minister,” he says. “Yet there were few peers I could turn to.”
Discouraged, Andrew decided to check out Mentoring Week. “I left Montreal knowing that I’d be in conversation with a mentoring group every three weeks. I was no longer alone in the work that God had called me to.”
Rebecca Simpson, Minister of St. Paul’s Church, Mission, B.C., agrees. “I love our mentoring program. It has been a real life-line for me many times.”
That goes double for me. In my first 18 months at Gloucester Church, our Session of five elders was reduced to three. Our treasurer wanted to resign. One family experienced a tragedy of epic proportions. The congregation needed new direction after some very challenging years.
But how does a new leader develop the congregation’s vision? Where do you start? Who can you talk to about how to tackle the deficit? How to help the woman with an infant and a special needs child, whose husband won’t join her in Canada after all? Who do you talk to when your own spouse is out of work?
“No one graduating from marketing ends up in the first day running Ford Motor Company,” says Dale Woods. “Our vocation is unique in that grads are asked to take on a significant leadership role without first learning the ropes.”
Mentoring is close to discipling, he adds, which is how Jesus did ministry.
Woods says the advantages ripple out beyond the groups. New grads experience less anxiety than they would on their own. They’re freed to develop their innate creativity. Congregations reap those benefits, and they gain indirectly from mentors’ expertise.
“I guard the time I have with my mentoring group,” says Andrew Thompson. “Others share the same struggles and challenges that I do. It’s encouraging to know that my peers are praying for me. I covet the ideas and feedback I get from the group.”
He especially appreciates the group’s emphasis on the inner life and health of the minister. “While other programs focus on developing skills and competencies in a given area of ministry,” he explains, “the mentoring program starts with developing a sense of self-awareness and balance between one’s own physical, spiritual and family needs and the work of ministry.”
People in my congregation have become true companions—Rebecca laughs heartily and often, and winsomely shares her muscular faith. Jason asks penetrating questions and has grown to love Jesus. Geoff has a quirky sense of humour and a heart for the neighbourhood. Mercy’s courage is a force to be reckoned with. Liz marshals kitchen crews and quietly reaches out to folks who need help.
I thank God for this family. They may not know it, but they’ve each been blessed by my mentorship group. Our congregation is healthier because of the counsel of seven other ministers and our mentor. It’s one way God’s Spirit is fuelling our renewal.
“Today many congregations are on the edge of survival,” says Dale Woods. “So we must be committed to congregational renewal. He sees in mentorship groups a force for change.
“I’m hoping that our groups become centres for conversations of renewal,” he says. “If we can grow the groups to 60 people, we have the opportunity to help bring renewal to 60 congregations. I know that is a wild dream, but I believe God dreams it.”
Denise Allen-Macartney is six years into her ministry at Gloucester Church, Ottawa. Her congregation is exploring new ways of being church in the neighbourhood. She’s part of a P.C. Mentorship Group that joins seven ministers in three provinces with their mentor in Montreal. Denise serves on the Board of Governors of Presbyterian College.It’s been noted that the Apostle Paul spelled out mentoring as his leadership model very simply, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1Corinthians 11:1). This past week I have been thinking about the people who poured themselves into me to help me to be in the position I am in today, a position where I get: to preach about my faith and beliefs weekly, to walk alongside both those experiencing great joy and those who are suffering, and have the privilege of being set aside with the time to ponder God’s word and rest in His presence.
I’ve been thinking about this because one of the older almost retired ministers in my presbytery has been taking the time to encourage another young minister and I. He has sought out learning opportunities for us and offered his guidance and help as we attempt to complete jobs that are slightly beyond our abilities. Pushing just past the comfort zone so that we aren’t too complacent, so that we continue to learn and to improve, something we all need, has been his method. It makes me think of an ad I have on my office wall, it says, “you can’t find your strong if you’re not looking for it.”
He hasn’t left us out to dry though. He has taken the time to pull me aside, and I assume the other minister as well, to tell me the new-found hope he has for the church thanks to the young ministers he has been working with lately. He took me aside to tell me that even if I may feel in over my head in a given situation to remember that I am where I am supposed to be and that God has empowered me and will continue to do so and to trust my instincts. And he means it. At times over a few meetings I was, to my mind, at my worst, my feelings were on my sleeve and I was trying to say nothing because if you have nothing nice to say you should remain silent. when he noticed this happening he carefully got me to speak, opening the door to many important conversations that really did need to take place.
The point of all this is that I appreciate the boost in morale I received from this minister and the confidence I derived from his kind words. There are others who give of their time, no matter how long I keep them on the phone or hovering over coffee, no matter how silly I sense my question or issue is, no matter how busy they are, they find the time to pour into me, and I am grateful and stronger for it.
There is a cycle to all of this, when I was in seminary I helped out anyone I could, tried to build up the students around me and in earlier years. Today, I try to help the staff and volunteers around St. Andrew’s “find their strong” and I think they appreciate that. They also appreciate being told they are doing a wonderful job. In our culture we can sometimes be cynical to the point where we refuse to praise others because we fear it will “go to their head.” Sometimes that is just what everyone needs.
