Needed: Pastor-Mentors for Emerging Ministers
By Stephen Baldwin

In the following post, Dr. Stephen Baldwin, Executive & Personal Coach at Trailhead Coaching, and Spiritual Director for The Genesis Project, Inc. (see a brief biographical sketch at the end of the article),  discusses and advocates mentoring for emerging pastors. As always, feel free to post any constructive comment, but we would particularly like to hear your thoughts on the following:

  • If you are a pastor, are you involved in a mentoring relationship? If you are an elder, is your pastor involved in such a relationship? If not, have you encouraged him to pursue one?
  • What obstacles to mentoring relationships between pastors can you identify? How can these be overcome?
  • How can sessions and presbyteries encourage and facilitate mentoring relationships?

Note: we encourage you to read this article in conjunction with our interview of the authors of “Resilient Ministry” found here.

“The most effective learning of all, more than all other forms combined, is going through hardship with support, and evaluation.”  – Center for Creative Leadership [1]

In a monthly meeting of pastors I lead, one man shared the story of a friend who confessed he had intentionally had an affair so that he could get out of ministry before his church plant could fail. In another cohort, a pastor shared his hunger to be in a place where he could have a mentor, “to help shape and guide me in my calling and gifting.” What got my attention was when he said, “apart from you guys, I have never had a mentor in the ministry.” Sadly, my friend’s experience is not unique.

Of all vocations, surely the gospel ministry is the one whose paradigm is most radically formed by the dynamics of godly mentorship. Reading the narrative of Jesus’ ministry and Paul’s travelling band of missionaries, and even of local congregations shepherded by a collegial cohort, it is remarkable that we do not intentionally pattern our ministry formation and practice after their example.

As I read scripture, a core tenet of Paul’s ministry focus was to strengthen churches by strengthening their leaders. He saw to it. He didn’t operate as though it was a nice addition to his core ministry; it was his consistent practice. He planted, and then returned specifically to strengthen the churches in the gospel. Paul’s practice demonstrated the conviction that enduring gospel communities depended upon healthy, spiritually strong leaders. This is all so clearly communicated in scripture, I think everyone must see it — but I am recognizing more and more that this is not necessarily true.

My wife, Karen, and I have been in ministry now for thirty-six years, and we have shared a deep passion to see vibrant gospel communities formed. We’ve been personally involved in helping to bring some into being through the work of church planting and mission. Most people usually understand that healthy churches are the product of healthy pastors. The evidence shows that healthy churches are also the most effective in reaching the world with the gospel: they are vigorous in evangelism, mercy ministry, and church planting, and they produce new resources for the mission of the church.

Yet, within the realm of church planting, the statistics of struggling and failed ministries and leaders are staggering The rule of thumb is that one third of church plants aren’t around by year five. Karen and I have seen or heard of dozens of such churches and church planters who leave the ministry in shame never to return. We’ve also seen how few of my colleagues from seminary are still engaged in parish ministry. What is the problem?

Narrowly Prepared For and Marginally Cared For

Roy Oswald’s study for the Alban Institute says of pastors, “Within the first 10 years of parish ministry, roughly half will either be fired by their congregations or forced to move, and another 15% will be forced out of their parishes during the last 10 years of their ministries.”[2]

Pastoral couples enter ministry unprepared for its struggles: the pressure upon their marriages and their children, and the conflicts with parishioners. “[R]esearch strongly suggests a  profound disconnect between the reality of day-to-day ministry and what is traditionally taught in preparation for entering the field of ministry.”[3] More often than not, these individuals walk through the day-to-day demands of giving pastoral care to others, but with no caregiver to whom they can turn in time of need.

Seminary does a good job of preparing ministers to preach and teach, and even offer pastoral counseling, but it does little to prepare them for conflict resolution, leadership and management, self-care, and cultural or emotional intelligence.[4] When ministers enter the practice of ministry, it turns out that these areas occupy the great majority of their time and are also the sphere of the greatest heartache and criticism against pastors.

The complaint of King David in Psalm 142:4 could be from the lips of any young servant of the kingdom these authors describe:

Look to the right and see:

there is none who takes notice of me;

no refuge remains to me;

no one cares for my soul.

A Problem Rooted in a Myth

We believe that pastors are mythological figures with a direct line to God, who personally meets all their needs of body and soul, and that they are above the need of anyone to for care them. The problems pastors face, the struggles they experience, and the impact of these problems and struggles upon churches are rooted in this deeply held belief – a belief that is endemic to our culture—the myth of the hero-leader.

