by Lori Archer Raible and George C. Anderson
As a newly ordained minister, Lori Archer Raible participated in the Trent Symposium, a comprehensive, annual meeting designed to practically equip pastors for effective church leadership. Along with Ken McFayden, George Anderson directs the Trent Symposium, which Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, and Union Presbyterian Seminary have sponsored since 2008. The Trent model focuses on practical areas of need, best practices, leadership of experienced pastors and congregation members, peer support, worship and rest.
The Trent model has gone on to be applied to other forms of community building and leadership development. Raible, Anderson and others work together to share and expand the best parts of what the Trent model has to offer. Some would say Raible and Anderson’s partnership is unlikely based on their differences, but they share one hope: that all newly ordained pastors in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have access to sustaining peer and mentor relationships to equip and guide them along the way. Here, each in their own voice, they explain why.
Lori Raible: The way to a healthy ministry
Joshua walked with Moses. Naomi and Ruth needed one another. Henry Thoreau heavily influenced poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Martin Luther King Jr. considered Benjamin Mays his intellectual father. Bob Dylan admired Woody Guthrie’s work so much, he sought him out both to learn from and collaborate. Oprah claims Maya Angelou was her spiritual mentor. Harry Potter trusted Dumbledore’s guidance and, of course, Skywalker had the one and only Obi-Wan Kenobi. Anyone pursuing a vocation with passion, as an embodiment of who they are and who God is calling them to be, quickly realizes there are some things a Jedi simply cannot learn at the academy.
In seminary, I was gifted with a comprehensive understanding of the sacraments, but it was a mentor who helped me navigate the depths as I pastored a family through the death of their newborn son. Did I learn the ins and outs of our Presbyterian polity during seminary? Absolutely. But without the wisdom of trusted colleagues, I would have been lost in seeking a call. Did I learn to preach? Yes. But the courage to claim my voice was helped by our senior pastor in his selfless style of leadership. Managing a staff with a pastor’s heart, conflict resolution, stewardship campaigns, moderating a session, failing with grace – we simply are not meant to go it alone.
While the landscape of ministry rapidly changes, every pastor needs the guidance of those who have walked the road before. Studying a map for direction is important, but if the journey is to be sustained, it is best not to travel alone. While the companionship of a friend prevents loneliness, sometimes a guide is needed. The best guide is a mentor.
True mentors are usually not assigned, nor does a mentoring relationship work if the experienced pastor assumes the other should defer to his or her wisdom. Most healthy mentorships are organically formed out of a relationship that breeds mutual respect and trust, and both parties are anxious to gain from the experience. In this way, the humble work of mentoring is both a sacred gift and one of the most profound honors in ministry.
George Anderson: The way it was
Lori is a valued colleague. She tells me I have served as a mentor, which I’ll accept as long as she knows she has mentored me. Though she was ordained two decades after I was, I welcomed her friendship as a colleague because I make it a habit to do so for my own self-care.
My habit of embracing peers began in seminary with a study group. Ironically, a seminary professor strongly condemned that study group during class after he learned of its existence. “Theology is a solitary pursuit,” he angrily declared. He demanded that my study group (and any other group that might have formed) be disbanded immediately.
He sounds unreasonable today, but he reflected the expectations of his generation and of the mainline, “corporate” PC(USA) of the mid-20th century. The expectation then was that ministerial support came through formal channels from authorized and credentialed specialists or purchased materials. Need colleagues? That is what presbyteries are for. Need continuing education? Sign up for a lecture series or a class (and earn an impressive looking certificate). Need guidance? Consult books, professors, supervisors, senior ministers and denominational resource people. You also could order some wonderful nationwide materials for worship, education or stewardship published or endorsed by the denomination. The professor also reflected the wisdom of the day not to share one’s best stuff. One’s work is proprietary and should not be shared without credit and, sometimes, compensation.
We respected the professor and his harsh rebuke caused serious soul searching. Fortunately, my study group decided to continue to study together – and have continued to do so to this day. We had so much to learn, but somehow we came early to a wisdom widely assumed when Lori went to seminary shortly after the turn of the century.
Lori Raible: The way it is
When I graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte in 2003, my professors not only encouraged peer groups, they practically required them. They expected us to form and keep groups that could sustain us through our years of study and beyond. We attended seminary on weekends and at night. Many of us worked full-time jobs and maintained family obligations while reading Barth and conjugating Greek verbs in between. We needed each other, and the seminary crafted many opportunities for us to build lasting and supportive relationships.
Most of us are not surprised or disillusioned by the lack of formal equipping and support offered, but upon graduation we felt the implications of our fractured system. Many presbytery staffs have shrunk and much of their time has been spent dealing with unhappy churches and pastors. The governing committees described in the Book of Order as existing for equipping and supporting ministry have been overburdened as they too manage churches in conflict. At the same time, many struggle to maintain faithfulness to the principles of church polity as both churches and pastors seek calls that look radically different than those with which George and his colleagues began. Many congregations are financially stressed, and it is increasingly common for those entering ministry to serve in part-time or bi-vocational ministries. A pastor nominating committee may begin with 175 pastors seeking a call. If a church has struggled to fund a position, the stakes are higher. A minister must prove her worth or justify his position quickly. Real competency for the tasks of ministry is not a luxury, but a requirement.
