Your Plum Job

September 22, 2010

It’s September, that non-liturgical beginning of the church year. The summer’s slower pace is no more. School starts. So do church programs, with anxious budget planning/ promotion looming near.

​That was the theme of a recent conversation. As the new pastor, he was especially eager for a smooth, energetic first fall season. He reported a not smooth beginning — gaps in teacher recruitment, complaints from parents of youth, spotty attendance, hospitalized colleague, and resistance to financial planning. He was already weary, “flat,” as he put it.

​My outrageous response surprised him. “I’m thinking, what a plum job you have! You are given a reasonable salary to manage a research project. You get to experiment, along with others, about following the radical Jesus in these times of social upheaval. I know of no other professional who has such a ringside seat on life and has the freedom to follow their curiosities about people making sense of their lives. Just think about it: this is your job. You get paid for this!”

​He smiled. He also winced at my playful counter to his seriousness.

​And I added, “And besides, what better place to learn about yourself, to grow up, participate in a grand movement, have soul friends, and know the thrill of betting your vocational life on a Mystery of grace you cannot see or measure or control. What’s more exciting than that? And it’s full-time with pay! What a plum job.”

​Just now, I am smiling at myself. If you have been reading these Reflections, you know how naturally serious I can be. I know how to do “serious.”

​This is why, many years ago, a “light” came on when I heard Rabbi Edwin Friedman say, “Treat it like a research project!”

​Without fail, this reframe would dislodge me from a stuck position. When at a weary, “flat” place, I could ask: “Hmmn, what are we . . . what am I learning here? Where is the Spirit’s hypothesis of abundant life, compassion, and the ‘courage to be’ showing up?” And you are doubly fortunate if you question with fellow researchers. More fun as well. I have never known researchers to work alone.

​To conduct research, to oversee experiments with the gospel and get paid for it — well, it sure sounds like a plum job to me.

Not Without a Mentor

September 7, 2010

My 29 year-old friend and I were discussing leadership. His wisdom deserves a wider hearing. “I have already had some bad job situations,” he said, “being thrown in ‘over my head,’ left to ‘sink or swim.’ This time when I was asked to take on a new responsibility both at work and church, I said, ‘I will not take this on without a mentor!’”

Chris was not asking for an answer person, someone to tell him what to do. Rather, being a mentor, for him and for me, means a person or persons, experienced in the field, able to listen, ask good questions, look at options, affirm when appropriate—all within a presence that is non-judgmental, as unconditional caring as possible

No one told me as I was leaving seminary, “Remember, Mahan, don’t try this ‘wild ride’ of ministry without a mentor or two!” Yet strangely, within the seminary, both from professors and more seasoned peers, I did receive mentoring. So, I am puzzled why such relationships don’t become the norm for ministry after seminary. Puzzling indeed.

It was up to me to figure out pastoral ministry. Oh, there were relevant books and conferences galore. There were lots of folks out there trying to help us. (Now I am one.) But it was my job, largely alone, to sort the chaff from the grain. I recall the loneliness of coming back to the church after a stimulating conference, looking at the computer screen of e-mails, each noting a message to answer or visits to make, wondering, “Now, how can I translate what I have just learned to this situation or that situation?” After all, I should know. It’s up to me to make sense of this work.

But I sense a tide turning.

Often mentoring is subtle, more informal, as in one pastor calling another on the phone, “Heh, Mary, have you got a minute to give me your response to where I am going with my sermon?” Or, “John, we are trying to do our budget differently this year. Have you got a moment to tell me what process works for you and your folks? If not now, when can we talk?” Or, “Heh, Pat, I need your help. When you have about 30 minutes could I talk with you about a conflict that’s driving me crazy? I need a fresh set of eyes and ears.” There has always been mentoring between friends over coffee or lunch or internet. Some are “soul friends,” also wagering their lives on the Mystery, God’s passion for justice and mercy. I like to think that such mentoring is becoming more intentional.

This tide is finding expression in more structured ways: consultation, spiritual direction, coaching, personal therapy. Plus, note the explosion of interest in peer, collegial groups. Some clergy are reaching that point where the resource of mutual, collegial mentoring is essential, not optional. AnamCara is one example (if interested visit my website for further information,

If there is a rising tide here, this may be a factor: With the growing complexity, anxiety, and uncertainty occurring in our culture, and regularly brought to church, the breakdown and breakthrough may happen faster. I heard within myself, and now hear increasingly from pastors—“I cannot do this by myself, even with well honed skills. I cannot sustain the intensity of pastoral ministry. I need God, God’s power, energy, spirit, passion, grace. And I need mentoring relationships.”

Or as Chris put it, “I will not take this on without mentors!”