By Ian Burch
The pandemic invited (coerced?) me to read a lot in the last few months. As a treat, I re-read all seven of the Harry Potter books (eight, if you count the play, which is wonderful). Hunkered down at home, I disappeared once again into the world of Quidditch, arch Scottish professors, and deeply satisfying bildungsroman.
Reading a passing reference to the age of one character, Lucius Malfoy, shocked me back into my world. The sometimes dastardly Malfoy is 41. I am 42. I was enjoying my trip through the Potterverse, identifying with the tweens and teens. But in times around the sun, I have more in common with the parents, teachers, and even the villains.
The next morning, my seminarian intern said something about seeing me as his “mentor.” And again, I did a double take. Surely, I cannot be anyone’s mentor. I barely know what I am doing from day to day. I then recalled that in my 15 years of ministry, I have hired young people, trained young people, supervised young people, supported young people, and written countless letters of reference for young people. I thought back through all the wonderful young ministers — lay and ordained — who have wandered through my life needing some kind of assistance, encouragement, or camaraderie. Much to my surprise, I am and have been a mentor.
Nowhere in my theological education do I remember anyone telling me how to mentor, when to mentor, or why to mentor. That is a shame because I think that mentoring well is an art, and a difficult one at that. How do I model wise leadership without quashing my mentees’ youthful enthusiasm and the fresh perspectives? How do I make gracious space to allow them to try programs and ministries that I am nearly certain won’t work? How do I shrink my own ego and influence so that newer leaders have a chance to practice and exercise their vocation in the congregation?
It is a difficult dance to accompany often and advise rarely and to allow novelty and creativity while keeping the organization focused on mission and vision. It’s risky to recognize the optimal distress needed for professional and personal growth without allowing your charge to lurch into huge mistakes that can cause damage and sap confidence. This is hard, holy work. How come no one told me?
To be a mentor is to occupy several overlapping roles: teacher, boss, colleague, confessor, older sibling, and sometimes friend. Mentoring young leaders in the church might be as important as any other job we have as leaders. If these grey hairs have taught me anything, it is incumbent upon me to share what I know.
I remember the rector who hired me for my first parish gig. I had spent several years as a hospital chaplain, and I was worried that I wouldn’t know how to do good work in a parish. She glossed over my concerns (how to set up for traditional services, manage home communions, survive summer “wedding season”) by telling me, “It’s very easy to teach someone things. It’s much harder to teach someone to be a mature and pastoral presence.” She seemed to think I had gained some maturity at bedsides and morgues in the hospital and would be able to translate that steady presence into the parish. It turns out she was right, though I did make plenty of blunders while she was teaching me “things.”
I can’t help but hear her voice when someone working for me is worried about the best way to create a meeting agenda or how to execute the perfect processional walk and reverence. “It’s very easy to teach someone things.” I usually say, “write the agenda and see what happens. Get your butt down the aisle and see how it feels. Try, try, try. And then we can talk about how it went, how the congregation responded to you, how that feedback felt, and how it aligned or didn’t align with your sense of yourself as a minister.”
As I get older and lean into my work as a mentor, I find myself most interested in watching newer ministers try, fail, miss, and fall short. How they recover teaches me a lot about them and teaches them a lot about themselves. I hope that I have found a way to share my own misses in a way that can humanize leading a church, and I also hope that I can reflect onto them the grace that so many mentors have shown to me. You will mess up. It’s most likely not a big deal. And the messing up could be the making of you as a leader.
What the learners in my charge might not realize is that I get a lot out of being their mentor. They come with fresh eyes, often have read more recent theology and leadership literature than I have, often have more energy than I do, and seem genuinely interested in serving the church. Their enthusiasm connects me to the reasons I became a priest in the first place. I try to do the courtesy of treating them as full humans with experiences, ideas, and strategies to help in the great work of the church. They may very well have an idea that’s never occurred to me, or a strategy that works better than what we’ve tried before. I shamelessly try out their ideas in our parish, and we are better for it.
So, here’s a toast to those who are willing to take on the difficult task of learning. Don’t be too worried about the “things” of ministry. They are easy. Muggles worry about “things.” Worry instead about how you move through the parish in all your holy particularity, slowly learning the contours of your gifts as well as your limitations. That’s where the magic is. If you can learn to do that, you might very well end up being a mentor yourself someday.
The Rev. Ian Burch is rector of St. Mark’s, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.