This month, NEXT Church is highlighting passionate leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who are committed to equipping and supporting new pastors, alongside those up-and-coming leaders with whom they have connected or mentored. Read all the posts here. Click here to join the conversation on Facebook.
By Bob Henderson
“You have gray hair!” she exclaimed joyfully, extending her arms to offer a warm embrace.
It wasn’t exactly the greeting I expected, at least not the first part.
It happened last week at Montreat. I drove up Assembly Drive, looked to the left to check for signs of life at the home of Walter and Jeane Jones, just in case they were in town for the same conference. They were, and when I dropped in, Jeane greeted me with characteristic warmth.
“It’s so good to see you. It’s almost late enough for a glass of wine. Come on, sit on the porch. We’ll start early.”
We sat and caught up on friends, family, and laughed about what we call our “halcyon days” of ministry, five years good years together at Eastminster Presbyterian in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Our relationship began when I was called to serve as an associate pastor for congregational care where Walter served as senior pastor. I was straight out of seminary, young, idealistic, and energetic. But, I was also inexperienced (yes, I almost dropped the baby during my first baptism), regularly impatient, and more than occasionally arrogant. The truth is that our “halcyon days” were because Walter made them that way. He was patient with my hubris, generous with opportunities for growth, and modeled for me a ministry of integrity and self-sacrifice. In other words, he was a mentor, so much so that during the past 21 years, I have often thought, “How would Walter approach this situation?” and occasionally picked up the phone to ask him.
Now that I have my own gray hair, gratitude for Walter’s investment has led me to invest in others, hoping, perhaps, to pay forward the gift given to me in those early years. To that end, my present congregation, Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte, has begun a pastoral residency program, hired seminary interns, called young associates, and sent numerous of our members to seminary. As I’ve interacted with those launching into a life of ministry, I’ve paused to consider what made Walter so effective.
Five themes emerged:
- He enjoyed our time together. When I think of my time with Walter, I envision him smiling, laughing, and taking delight, even in my ineptitude. He derived genuine pleasure from my company and treasured the gift of sharing ministry;
- He was patient. When I began at Eastminster, I had a lot of adjusting to do. I’d been married a whole week, out of school a whole month, and lived in town a whole day. I didn’t know how ministry worked, how marriage worked, how Atlanta worked. Somehow, Walter remained patient through my learning curve, even when the demands on his own time were considerable and he would have benefited from a more experienced associate.
- He was humble. His experience as a naval officer, graduate student academic dean, minister, parent and spouse helped him know what he didn’t know. On the contrary, when I came out of seminary I knew a lot – in fact, a whole lot more than I know now – and he tempered my youthful hubris with his experienced humility.
- He created time. Growing churches are always behind on staffing and pressed for time. And yet, I could always ask, visit, talk and check in when needed. He prioritized my success and made himself available to foster it.
- He maintained integrity. His advice was grounded in the moral authority of his actions. His ends and means cohered. This was, perhaps, the greatest gift. He lived the life to which he called others and reminded me that more than anything, people want their pastor to be a person of genuine faith.
There’s more, of course, but to be mentored by someone with those five principles was a gift beyond price. Even more, it was an investment in the future that has paid dividends for decades, and it’s now my turn to pay it forward, hopefully by treating others with similar grace and wisdom.
Bob Henderson is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC.