It was an inauspicious meeting, really. It took place in the corner booth at a Burger King. He, in his early 70s, a veteran pastor and church leader. Me, a young Bible college graduate and soon-to-be pastor. I was serving as a volunteer youth pastor at a struggling church in the Chicago suburbs and he was the interim, brought in to stabilize the congregation during a period of turmoil and decline.
I wasn’t really sure why I called Bill and asked for a meeting. I told my wife it was simply to “get on the same page” with the senior pastor of the church I was serving. But I had other motivations. I was contemplating a full-time call to the pastorate, but casting out for better leadership examples than what I had seen modeled in my previous ministry experience. I also knew that Bill had influence over the church’s search committee and … if a miracle occurred and he liked me, maybe he’d put my name in the hat.
I didn’t telegraph that intention in our conversations, but I did honestly share with him my doubts about pastoral work. Because I was never gifted with a sort of Type-A, rah-rah leadership style, I’d been told I wasn’t pastor material. In the paradigm I had grown up in, servant leadership was eschewed in favor of top-down, aggressive management. Not only did this kind of leadership make me cringe, I didn’t think I could pull it off.
But Bill … he was different. Refreshingly different. Kind in every way, a great conversationalist, a gentle, caring shepherd of a man. We hit it off right away and soon Bill urged me to apply for the senior pastor position. He not only championed me before the search committee, Bill coached and encouraged me. This was in the fall of 2007. By June of 2008, I was installed as the senior pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church.
Bill became one of my best friends during my five years of pastoral ministry. On several occasions, early in my tenure, he saved me, literally. He showed me how to pursue change in a way that didn’t alienate members. He taught me how to deal with conflict in a graceful, humble way. More than anything, Bill showed me what it looks like to shepherd God’s people. “Make the ministry about God and about people, Dan, and you will do well,” he frequently said.
In my years of ministry I’ve had the privilege of meeting many church leaders. I’ve learned a lot from their years of experience. Some people collect baseball cards, artifacts, or books. But I collect mentors, downloading wisdom and grace for crucial life choices.
But none have impacted me like Bill. He never once said, “Want me to be your mentor?” He just stepped right in, meeting me for monthly breakfasts, lifting me up during trials, and serving me as a coach. Bill cried with me. Laughed with me. Grew with me. He opened up his life and shared his deepest frustrations and greatest triumphs. And even though he and I ministered in two different generations, the gap never hurt our friendship. It only enriched it.
Don’t Fear The Gray
There are many men like Bill in ministry: wise, humble, and ready to shape the next generation. But I wonder if my young peers are ready to listen and engage? At times it seems the evangelical world continually skews young. Our conferences seem to imply that only the beautiful and sexy need apply to make a meaningful impact.
This may be why we are so prone to burnout, missteps, and disqualifying sins. My mentors, particularly Bill, taught me to slow down, to move forward at a steady, faithful pace. To personalize my ministry, so that in my preaching and leading I saw actual faces of people, not numbers and programs.
I’m out of pastoral ministry now, serving in an executive position for a denominational agency. But I still carry Bill’s wisdom with me. And I urge young pastors everywhere to find a man like Bill, at whose feet you can sit and listen and learn.
Five Tips for Finding a Mentor
1 Identify someone within your sphere of influence whose ministry you’d like to emulate. My suggestion is to find someone local and someone not world famous. I doubt Matt Chandler or Rick Warren is accepting more mentees at this time. But you don’t need a rock star; you just need an experienced, godly leader.
2 Contact the person you’d like to engage. Make sure to start by keeping your expectations small. Don’t say, in your email, “Can you be my mentor?” Ask them to lunch or coffee. Tell them you’d like to pick their brain on ministry and leadership.
3 Schedule a first meeting. Don’t simply talk about “getting together one day” because you won’t. Open up your calendar and be willing to meet at a time that works for the leader you wish to meet. Bill loved early morning breakfast, so that’s what I did. Do what you have to do to put yourself in the presence of someone who can give you valuable life wisdom.
4 Give as much as you can. Offer to pay for meals or coffee. Use your car to drive if possible. The wisdom you gain from a mentor is far more valuable than a few more bucks on your expense account.
5 Thank the people who invest their time and resources in you. Don’t ever forget their sacrifice, don’t ever get “too big” for them. Call and visit even after your church is being profiled on the Today Show—or if you simply enjoy an “ordinary” ministry marked by fruitfulness and fulfillment.
This article was originally published here.