This march I celebrated my 20th year in ministry and my 15th year as a senior pastor. I recognize that I am where I am because men invested in me and gave me opportunities to grow as a minister and a leader. Two such men were W.O. Sanders and Mack King. Both men pastored me, and I served under one of them for two years before his “retirement.”
These men taught me countless lessons, many of which I was too young to see at the time but now, as I reflect on them, I know I wouldn’t be where I am without their investment in me. Let me share with you five principles I gleaned from their mentorship that will be instructional for you as you invest in young leaders/pastors.
1. Do give opportunities with soft landings.
When mentoring and developing young leaders, it is essential to give them opportunities. Mack was my pastor for more than 10 years. He would often give me opportunities to preach where I was set up for success and where I would experience a soft landing if I messed up. He rarely put me in front of a crowd that didn’t love their young preacher boy and was less tolerant of my mistakes. I was often used on a Sunday night, when the congregation was hugely invested in seeing me do well.
2. Do give beneficial feedback.
My two mentors would often give me feedback after my preaching opportunities. It was not always the easiest feedback to hear. No one wants to be told where he has messed up. However, it is much more palatable from a trusted source who wants to see you succeed, than some years later from a dear, sweet saint on the front steps of a church immediately after the service. What made their feedback so helpful was that it contained actionable data about how to improve. For example, I might hear that I should be more mindful of the audience’s time or make sure that I wasn’t jingling the change in my pockets so vigorously that it detracted from the congregation’s ability to listen to what I was saying about God’s Word.
3. Do give encouragement.
A third lesson learned from their mentorship was to encourage generously. Ministry is hard. Churches often are filled with hurting people. It also is true that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes young ministers are stung by criticism, whether constructive or destructive. A well-timed word of encouragement can be just the lift a young minister needs to take the next step. Make encouragement a priority in your ministry.
4. Don’t be threatened by their successes.
This “don’t” is super important. In an ideal world, you want the young men you are mentoring to have great success. You want others in your church to brag about them. The quickest way to derail that is to feel threatened by their successes and the compliments. Ministry is a place where, if one is not careful, he can become intoxicated by the praise of others. Hearing compliments given to others will feel like they are being taken away from you. I heard a story of a young pastor who allowed his young associate to preach while he was away on vacation. When he returned, he was inundated with compliments on his young protégé. He became so insecure that he never let his young mentee preach again. Both of their ministries were harmed by that insecurity. If you are committed to mentoring young leaders, do not be afraid to allow others to celebrate them and their successes. We are all on the same team.
5. Don’t give up on them.
My first staff ministry position was, by many accounts, a failure. The first Sunday was the pastor’s final Sunday. It was all downhill from there. Any non-disqualifying mistake I could make, I made. It was a train wreck. I was beaten and broken and resigned at the end of four months, thinking I was done in ministry. The first Sunday after I resigned, I decided to attend my home church. It happened to be Homecoming Sunday. Homecomings in many Southern churches are events where people who grew up in a church and moved away return for a time of celebration, usually including a special message from a returning former pastor, a concert and a churchwide potluck.
The returning pastor happened to be W.O. Sanders, who had mentored me. He saw me home and immediately inquired why I was not at the church that had recently hired me. I told him, ashamedly, that I had resigned. He immediately scheduled me to come and speak for him. He was the type of guy who was hard to say no to, so I told him I would be there. The week after I preached for him, he showed up at my apartment, came in and sat down on my couch, and said, “I want you to pray about coming over and being my associate pastor/youth pastor.” I thought of every excuse in the book, and when he left I thought he’d gotten the message — until he returned the following Monday and told me, “We voted on you last night; you can start whenever you want!” I was there a week later. He didn’t give up on me.
Jesus spent the last few years of his life mentoring young men to follow in His footsteps. You will never regret using the principles in this article to invest in future ministers of the gospel.
Published June 1, 2022