Mentoring Happens in the Church Not in the Ordination Process

Jason Micheli —  August 22, 2013 — 8 Comments

imagesIf you attend my church, read this blog or listen to my sermons then you know I tend to give Dennis Perry, my associate pastor and partner-in-crime, a lot of crap.

Good-natured, ribbing.

You know I tend to talk about how Dennis is old, forgetful, lazy, obvious, boring, tired, uninspired, old, predictable, vain, shallow, past his prime, full of himself, phones it in, takes credit for others’ work….just to name a few things.

As more than one parishioner has expressed with not a little exasperation, we have a ‘unique’ relationship.

He’s my Jerry Lewis to my Dean Martin.

My Kramer or Costanza to my Jerry.

Case in point:

Earlier this summer Dennis and I gave a presentation for a group of clergy at an annual conference. Because we were riffing off of one another’s comments, it was perfectly natural and predictable that I would start to yank Dennis’ chain in the course of our presentation.

He was the only one laughing.

Besides me.

It’s true that clergy in particular and Christians in general aren’t particularly strong in the  funny category, but the silence suggested something else too, I think: how unique our relationship actually is.

Behind the lack of self-seriousness is an actual friendship, a partnership that has no need for competition, oneupsmanship or self-aggrandizing- all of which, sadly,  are rare among clergy.

And it started a long time ago. Right around the time I was learning to drive, I was learning about Jesus.

From Dennis.

He’s not just my Kramer.

He’s my Yoda too.

And that’s not an age joke.

The thousands of books in my office began with one book (on Aquinas) Dennis handed to me as I left church one Sunday morning. I was just one out of 1,000 people he rubbed elbows with that morning but it was an important gesture.

The theological wrestling I’m wont to do on a daily basis began with just one question (Time vs Eternity) to which Dennis sketched an answer on a dry erase board- and suggested still another book, Screwtape– one confirmation class long ago.

The friendship and ministry we share today began back then with mentorship. Quick casual gestures of interest and encouragement.

It was he who boiled down the pained ‘How do you know if you’re called into ministry?’ agonizing to its essence: ‘It comes down to whether you can really see yourself doing anything else and being happy.’


This nostalgia has been brought to you by the article I was forwarded from United Methodist Connections, “Why I’m Called to be a Mentor.”

The article, by Rev Melissa Pisco, a pastor in Florida, is the sort of unsurprising institutional promotion you’d expect from any organization, and it’s certainly the sort of bureaucratic PR you’d expect me to mock and satirize.

But I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

In the United Methodist system, ‘mentors’ are pastors you don’t know- and, chances are, will only get to know slightly better- assigned to tugboat ordinands through the hoops of the ordination process.

You’re not supposed to refer to them as hoops but that’s what they are.

Or, more accurately, that’s how they’re experienced.

As hoops.

Psychological tests, district committee interviews with open-ended questions, conference board interviews with open-ended questions (‘What can you tell me about the resurrection?’), essay questions, interviews about the essay answers.

It’s an anxiety-inducing process. It was for me and I got through without a hitch, and it was for my peers in the process too.

And that’s my point.

It doesn’t allow for the kinds authentic relationship-building that I think makes for fruitful mentorship.

Ordinands, who’ve already invested years and cringe-worthy amounts of debt, don’t feel permission to be themselves in front of ‘mentors’ who’ve been assigned to them by the people who soon will be examining their fitness for ministry.

It’s like asking a defendant to confess to the jury instead of his counsel.

I remember the first time I revealed a particular struggle I was having in my rookie ministry (the lack of anyone anywhere near my age within an hour’s drive).

The response I got from my mentor: ‘Well, I’d recommend you not share that with the board.’

Signal received.

I’m not trying beat up on Rev Melissa Pico or others who serve like her. And I understand that every process has to have…process.

But true mentorship doesn’t happen just because that’s the name you’ve affixed to an institutional process.

Actual, fruitful, vibrant mentorship is relational and while it’s not equal, it is safe; and therefore, much more likely to happen within the local congregation than inside a top-down prescribed process.

I had a handful of assigned ‘mentors’ as I wound my way to being a full-fledged minister and all of them were/are good guys and effective pastors.

But the mentoring that really made a difference in my life and for my call was the relationship I began with my local pastor and continue to this day, the kind that can’t be assigned but must instead evolve.

The same is true, I think- I pray- for the three friends in my own congregation for whom I’ve assumed the role Dennis played and plays to me.


Jason Micheli


8 responses to Mentoring Happens in the Church Not in the Ordination Process

  1. I’m crying. Really.

  2. With as fast as society is changing, the church might consider the younger members mentoring older members.

  3. Truly heart-felt.

  4. Unfortunately the mentor program in the UMC is less than perfect. That should not be a surprise as we who are part of the UMC clergy are less than perfect. It has been my privilege to “mentor” a score of individuals over the year. Unfortuntely there are a few that I helped through the “hoops”. Fortunately there are more who I was able to develop a relationship with (some over 20 years ago) who still call me and reflect on things going on in their ministry. What you have said is true but it need not be that way. It is up to the “mentor” and “mentored” to develop a relationship – some relationship are not going to develop for various reasons but some can and will. As Bishop Joe Pennel said: this is “worth pondering”.

  5. I’ve followed the story of this mentoring over the years, and I’ve seen the goofy side of it as well, and I think it is meaningful not only to you but also to us.

  6. I begged and pleaded with my DCOM to provide me with some sort of mentorship with someone in the conference where I was a member while attending seminary in another. Someone finally volunteered after three years.. Then when I was commissioned, the guy on the BOM who was in charge of of assigning mentors would never return a phone call or email. My mentor pastor where I did my internship was indifferent toward me, canceling enough of our required meetings in the second half of my year there to the point I stopped trying to reschedule.

    A big reason why I’m not a United methodist anymore is that the denomination that claims roots in covenant relationships showed little interest in formational relationships. Or at least that was my experience in my Conference.

    I’m glad that it worked out for you.

  7. Michael Reaves July 1, 2014 at 5:16 PM

    Enjoyed the article and I think it is spot-on. My experience in the VA Conference, having never served a church with more than one pastor, is that I have had to establish mentoring relationships with colleagues on my own. And that can be a challenge in the UMC because, quite frankly, sometimes we don’t trust each other. My conference appointed mentors did what they were supposed to do but once I moved on and moved away, those relationships faded away. And with one mentor, I believe he needed a friend as much as I needed a mentor which worked out OK until one of us moved four hours away. It’s wonderful that you have had the opportunity to maintain a long-term relationship with a clergy mentor in the local church and that is has been a blessing to both of you.

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