Mentoring young leaders

From time to time I have a conversation with a colleague who just needs to blow off a bit of steam. I can help by allowing them to diffuse a bit with me and sometimes redirect their emotions to a more productive expression. Not long ago the administrator of a small non-profit in our community expressed a long list of complaints to me. The complaints were familiar, because i’ve felt some of the same pressures. Non-profits are under a lot of pressure these days with decreasing revenues and support from government grants and changes in tax laws. This particular person has been working long days, had deferred days off and vacations, and was truly putting a great deal of effort into making things work. I could understand some of the emotions because I often respond to troubles by working harder and putting in more hours.

However, I tried to counsel this particular individual to take more responsibility for self care. I asked, “Who is making you work these long hours? Who told you you couldn’t have vacation?” I inquired about the board and who in the organization was providing support for the individual. I was trying to help the person assume some responsibility for the situation and see ways in which changes could be affected. I’m not sure I was successful. I think the person is so caught up in a particular style of leadership that it is hard to see a way out.

Professional burn out is a real phenomenon. I’ve witnessed it in a lot of my colleagues, both in the church and in other organizations. The call to service isn’t always accompanied by a living wage. It isn’t always accompanied by a supportive board of directors. It isn’t always accompanied with predictable days off and generous vacations.

I was contrasting this in my mind with a young person I know, someone about the same age as the non-profit administrator, who works for a for-profit company in our town. This particular individual was recovering from a major illness and told me about how the employer had really gone above and beyond expectations to provide support during the illness. This particular person also had a significant amount of vacation that had been saved up which aided in the need to be away from work to recover from the illness. I know such support does not exist for the non-profit administrator should the need arise.

This world isn’t always fair. Jesus said, “If anyone would follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” My career certainly has not involved that depth of sacrifice. I have worked for congregations who have supported me generously, provided a living for my family, given me vacations and days off, and treated me well. But there have been plenty of long days and plenty of lonely times when I have felt like I didn’t have the support I expected.

Being a professional involves developing patterns of self care. Pastors need to learn how to take time for prayer and study and devotion. We need to learn to work with others and enable others to become engaged in ministries. We need to have patience for the congregations we serve and be willing to understand the busy and complex lives of the people who are a part of the church. There are times when we have to put the needs of others ahead of our own.

The church has changed dramatically in the span of my career. When we began our ministry, there were a host of rural congregations who could afford to provide housing and a basic salary for a starting minister. They were places where we gained experience without all of the pressures of a larger congregation. In addition, many of my peers began their ministries as the second or third pastor in a multiple-pastor staff, with mentors and guides for the early days of their ministries. The high cost of health insurance combined with high debt of students after four years of undergraduate school and an additional three years of graduate education means that a lot of those congregations can no longer afford the price of those pastors. With fewer jobs and more competition, pastors find themselves struggling in more challenging positions with less support.

Despite knowing all of this, I admit that I often am a bit short of patience with the complaints of some of my younger colleagues. From the beginning of my ministry, I made a commitment to not complain about the congregations I serve. When I am with my colleagues, I report the best qualities of the congregation and tell stories of our successes. So I have become a bit short with the practice of some pastors of always complaining about their situations. Still, plenty of my colleagues seem to feel safe telling me about their troubles.

A new generation of leadership will lead in new ways. And I know that there are many in the younger generation of pastors who have deep commitment and care a great deal. This is also true of those who are serving in non-profits outside of the church. There is good leadership begin provided by millennials and those who are younger. But they won’t be doing things the way we did. The world has changed. Their education and training is different.

I feel honored to have moved into the role of a sometimes-trusted elder who can listen when the complaints crop up. I can help diffuse my colleagues and give them energy for what I hope will be a lifetime of service. In the meantime, I will occasionally be biting my tongue and holding back the most cynical of my comments. I try to avoid “you think you’ve got it rough!” and “You young people don’t know what we went through.” It is all part of the responsibility of being a mentor to younger leaders. And I can be impressed with their knowledge and skills and encourage them to express their best in their lives.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!