A Path of Support and Discovery: Mentoring for Formation Leaders


“Do you really want me? I do not have any experience.”

Have you approached someone about becoming a formation leader and heard this response? Have you ever said or thought this in your formation ministry? Getting started as a new formation leader can be intimidating as well as exciting. New leaders can feel inadequate and ill-equipped, and they may not be able to recognize the gifts that they can bring to their ministries. One way to affirm and empower new leaders is through mentoring.

What Mentoring Is and Isn’t

A mentoring relationship offers a healthy pathway of support for an emerging leader. It enables an experienced leader’s wisdom and a new leader’s fresh perspective to come together and to generate enthusiasm and joy for ministry. Mentoring can help new leaders grow personally and vocationally and prepare them for the future of formation ministry.

Mentoring at its best has these features:

  • A two-way learning experience – A mentor does not pour what they know into a new leader’s head. Both mentor and mentee learn from one another. A mentor receives insights and creativity from the mentee while the mentee draws upon the mentor’s well of experience.
  • Conversation shaped around the ministry context and content – Mentoring is not spiritual direction, therapy, pastoral care, or a friendly chat. It involves intentional conversations focused on the new leader’s ministry.
  • Appreciation for discovery on a shared journey – A mentor listens more than they speak, reflects more than they describe, and ask questions more than they prescribe. A mentee wonders aloud, learns important history from the mentor, discovers multiple approaches to an issue, and decides on a way forward designed for this program with these learners. A mentor accompanies a new leader on a path to discover a new ministry. The journey always matters.

Mentoring in Action

Imagine a new youth leader who is excited for the first youth group meeting. An experienced leader as mentor can help the new leader as mentee design the first meeting to be engaging for the participants and to build trust in the group. After the youth group meeting, the mentor and mentee can debrief by reflecting together. They may talk about what went well, what the new leader learned about the youth, what surprises arose, and what skills the new leader may need to develop. The mentor may ask questions like “Where are there missed opportunities to connect?” and suggest ways the new leader can be less directive or more directive, listen more or ask more questions.

One-on-one Mentoring

The most familiar form of mentoring involves intentional one-on-one conversations between an experienced leader as mentor and new leader as mentee. Mentoring conversations offer a safe place to ask questions, test ideas, reflect on relationships, and learn from mistakes.

Here is a tested pattern for an effective one-hour mentoring conversation:

1. Prayer

The mentor and mentee gather and designate their meeting as a sacred learning space with a few minutes of silent prayer, Lectio Divina, or reading a quote together.

2. Discussion of a Focus Topic

The mentor invites the mentee to determine the focus of the conversation. The mentor can ask the simple question, “What is the important thing we should talk about today?” The mentee can share a question or situation that they have prepared in advance to discuss. Topics can include a mistake, a recent conversation, or talking through ideas for a new children’s worship, for example, or planning a youth pilgrimage. The focus is always on the mentee’s immediate learning needs.

3. Accountability and Goal-setting Discussion

The mentee and mentor talk about the goals and implementation of those goals to which the mentee has committed. The mentor might ask these questions: “What went the way you planned?”; “What went wrong?”; and “What did you learn?”

4. Thanksgivings

The mentor and mentee conclude their meeting by naming the places of gratitude for their mutual learning during the meeting.

Discernment Questions for Getting Involved in Mentoring

For formation leaders who may be wondering about becoming a formation ministry mentor or mentee, these reflection questions can be a helpful starting point for discernment.

For those considering being a mentor:

  • Can you commit to the personal and vocational growth of a mentee?
  • Will you seek resources to deepen your understanding of effective mentoring?
  • Can you commit to regular meetings with a mentee?
  • Do you practice asking open-ended questions?

For those considering being a mentee:

  • Can you be a lifelong learner?
  • Are you open to learning from the experience of your context?
  • Do you have a teachable spirit? Are you ready to learn from a companion with more experience than you have now?

Gaining Clarity, Finding Joy

Mentoring opens new pathways into the ministry of formation and creates joy-filled leaders. It is an opportunity for formation leaders to give and find support, to know that they are not alone, and to develop sustainable formation ministries for today and tomorrow.

My most rewarding experience throughout 23 years of mentoring new leaders is sweeping away the dust of assumptions, confusion, and habits that cloud leaders’ clarity. With clarity their leadership in formation ministry emerges with creativity and excitement.

If you would like to talk further about how to get started in a mentoring relationship, you can contact Lifelong Learning. We will answer your questions, walk you through the steps of identifying mentors or mentees, and share resources for beginning and building upon mentoring conversations.

Featured image is by Edgar on Unsplash

  • Carol Pinkham Oak (she/her/hers)

    The Rev. Carol Pinkham Oak, D.Min. has been mentoring new clergy for 23 years. As part of an ecumenical cohort of congregations awarded the prestigious Lilly Endowment, Inc. Grant “Transition into Ministry,” she developed the gold standard program for leadership formation with new clergy. Over three subsequent Lilly Grants, Carol refined the one-on-one and peer mentoring process. During this time Carol served as the Associate Rector at Christ Church, Alexandria, VA and the Rector of St. John’s Ellicott City. In both parishes Carol established a leadership formation process by reflecting on parish ministry as peers across all levels of ministry practice. She “rewired” her ministry in 2016 to further develop her mentoring practice and resources.


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