How Mentoring Made the Difference for One Methodist Pastor

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


When she stepped into her new role as pastor of First United Methodist Church in a small southern city, the Rev. Linda Meyers quickly identified several issues common among mainline protestant congregations:

  • An aging membership (almost all active members were retired);
  • A preoccupation with the church building itself and with the church’s past;
  • A fearfulness and distrust of the surrounding neighborhood, which had changed over the decades;
  • An overall lack of hope and low sense of worth.


Fortunately, Meyers had been well prepared to meet these challenges by training in seminary, prior career experience, and helpful post-seminary mentors. Although she did not participate in a Transition into Ministry program, she drew from the skills she had learned in her previous career as an educator and administrator.

Like many clergy, she spent time during her first months at the church just observing and getting to know the congregation—and by doing this, she found more clearly how she could serve and lead.

“When I got here and got to know the people, I realized that the gifts and graces I had were exactly what they needed,” she said. “They needed someone to come in and love them, and to show them they were still valuable to both the church and to themselves—that God was not through with them yet; that they couldn’t just rest on their past achievements; that they still had to work, there were still things they could do.”

Old Scotch Church

One issue that arose fairly quickly was the church’s support of a local scout troop. First UMC was on an extremely tight budget but consistently provided money and meeting space to a troop that never seemed to materialize:

“It was a thing of pride for [the congregation]; they had this group meeting here. I asked them when they met: ‘I want to come and be part of it.’ I love children, and I just wanted to come and see what was going on.

“But when I looked at it closer, there was no Boy Scouts—they weren’t meeting; they weren’t doing anything. They were just getting money from the church for something that was not going on. At that point we had a van; they were using the van … but a lot of times it was for the leader’s personal use. They were doing personal business with it.

“So we would have these meetings, and the leader would tell us all this stuff they were doing. I said ‘Okay, well, I’ll be here.’ But it never panned out at all…. And the church had put several thousand dollars into this, and the church is hanging on financially by a thread. So we met about it, and I started asking some real pointed questions about when do you meet, how do you recruit, who leads them, how many leaders. And I would get answers, but they really weren’t satisfactory. And we came to the point that I realized, ‘This is a drain on the church for no benefit.’”

At first members of the congregation resisted changing the arrangement and didn’t understand why Meyers was “prying” into something that they considered none of her business. Recognizing the pride they took in their connection with scouting, she approached the issue gently.

“I really had to tread lightly and just do a lot of, “Well, I just want to know about this….” I asked a lot of questions so that there was a gradual dawning that something wasn’t right. And then eventually they would say, ‘You tell them they can’t be here anymore.’ And I said, ‘I think that’s fine. I don’t mind doing that.’”

Because of her artful, patient approach, the situation moved from a potential conflict to an agreement through shared insight. Meyers credits her earlier experiences working in education with teaching her how to handle conflict well.

“In my prior life as an educator and an administrator, I took a lot of continuing education courses in collaboration and conflict management, how do you do it. We did a lot with how people learn different ways, handle conflict different ways; and how do you get the—you know, the flamingos who put their heads in the ground—how do you get them to bring their heads up. So we did a lot of that kind of training as administrators, because you deal with a lot of conflict when you’re in public education. And so we did a lot of training on that, which I brought to the parish with me.”

In her previous assignment in ordained ministry (her first after seminary), Meyers benefited from solid mentoring by one of the several clergy on staff. He coached her on how to manage that church’s economically diverse congregation, where extremely successful businessmen regularly crossed paths with homeless people.

“We would talk through, ‘Well, how do you think you can get them to do this?’ There were some things that we wanted to get them involved in that were really hard, and he would handle it, and then he’d say, ‘Now what’d you think about the way I handled that—what would you do differently?’ And I learned a lot from that; I learned a lot. He would also put me on the spot sometimes, and he would later say, ‘How did you feel about that, when I did that to you?’ I said ‘I had to think real fast what I was going to do and how was I going to respond.’ He said ‘Well, this is what happens to you in the parish.’ And so that was a real good mentoring situation.”

Meyers is a good example of a relatively new ordained minister who was able to draw on strengths, skills, and habits she formed in a prior career, and who benefited from clear, thoughtful mentoring from a non-defensive supervisor. Not everyone comes into ordained ministry with the gifts and strengths Meyers gained.

She believes that if more new clergy could benefit from the kinds of mentors that she has had, more would stay in ordained ministry long-term. She sees it as a serious problem that so many seminary graduates go right into congregations without a system of mentoring in place.

“After you are placed, it’s up to whoever you’re with. To me that’s really tragic. I really believe that’s part of the reason we lose so many pastors in the first five years, because if they had a good strong mentor or a good strong confidante, I think we would retain pastors a lot longer.”


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