Conferences Begin Adding Group Mentoring

Tita Parham
In a River of Life exercise, participants at the group mentoring training in Atlanta, Ga., sketched out their faith journeys on a cross laid out on the floor. The green notes represented areas of change or new growth where they believed God was calling them to. Photo by Nancy Lown.

Every summer at annual conferences across The United Methodist Church, candidates for ministry are ordained, licensed, and commissioned.

For some, the journey to that point was a confusing process. For others, a very long one — taking a decade or more to complete.

In 2008, the Commission on the Study of Ministry was charged with studying ordained ministry within The United Methodist Church and making recommendations based on its findings. That included reviewing the candidacy process and determining ways it could be streamlined.

The commission’s research revealed some consistent challenges across the denomination: misunderstanding among candidates about the process, too few gifted mentors to guide candidates, inconsistency in the candidacy experience.

One solution, the commission said, was group mentoring. Delegates to the 2012 General Conference, the top lawmaking body of the church, agreed. Now, conferences are beginning to incorporate group mentoring into the process.

The Rev. Emily Oliver, associate director of Clergy Excellence for the Florida Conference, says it’s making a difference in Florida. Group mentoring began there in January 2010.

Candidates, she says, now know what they should be doing at each step and follow the plan together, working with trained mentors who feel called to the role.

“They really like that there’s a standard plan laid out for when you start, what you do in each session, and if you follow the plan, you know every step you need to take and when you will finish the process,” she said. “And they really like the collegiality of doing it together in a group rather than feeling like you’re all out there on your own.” In Florida, candidates begin the process in either January or July. Two mentors work with each of the conference’s nine districts during each six-month cycle, with an average of six candidates per district. If a district has more candidates, two additional mentors are recruited to start another group.

Candidates first attend an orientation retreat where they meet their mentors. They then meet in their mentoring groups six times over the next four months. The next step is an interview with their district Committees on Ordained Ministry to be certified as candidates for ministry so they can continue working toward licensing or ordination.

The benefits of group mentoring are many, Oliver says.

“When it was individual, you could just start any time, and it would go as quickly or as slowly as you and your mentor were able to get together,” she said. “There was no set number of meetings, no set topics to discuss. You just kind of did your own program.”

Any candidates who need more time to discern their call may have it, Oliver said, “but for those who are clear about their call and know where they are headed, [group mentoring] lets them meet those requirements in a timely manner so they can then move on to seminary or to the next steps in the process.”

And without the pressure of finding a mentor for each candidate, the conference is able to select clergy who feel called to the task.

“That’s one of the main things they do aside from pastoring their church is serve as a mentor, so it’s not just one more thing on their list,” Oliver said. “It really is their calling and their focus, and they’re really able to put a lot of effort into it.”

Being in a group setting and hearing other people’s experiences also helps candidates clarify their call, Oliver says. She recalled one candidate who began the process because he was very active in his church and felt becoming a pastor was the logical next step.

But when he heard other candidates share their experience of being called and retreat leaders reiterate that being a lay person is a calling, too, he realized he was not meant to be in full-time ministry.

“So for him to really be able to come to the retreat and hear that message [that] being a lay person is a valid calling, we thought that was really successful,” Oliver said.

Entré to change

Many annual conferences are just beginning the group mentoring process, and training offered by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry July 31-Aug. 3 this year at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, Ga., is helping them get started.

“The thing that I was very happy with was that 32 annual conferences attended the training event, which is more than half of all the annual conferences,” said the Rev. Meg Lassiat, GBHEM’s director of Candidacy, Mentoring, and Conference Relations.

Participants included members of ordained ministry boards, people involved in recruitment and discernment, district superintendents, and annual conference staff members.

A key part of the training was learning about VocationCARE, a social and spiritual process for discerning Christian vocation. It was developed by the Fund for Theological Education, an ecumenical organization that has been working since 1954 to identify and support young people who are interested in leadership positions in the church.

Lassiat says conferences may use VocationCARE in conjunction with Fulfilling God’s Call: Guidelines for Ministry, the United Methodist curriculum for candidates.

CARE refers to four practices: creating space, asking self-awakening questions, reflecting together theologically, and enacting the next faithful step.

The practices, Lassiat said, provide a spiritual framework for candidates entering group discussions about spirituality or discerning God’s call. “They have specific suggestions, such as how to listen very deeply to people and ask self-awakening questions that help the discerner listen for God’s voice and take the next step,” she said.

Training participants spent one day working through the first three practices. On the second day, they focused on the fourth and were asked “to imagine how those practices would be integrated into. . . the candidacy mentoring as it occurs within each of those conferences,” said the Rev. Jim Goodmann, the Fund for Theological Education’s director of Congregational Grants.

Goodmann says the United Methodist curriculum and VocationCARE reinforce that “somebody in candidacy is not just on their own.”

“They’re invited to think of their spiritual journey as not just their journey … but as connected to the movement of the Spirit. They’re connected to a community of discernment,” he said. “Not just taking … seriously the elements of discernment that ‘Fulfilling God’s Call’ visits, but also connecting it to a larger communal practice that VocationCARE indicates.”

The Rev. John Edd Harper, coordinator of the Louisiana Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, attended the training and said he plans to incorporate elements of VocationCARE and ideas he learned from other conferences into his conference’s group candidacy process.

Harper said he will soon be presenting the group mentoring plan, which is similar to the Florida Conference’s process, to his conference’s new bishop, with hopes of implementing it next year.

He agrees with Oliver about group mentoring’s benefits. He says it will help standardize the mentoring experience and expedite the candidacy process, making it more accountable.

“Hopefully, it will give better trained mentors that have a passion to make this happen,” he added. “It will also give people that are going through the candidacy process other people to talk to and bounce ideas off of.”

His ultimate hope, he said, is that mentors “are going to be so committed that they will give these mentees an excellent mentoring process.”

Despite those benefits, he says, there will be some resistance. He’s anticipating concerns about candidates who want to start the process after the mentoring cycle has started or need more one-on-one mentoring. He says some believe group mentoring is impersonal. Harper says leaders will evaluate the plan in progress and make adjustments as necessary.

Lassiat says the process across the denomination is “not perfect yet by any means.”

“But in a case like Florida where they are able to engage highly gifted mentors and move candidates through the candidacy process in a timely way, they’ve gotten positive feedback both from candidates and the mentors.”

* Parham is a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.

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