In the church, our image of the hero-leader looks like a pastor who is virtually invincible, who always has the answer, who is the expert with the fix for every problem (the quicker the better), who is never lacking the time for others or the patience to deal with their struggles, whose own struggles are extremely rare and never significant, who is always available, whose family doesn’t demand much of his time, and whose spouse is graciously and tirelessly supportive and unobtrusive through it all. This pastor’s relationship with God is such that wrestling with the world or the flesh or the devil is over. This is not only a myth, but, in my opinion, a dangerous lie. Sharon Daloz Parks says,

Few would deny that the heroic myth remains a dominant player in the commercial, social, and political psyche. Whether we are dealing with fame or blame, we continue to prize and promote the myth of the individual person as autonomous and in control in our assumptions about leadership.

One reason we don’t care for our ministry leaders is because we expect them to have it all together. To provide for pastoral care for them would be to admit they are broken sinners like us. Soon the whole fabric of our tacit agreement not to meddle under the surface of one another’s lives would start to unravel.

We see this attitude come to the surface increasingly in the written ministerial job descriptions for pastors.[5] A comment dropped on Facebook spoke to just such job descriptions: “What this church needs is Jesus with a little more experience and the ability to play guitar.” We chuckle as we read this, perhaps shrug it off and say “That’s just the way it is,” but I contend that making this an accepted attitude in the church is not merely dangerous to the church, it is dangerous to the culture as a whole. At several points in history, the church has succumbed to cultural rather than biblical practices, and we need to remember.

Recently, I read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I was reminded how deeply compromised the church of Nazi Germany. It was held captive by that generation’s definition of a cultural savior-leader. We correctly condemn and express disbelief that the church could be so blind and so far from faithfulness to the gospel that they gave their allegiance to Hitler’s evil Third Reich. But do we clearly see the dangers of the church’s subscription to our own cherished cultural practices regarding leadership, instead of allowing biblically robust and radical practices to shape it? Without a healthy culture of mentorship, and a deep, appreciative, culturally intelligent inter-connection between the current and the rising generation of leaders—Hispanic, African American, and Anglo—there is the danger that we will become a shallow church with ethnic silos. If we hand down only pre-digested answers, instead of walking closely with rising leaders, wisely guiding them in discovery of biblical truth, we risk disconnecting them from the joy of deep learning that transforms them from the inside out. Without this sort of appreciative mentorship, (in which learning happens in both directions!) we may begin to lose thoughtful people of faith, because we cannot model depth in our own relationships. Finally there is a great risk that the church will simply continue to recycle unhealthy, unsustainable leadership models that will continue to shape the organizational culture of the church.

This “cultural addiction” is powerful, and it is challenging to push back against our apparent cultural DNA.  But we must work to restore an appropriate view of and expectation for our church leaders; we need to recognize that they have needs as great as our own.

I would like to suggest five culture-shaping practices to aid both established and rising church leaders in this endeavor: 1. Give up the hero-leader myth, 2. Join a collaborative community; 3. Create safe environments of mutual trust, 4. Seek mentors and peer learning partnerships 5. Discover spiritual direction and relational process.

Give up the hero-leader myth

Here I’m speaking to my generational cohort especially. The idea that is necessary, practical, proper, and biblical to do ministry solo combined with  the tendency of leaders to self-isolate is deadly. The solo-pastor model, while enjoying a long history as well as a few exceptional practitioners (whose behind the scenes support structures remain hidden), helps to perpetuate a system that is unsustainable because it keeps in place a cycle of dependence upon one man’s expertise and gifts. Such dependence holds great attraction to pastors because it makes them look and feel wonderful. It feels amazing to have people look to you for answers and to be regarded as the expert who can apply the Word of God aptly for virtually every situation in life. Indeed, it is intoxicating. This dependence may also contribute to the feeling that there is not much room for those graduating from seminary and hoping to move into primary church leadership.

Tim Keller, widely known as a gifted leader, nonetheless strives to be an anti-hero-leader. Consider this quote, attributed to him: “Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus’ costly grace.” This is a transparently biblical stance. It can only be our pride as a leader that drives us to appear confident, competent, and successful. A consistently practiced posture of humility helps break the cycle of hero-leader isolation – it places the leader in the same position as his congregants: one of dependence and of a deep and abiding need of grace from God.

Both seasoned and emerging pastoral leaders who model this dependence are actually helping to enable their church to face their most difficult challenges by modeling faith in our great God. They model the ability to adapt and to grow through the change that process enables and so help their congregations do the same. The practice of humility and Christ-dependence creates a sustainable ministry over generations.

Through the incarnate form of partners in ministry, my own eyes have been pried from my own gifts and my own ability to Christ’s sufficiency. What is even more delightful is to see how these partners have strengths and limitations that differ from my own. They serve as a present reminder of my own dependence. This pattern of teamwork, consistently observed in the biblical literature, is a distinctive trait of a sustainable ministry model.

