There’s an ongoing list in my journal titled “things they didn’t teach me in seminary.” I know from conversations with colleagues that I’m not the only one. I learned a great deal from seminary and am incredibly grateful for that experience and education. Seminary taught me how to exegete a biblical passage, preach a scripturally sound and culturally relevant sermon, teach developmentally appropriate lessons to children and how to speak and reflect theologically. But I did not learn how to sit at the bedside of the dying, comfort parents after the death of their infant, manage a staff, lead committee meetings, oversee visioning processes or relate with community organizations – not to mention what to do when a pipe bursts in the middle of Bible study!
That’s why I’m thankful for mentors. They fill the gap between classroom learning and hands-on experience, between the theoretical and practical, and they are a partner in this messy and blessed journey of ministry.
I’m thankful for the camp directors who mentored me in high school and college, encouraging me to use my gifts of teaching and pushing me to into further leadership. I’m thankful for the college chaplain who listened to my questions about faith without the need to give answers, who showed me what it means to wrestle with Scripture and who aided me in vocational discernment. I’m thankful for the seminary professor who helped me face my fears about going into ministry, who challenged and inspired me to grow and deepen as a theologian. I’m thankful for the experienced pastor in my presbytery who has sat and listened, who has willingly shared not just her successes but also her failures, and who has reminded me about the joy of ministry.
Personal mentors have helped me discover and embrace this calling, have aided me in the formation of a pastoral identity and have reminded me that my most important calling is as a beloved child of God. I love being a pastor. I love preaching, teaching and caring. But it’s a lot to juggle and I know I can’t do it on my own. I need others. I need colleagues and I need mentors. As I think about the mentors who have influenced and loved me, it helps me reflect on the kind of mentor that I strive to be and the qualities that make a good mentor.
Relationship and dialogue. A good mentor will listen more then she will talk. Even better, we can talk through a situation or issue together to come to further understanding and insight. Mentors certainly are a wellspring of good advice, but often the question that pierces straight to the heart of the matter is far more important than being told what to do. My mentors have taught me how to trust myself and to rely on the Holy Spirit so that I can live into the answers myself.
Challenge and support. Mentors have to embrace the dance between supporting and challenging. It’s easy to sit inside our comfort zone, but a good mentor will give a well-timed push. I’ve needed mentors to remind me that it’s okay to fail and that I’m not alone as I venture into new risks.
Honesty. Be honest. Good mentors tell you when you’ve messed up and will help you get back on track. They will hold you accountable. I need to be asked if I’m taking my day off, practicing Sabbath or making it to the gym. I’m grateful for mentors who have been honest enough to tell me their own stories of when they’ve messed up communion or forgotten their sermon or didn’t know how to handle a conflict. Good mentors teach and learn from the one their mentoring. They hold confidences and support us when we fail.
There’s so much we don’t learn in seminary. I wasn’t prepared for the identity crisis that comes when first being addressed as “Reverend” or getting used to the feel of a robe, the weight of the stories that I carry and the trial-and-error of figuring out boundaries. So for the mentors that continue to guide me I give thanks, even as I pray for guidance in mentoring others.
KRISTIN STROBLE serves as the pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, Ohio. She enjoys coffee, books, running and spending time outdoors.