Mentoring For Neighborhood Ministry


[1] More than twenty years have gone by since I was paired with the first seminarian who arrived at New Hope Lutheran Church in Jamaica, New York, to begin a year of internship under my supervision. The year was 1985. Not so clear to either of us at the time was the fact that the internship year had a strong mentoring component. The seminary and the church expected the congregation to provide a space where students could identify and clarify their calling into ministry, discuss concerns, explicate their theologies, and recognize skills for ministry. The internship would hopefully go beyond superficial engagements to lead to a genuine evolution in the way the student thought about issues, and in the way the student would eventually do ministry in a globalized world.

[2] As supervisor, I understood that part of my responsibility was to provide this student with encouragement, direction, friendship, coaching, reinforcement and constructive examples with a strong emphasis on spiritual foundations. To be sure, the internship would involve skill development, relational growth, visiting, preaching, witnessing, teaching, theological reflection, developing good self-care habits, and much more. All of these fall in the range of the development of competency skills necessary for fulfilling the priestly, pastoral, and administrative responsibilities of ministry.

[3] The premise of this model of theological education is clear. Such learning should enable the student to test classroom theology against the disillusionments and rewards of ministry experiences, while providing a sense of wholesome fulfillment in Christ as expertise in personal relationships and in the performance of ministry are increased. The intern would also observe at close range how a successful career pastor operated in the field.

[4] Things that may seem easy or straightforward to the supervisor are often mysterious to the student. The thought, perhaps, is that a student could benefit from the expertise of one who not only knows the ropes but can hold them and show the mentoree better ways to negotiate the ropes. The student would also see a neighborhood, and learn from a mentor and people who lived there - single working mothers, unemployed men, retired people, the aged, people living with addictions, homeless people, impatient youth, and some who had successfully climbed a rung or two up the social ladder.

[5] In our initial conversations, the student shared a summary of life experiences leading up to the second year of completed theological studies. Early on I realized that it was important to know how the student was wired. Sharing of stories, reflection on experiences, identification of feelings, and a reevaluation of one's beliefs are essential to growth. I needed to know the history and the origin of the student's passion. He needed to know that about me. I needed to understand the student's gift mix and leadership style. He needed to observe and analyze various ministry experiences. All of these would be brought to bear upon our year of learning and hopefully, on outcomes. My student had attended high school in New York, had enrolled in a Lutheran college in New Jersey, was married and had one child.

[6] We decided that we would concentrate on the student's "interest in integrating learning with the practical stuff of parish life." We prepared a contract which focused on the art of sermon writing, visiting as outreach, and connecting the parish with the larger community. We wanted to find ways to connect our theology and experience of God, justice, and the church with that of the community.

[7] What neither of us fully realized at the time was how much the local parish and the context of south Jamaica, New York had to teach us. Christ was already active in that location. God was already present in the lives of those whom the seminarian and the pastor would meet not only in the congregation, but in a hospital ward comprised mostly of Vietnam veterans. The pastor and the seminarian would hear non-church folks make powerful faith claims as they stood in the ruins of a home now reduced to twisted metal and piles of ash. In a proprietary nursing facility where men and women no longer looked for a visitor or a letter from home, there too would they find strong faith in Christ. The seminarian would become a part of this mix, and if the year was fruitful, this student would become a part of south Jamaica, a community of people who had something to share and teach a future leader in the church. An intended outcome of mentoring is that students broaden their horizons and deepen their understanding of other people and cultures.

[8] In the forward to Beyond Theological Tourism: Mentoring as a Grassroots Approach to Theological Education (Susan Thistlethwaite, George Cairus, editors. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995), Walter Wink writes, "I suggest that for our next sabbatical we visit the United States." Internships and field placements are not, and should not be seen or experienced as, little visits to neighborhood churches or institutions. They can be times of purposeful mentoring where students and career pastors, lay leaders and church members engage the human communities where they serve. They can be times when we all calibrate our ears, align our hearts and strengthen our actions in response to the cries of the poor, and be instructed by their own theology and experience of God, justice, the church, and of other Christians.

Note: The student intern mentioned in this article is currently a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and has served as pastor of congregations in Chicago and Milwaukee before accepting a call as Chaplain and Director of a Lutheran Bible camp in Elkhorn, Wisconsin.



© August 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 2, Issue 8