Join a collaborative community

Theological education is vital and necessary. Many seminaries do this quite well, with our denominational seminary in the top tier of that list. However, seminary education is only the beginning of learning. For the newly ordained minister, it remains mostly theory until the experience of immersion into parish ministry. The church has too often narrowed the range and richness of learning environments by limiting learning to pulpit and pew, lectern and chair. But these are not well suited to learning the practical challenges of navigating conflicts and the relational-political dynamics of ministry.

New pastors and ministry leaders, despite their education, are still novices in their field. If a novice leader feels that their theological degree grants them a “leader” badge and that others will readily follow their lead, he or she is in for a rather rude and painful awakening. It is humbling, but good and necessary for growth that they accept this truth – and accept help from others at the same time.

We have observed that one of the wise things Jesus did in training and spiritually forming the disciples was to make use of virtually every life situation as a learning laboratory. The biblical literature reveals that Paul’s practice was to engage in a lively, risky mix: a team of mature missionary leaders, younger missionary team members who were also learners, and a widely varied group of non-believers. As it turns out, this was a learning environment par excellence. Current pastoral leaders should take time to consider and discern ways in which they might emulate Paul’s practice.

Create environments of mutual trust

The central concern that arose from my research on pastoral mentoring is that for pastors to endure, to avoid crippling sin and cynicism, and to be alive with the living waters of Christ, requires something besides professional skills. This takes developing the relational qualities of trust, honesty, and transparency, while cultivating personal presence. I am persuaded that pastors need a place where they can be present as their stripped down selves in order to receive what the Spirit of God seeks to impart of his presence and life. In that place of complete acceptance, of a close, vulnerable, collegial spirit, where the grace of Jesus is deeply applied and savored, each one is also called to better things. It is a sacred community of friendship in which a fellowship of forgiven brothers or sisters existentially experience the love and presence of Christ.

In an atmosphere of trust and vulnerability, where the distinction between the presumed expert and the learner was not heightened by formalities, I have observed that learning and growth occurs in a profound way. I have heard a group of such facilitators described as “brotherly” and “accepting,” which helped to set a tone of trust. When the distinction between teacher and student is de-emphasized and leaders intentionally make their lives accessible in an effort to model transparency and bold love, hearts are opened to the Spirit and welcome him to do his work of transformation. We are freed to be tools in his expert hands when we move out of role and the distance that comes from emphasis upon authority into mutual submission and sharing.

Pastors, like any others, feel safer to engage when surrounded by a “band of brothers” – a cohort of trusted peers who are not part of their hierarchy. What’s more, the current literature on mentorship confirms this. A vital, strategic step would be for local churches and regional governing bodies to encourage the formation and funding of such cohorts: a safe place to process, and guide one another toward Christ and health. As a result of the latest research by initiatives such as the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Initiative of the Lilly Endowment, Inc., we know what sustains pastors.[6] The work before the church is to discover ways to keep it going. That is, we need to continue to improve upon current models and discover new models that are financially sustainable.

Seek mentors and peer learning partnerships

The subject of mentoring has been studied and explored for over twenty years, especially in the workplace.[7] The church followed the lead of the workplace rather than leading the way, even as educators went on to discover more powerful forms of mentoring: those in which a wise mentor offers guidance among a group of peers. This is called peer learning, or structured peer relationships.

Becoming a mentor is like becoming a chef.  Almost anyone can call herself a “chef” but within that vocation, it is a title that is only meaningful when other chefs recognize her gifts and skills. In the same way, being a mentor is something that others recognize. But the manner and content of mentoring is much broader and richer than merely a one-on-one, older, wiser mentor teaching the younger protégé needed professional skills and tricks of the trade. The church is rich with men and women, leaders and laypeople, who have life and ministry experience; together, they hold a massive bank account of wisdom.

For ministers in particular, what is needed is a way to integrate communities of experienced pastor-mentors with small groups of peers as they move toward mature leadership. When groups of peers gather to learn and be accountable to one another for their spiritual growth, they need to get out of the hierarchy mentioned above. They need pastors and facilitators to guide the process and to offer care for them. Mature pastor-mentors must be accessible in order to pass their wisdom on to the rising generation of pastoral leaders. Those whose natural bent is to mentor their younger peers in ministry can lead the way and encourage others to see its value as well.

Though many people call themselves mentors, life-transforming mentoring is rare. The practices of mentoring are in great need and are best learned from skilled mentors. To cultivate this practice takes time. But what better time-investment than pouring the wisdom and experience a pastor has acquired over a lifetime into pastors who will serve the church in the coming decades! The deposit of wisdom, if given away generously, would greatly enrich the church.

Relationships move naturally from an unequal mentor-protégé relationship to a peer relationship.[8] This peership was evident between Paul and Luke. It is a pattern remarkably apparent even in Jesus’ discipleship of the twelve apostles. Jesus has a deliberate and determined way of moving his disciples from the place of being pure spiritual and ministry novices, toward the moment in the upper room when he calls them friends. Jesus then prepares the apostles for the time when they will preach and shepherd in the power of the Spirit.  Just as with Jesus’ model, we must engage in a self-replicating system of mentoring.