The path to confidence and sustained community can be lonely in a pastor’s early years, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t seeking help. It simply means we are forced to pursue supportive relationships in different ways. Those who are adapting well have taken responsibility for their own care. We seek peers and mentors willing to be found. Social media hosts safe spaces to ask questions and support one another. Networks are developing and leaders of different generations and contexts are connecting. The NEXT Church movement has been a lifeline to many as it seeks to connect, equip and inspire leaders of all types within the denomination. We support one another in ways that are less prescriptive or regulated and are more organic and contextual to our particular lives and communities. Basically, ministers who are coping well are acting as each other’s consultants as we share and adapt our best ideas.
George Anderson: The way it has to be
I miss many things about the stronger denomination into which I was ordained. Though I defend its strengths, it is not a denomination to which we need to return. Its problems were real and some of its glories were only of its time. The challenge for ministers who hope to have a long ministry, and who hope to help build a stronger PC(USA), is to find the relationships and resources needed right now – even if they do not come by formal channels. They are wise to seek out colleagues they can trust as friends; coaches, supervisors and counselors they can learn from; and trusted mentors who have figured out how to serve the church as it is today with purpose and joy.
The strategy of developing one’s own network of support is a good one because it is right for the times. Sociologists talk about institutions going through cycles, and there are times of institutional revitalization when great support is offered in organized and expected ways. God willing, such will be the PC(USA) that the newer generations of ministers will help rebuild. In the meantime, Lori is right: Ministers cannot wait for the denomination to offer that network of support or they might not last long enough in ministry to see it come about.
We recognize the risks. Informal but influential relationships that teach, guide and mentor are risky because they fall beyond formal means of accountability. Bad advice can spread as quickly as gossip. Worse, relationships that promise to nurture can be manipulated for ego or physical needs. However, anyone who thinks abuse is prevented when relationships are regulated or licensed is not keeping up with the news. Many ministers are not helped, and sometimes are harmed, by power and authority being abused or misused by those who have official titles or formal qualifications. We are not describing a failsafe plan that is fair, only a strategy that, for many, may be necessary to survive and hopefully thrive.
In a way, this strategy is a return to Presbyterian roots because mentoring was the primary means of theological education for Presbyterian ministers in the American colonies where new pastors apprenticed themselves to experienced ones.
Lori Raible: The way, the truth and the life
With hope, I see our denomination reorienting itself for the work of Christ’s transforming church at the local level more than anywhere else. Though I cannot agree with what George’s good professor said when he condemned study groups, I sympathize with his attempt to protect that which is vital to our identity as Presbyterians: mutual accountability, a theologically informed polity and the wisdom of elders.
We do not want to surrender what the professor was trying to protect, but relationships of nurture and accountability should reflect the interpersonal nature of God’s faith and abiding love as revealed in the grace of Jesus Christ. As Barth wrote, “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers do. He is Himself the way.” We need to take the risks that come with knowing one another, and we need to know each other well enough to see the burden of the yoke and the cost of the cross in each other’s ministry. Only then will we come to trust the difference between opinions held lightly and hard earned wisdom.
Admiring George’s work from afar, objectively, does nothing to deepen my identity as a pastor. I have come to trust George and others who are willing to share both what they know and who they are. As I seek to imitate or adapt their best practices, my unique identity as a competent and confident minister deepens for the benefit of Christ’s church.
George Anderson and Lori Raible: The way forward together
Those looking for evidence that the denomination is not doing enough to support ministers can find it. Stories abound of heads of staff who treated other ministers on staff as functionaries instead of colleagues, assigned “mentors” who are good only for a single lunch or a cup of coffee, pastor groups bogged down in bragging or whining and presbytery executives or assigned committee on ministry representatives who didn’t seem to think beyond presbytery controversies and old habits. Unfortunately, this narrative often filters out the countless stories of faithful people fulfilling assigned roles within a congregation and presbytery or national staff who conduct their work with excellence and care.
The filter aside, let’s be honest and acknowledge that the PC(USA) is not in a place where it can offer all the support it once did. In that light, we might sound odd in our belief that the best way for Presbyterian ministers to be sustained in ministry and strengthen the PC(USA) is by being Presbyterian. Genuine relationships of nurture and trust honor the true spirit of what it means to be Presbyterian, including:
Effective peer groups can provide the accountability and support once envisioned for presbyteries.
Ministers can seek out colleagues, good coaching and best practices envisioned being provided in George’s day by supervisors, online resources and seminary and presbytery personnel.
Every church leader can cross generational divides to find people with more experience as embodied by the term “elder.”
A vibrant connectivity that sustains ministry can grow organically both within and outside the formal structures of our denominations, while honoring the spirit of what the Presbyterian Church is meant to be. We speak from grateful experience. By seeking the connectional church, we were led to our friendship and many other abiding relationships along the way. Find peers and mentors you can trust, and together, let’s strengthen the Presbyterian Church from within.
Lori Archer Raible is co-pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. George C. Anderson is head of staff at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia.