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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.