Who are you mentoring? What happens when you see potential in someone in your life? Whose example are you following? Who follows yours? What happens if they do? These are all questions worth spending some time considering because Paul, the apostles, and the whole church were built by people who carefully answered those
Christopher Clarke is the lead minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Duncan, British Columbia. Chris graduated from the Presbyterian College in 2014.Presbyterian College is pioneering a program that pairs small groups of ministers in their early years of pastoral work with seasoned mentors who have extensive experience in fruitful congregational ministry. Running for three years now, the mentorship environment seeks to equip and develop in new ministers, the essential tools required to pastor and to lead our congregations of today. Theological education and training offered by our seminaries remain key elements on the path to ordained ministry in our denomination; however, acquisition and honing of ministry skills do not end at graduation. Now more than ever, learning must continue beyond seminary in face of the very fluid nature of our faith communities today.
The main objective of the mentorship program at Presbyterian College is to help our ministers find the road to revitalization or renewal for the congregations they serve. This needs no explanation as all are aware that Christian denominations including our own, exist in a culture that has become much less interested in church. In addition to this, an important element needs to be recognized: the bonds of friendship and trust that develop within each mentoring group become a well of encouragement for those moments when ministry becomes very challenging. Current statistics on burnout of ministers is quite frightening: up to 80% of seminary and Bible school graduates leave the ministry within the first five years of congregational work (US data). Furthermore, about 75% of practicing ministers report feeling unqualified or poorly trained in areas of leadership and counseling, two essentials in congregational ministry. We believe that the mentoring program has been effective in these two areas by “ministering to the ministers.”
It is important to note that the College also gains from the mentoring groups in that we listen to our ministers. Through this contact we maintain a close connection to the life of our congregations throughout the PCC. We are then able to adjust our program, e.g., teaching material and methods, aiming to remain relevant to the constantly-evolving cultural milieu in which our congregations situate themselves.
Over the years we have increased the reach of our mentoring program so that now there are thirty-one participants organized into six groups, each one covenanting to meet for two hours every month by videoconference. Our mentors come from a variety of backgrounds and experience: Dale Woods, Chuck Congram, Joan Ashley, Clyde Ervine and Christine O’Reilly. The minister-participants hail from across Canada, from urban/suburban and rural settings, graduates of our three theological colleges. Some are in their initial years of ministry, others for much longer. Each year in June after the General Assembly, the College brings everyone together in Montreal for a week of community building, learning from one other and from invited speakers. Corporate worship and prayer are essential elements of these gatherings. The participants are billeted at the College residence and meals are shared together. The response has been excellent. Here are some quotes:
- “My experience has been more than I ever hoped for. Having been on my own without mentorship or solid trustworthy encouragement for a couple years before joining this group was very depleting. This group brings me refreshment and helps me grow and be accountable to others who know what it is like to walk in my shoes… It will seriously and deeply impact my future as a minister.”
- “As Pastors we can feel isolated from others and our struggles can feel unique to our own situation. The mentoring lets me know that I am not alone as a pastor going through the struggles I do. I am part of a church family of pastors who I belong together with.”
- “I am more clear about some of my strengths and weaknesses by thinking through issues with the group and noticing the particular talents and gifts people bring to the discussion.”
- “I think that through my involvement in the group I am becoming more focused not just on reaching a particular goal but on helping my congregation grow in their understanding even as we pursue that goal.”
- “Thank you for offering this ministry. I feel supported in starting out with you.”
Through the years of operating this program, the College has become more aware and immersed in the lives of our congregations via the participating ministers. Each of our mentors have created within their own groups areas of focus most relevant to their concerns. For example, Christine O’Reilly who a few months ago agreed to be a mentor, is guiding a group of ministers working in rural ministry. Others tackle the particularities of functioning within the PCC, a task that is sometimes daunting to a new minister. Still others focus on theological reflection, spiritual health and overall wellness. Above all, the groups consistently orient themselves to figuring out how to minister to their congregations in the best way possible, adopting the most effective approach in leadership.
The College is currently planning on expanding the scope of the mentoring program. We aim to double the number of participants, and to initiate groups specialized in stewardship, in church planting and in congregational renewal. We are currently in discussion with experts in these areas who would be willing to join as mentors of this specialized groups.
The program is made possible by a grant from the Ewart Endowment for Theological Education, and from funds of the College. Each participant contributes $240 a year to help cover some of the expenses such as travel bursaries for participants located more than a 6-hour drive from Montreal, videoconferencing technologies, and speaker honoraria.
The College is convinced more than ever that the mentoring program it has begun a little over three years ago has become an important component of theological education and training that has proven extremely helpful to our ministers. If interested in joining or supporting us in this initiative, we will be happy to discuss the program with you in more detail. Please contact the Rev. Dr. Victor Gavino at 514-288-5256 ext 206 or by email at email@example.com.
Victor C. Gavino is the Director of the Leadership Centre at the Presbyterian College.