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.”


Related Article


When Self-Care Becomes Crucial—and Difficult to Maintain: A Cautionary Tale

[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.]


Clergy self-care has become a key concern for many denominations; church leaders have become more aware of how many pastors and priests struggle with weight and health issues, depression and anxiety, financial stress, and feelings of exhaustion and burnout. Many post-seminary training opportunities, such as Transition into Ministry (TiM) programs, now emphasize ways for clergy to maintain good physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Yet clergy in their first positions as ordained ministers often find it challenging to continue practices of good self-care in the face of the demands placed on them by supervisors and their congregations.

Take the Rev. Eric Murphy, for example. Following seminary, a TiM residency, and his ordination, he applied for numerous positions in churches in the Presbyterian Church USA.

He turned down the first offer he received because he didn’t believe he would be compatible with the senior pastor. Then he interviewed at Grace Presbyterian Church in a mid-sized city in the South.

“When I interviewed, they just seemed to be very interested in me and that … made me feel good about myself. I think a lot of times in that situation, residents—well, you’re just concerned no one’s going to hire you, at least I was. I mean, you know, a lot of confidence issues.”

In retrospect, Murphy now recognizes the warning signs that the role of associate pastor at Grace would be a difficult one. An acquaintance of his had worked at the church previously and had left the job in anger. One of the first comments the senior pastor made to Murphy was a disparaging remark about a mutual acquaintance, the pastor who had been Murphy’s TiM supervisor.

But Murphy quietly agreed with the assessment, and was generally impressed with Grace and the senior pastor.

“They just really tried to sell me on the situation,” he said. “And I was naive, I didn’t know exactly what to ask and maybe that’s something [Transition into Ministry programs] could work on, too—what to look for and what questions to ask versus just trying to sell yourself…. I’ve since learned that that’s the time to really set your boundaries and I didn’t do that. I wanted a job and I was just kind of nodding my head at whatever they said. But at that time I liked all that was said.”

In other words, Murphy didn’t know what to recognize as red flags or signals of potential problems—or how to be assertive enough to ask questions.

When the nominating committee offered him the position, he accepted it on the spot. He didn’t expect the next three years to be so full of conflict.

The first major conflict erupted in response to something he said. Within his first month at the church, Murphy was leading a prayer during the Sunday service and added a petition “for an end to senseless war”; numerous members of the congregation complained—not to him directly, but about him to the senior pastor. This was one of the first experiences Murphy had of a church culture in which indirect complaints and grumbling were acceptable. It was not his last. At a meeting of the church deacons, he was shocked at how the attendees badmouthed other members who weren’t present.

Murphy not only found himself increasingly anxious and vigilant about other people’s murmurings. He also discovered the challenges of dealing with a boss with a mercurial temper. Murphy had several run-ins with the senior pastor that ended in him being yelled at. Sometimes the senior pastor treated him as a trusted confidant, other times as an incompetent subordinate—and Murphy was never sure where he stood.

This uncertainty about his working relationship with his supervising pastor made it challenging for him to negotiate his weekly time off. Murphy married a graduate student living in a city a couple hours’ drive from the church, and the couple hoped some flexibility from the church would help make the arrangement work while his spouse completed her degree.

Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson MS - cropped“The drive was just killing us—it’s four hours. But [the senior pastor] insisted that he have Fridays off every week as his day off and he needed a pastor there. And so he wanted me to take Mondays off. The problem was once a month on Monday night was our session meeting, and he expected me to be there. So, I didn’t even get a full day off, once a month. And he’s like, ‘Well, you could just make it up some other time.’ There was no time to do that.

“I always had to be there on Sundays; there was no opportunity for a two-day weekend. I know pastors don’t always get a two-day weekend, but sometimes he did. And I never got that. I talked to him about it. He’s like, ‘Well, you can leave right after church on Sunday and go [home].’ And I did once or twice, but basically I had dinner with my wife—we would go to do something fun—and then … I would just turn around and go back. So, that was bad.”

Into the second year, the senior pastor took a three-month sabbatical and left Murphy in charge. The young associate pastor enjoyed the freedom he experienced in his supervisor’s absence.

“I felt like I ran the church really well, and that’s really when I began to shine,” he recalled. “What got hard was when he came back and there was just no mediation or help for that transition, it just—boom, everything—we were back … and [there was] very little appreciation for what I had done over those three months. He was wanting to talk about how his experience had been great and all this. And that’s when I began to see the writing on the wall: I just can’t do this anymore.”

Murphy had already seen the impact of the senior pastor’s volatility on other staff: during the senior pastor’s sabbatical, the church’s office administrator had quit, saying she preferred not to be there when he returned. About a month after the senior pastor’s return, Murphy submitted his resignation.

Throughout all of this, Murphy felt the need for a support system that he didn’t have anywhere nearby. Earlier in seminary and during his post-seminary TiM program, he had found support and help. His field education supervisor during seminary had become a trusted mentor who treated him as a respected colleague. During his TiM residency program, he had met monthly with other younger residency colleagues. But, after his TiM residency, in his first position as an associate pastor, he did not find a similar group for support and help—inside or outside the church.

“I think through my TIM experience I realized how important community is, and I really wanted to make some friends outside of church, which I never really did,” he said. “That was a bad thing—but my TIM experience helped me realize that. … I think I need to have someone to process things with in a confidential, safe space and that was an ongoing struggle. … It got to be at the point where I’d call my mom at home and talk about what had happened with [the senior pastor] that day, you know, trying to process that.”

The nominating committee that had brought Murphy to Grace Presbyterian had committed to providing ongoing support. “[They] told me that they would continue to meet with me and support me—they never did. A year from the day that I came, I said, ‘Well, we need to get together again.’ And so, it was all my initiative. Half of them showed up, the other half didn’t, and I never did it again.”

Murphy said that he wished that he had been better prepared for the role of associate pastor. He felt his Transition into Ministry program did more to prepare him for the role; his seminary education mostly prepared him to be a solo pastor.

“Being an associate meant I had a lot more resources at my disposal to do different projects than I would have if I had been a solo pastor. But I think decision-making is different too…. As an associate I wasn’t sure where the decision really lay. Was it with the pastor, who I was constantly trying to build a good relationship with and have the support of? Was it with the session, who was our denominational head of the church? And where do I draw the line for myself?”

At the time of his interview with us, Murphy had been unemployed for three months. He was thinking about going back to school to get a degree in social work or pursue individual counseling and maybe coming back to congregational ministry part-time.

“I’ve tried to redefine myself by being more grateful for all that I’ve received in life,” he said. “And that includes my marriage, and the ability to have this semi-sabbatical that I’m on right now—a time for reflection and discernment. I’m trying to be more grateful, because I feel like I was leaning toward being too bitter toward the end.”


Related Articles