Discover spiritual direction and relational process

God seems to be ever at work to keep us looking to him and dependent upon him, not on our well-refined systems and steps. Our cultural penchant is for pragmatic, how-to formulas, results, success measured by numbers, noses, and nickels. All of these actually work powerfully against spiritual formation. I don’t want to suggest that the Bible does not tell us how to do anything, but the reductionist tendency of simply scouring the Bible for “blueprints” and steps so that we can get on with the job of pulling ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps doesn’t square well with how Jesus lived and taught. Pragmatics is certainly not the focus of Jesus’ teaching or ministry.

I am deeply persuaded that spiritual formation cannot be reduced to a programmatic, “how-to” program. Instead, what is needed is first, to keep programs from being such a Goliath in the church. A missionary from another country who was living for a time in the States observed, “the church in America is staggering under the weight of programs.” The church needs to keep programs to bare essentials and shape them with a high focus upon learning in relationship, upon understanding the system we are part of, and how to learn and grow organizationally to adapt to our changing world. Pastors and leaders are not the ones who direct the process of sanctification and spiritual formation; Jesus does. There is a role pastoral leaders play in the spiritual formation of others, but that role is a spiritual direction grounded in the transformative operations of grace, careful observation, and discerning inquiry. This is a process that is the wellspring of godly behavior and produces the fruit of increased maturity — and tends to produce healthy numbers and finances as a bonus.

Spiritual formation may deepen through seasons of solitude, but it also requires forging in the fire of relationships. We need to a return to simple, radical, transformative processes as pastors who follow Jesus Christ. His teachings and example require time, in community, to enter into and transform lives; indeed, it quite literally takes a lifetime.

Stephen Baldwin has been in ministry for over 37 years, serving as a pastor, a church planter, a missionary, and a mentor. Currently, he explores how the contemporary church can encourage mentoring relationships. When he’s not serving in the church, he enjoys making pasta from scratch and writing about his passion for food. Stephen and his wife Karen have had their writing published in Critique, and one of the pieces published there was also included in The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, which was chosen as one one of the Best of 2011 Books  by The High Calling.  Stephen and Karen live in Castle Rock, Colorado.


[2] Oswald, R. M. (2001). Getting a Fix on Your Ministry: A Practical Guide to Clergy Performance Appraisal. Bethesda, MD. The Alban Institute.

[3] Stewart, Kristen. “Keeping Your Pastor: An Emerging Challenge.” Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences, Oakland City University. Vol. 13, No. 3 (2009): 112-127.

[4] Reference the Summit findings.

[5]“[T]he expectation of competency is so intense that the new pastor is almost certain to burn out, fail morally, or leave the ministry altogether after just a few years. These are not speculations on my part; many stories of actual people line the pages of my journals and fill up the content of my prayers: burned out, frustrated, resentful, angry, and depressed pastors who have left the ministry (or simply become ineffective) in part because of the discontinuity between what they are gifted to do and what they were hired to do (or so they thought), and what they are daily tasked with. These are real men, husbands, and fathers who, because of their perceived—and sometimes real—failures in ministry, have completely left the church.” Joel Hathaway,

[6] “Throughout the past decade Lilly Endowment Inc. (a private philanthropic foundation created to support the causes of religion, education, and community) has funded several projects aimed at exploring the current state of pastoral ministry. One of these initiatives, entitled Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE), provided grants totaling $84 million dollars to 63 organizations. This initiative is based on the conviction that when churches are led by spiritually strong, thoughtful, able, and imaginative pastors, congregations tend to thrive. The question was: What does it take to sustain pastors in such a way that they will flourish in ministry over the long haul? The SPE initiative was created to find out.In 2004, Covenant Theological Seminary, in partnership with two sister institutions, received an SPE grant to develop the Center for Ministry Leadership for the purpose of exploring what helps pastors survive and thrive in ministry. To study this question, the Center developed a specialized forum called the Pastors Summit, designed to draw on the experiences and expertise of seasoned pastors. Over the past five years, 61 mostly solo and senior pastors—often with their spouses—have participated in Summit meetings. The Pastors Summit identified five primary themes or characteristics that promote healthy, sustainable ministry for the long haul…Spiritual Formation, Self Care, Marriage and Family, Emotional and Cultural intelligence, Leadership and Management.” Bob Burns, Pastors Summit: Sustaining Fruitful Ministry (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2010).

[7] Belle Rose Ragins and Kathy E. Kram, The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007).

[8] Iris M. Saltiel, Angela Sgroi, and Raph G. Brockett, The Power and Potential of Collaborative Learning Partnerships., ed. Susan Imel, New Directions for Adult Continuing Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1998).


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