What I Didn’t Learn In Seminary: How to “Find” A Mentor

I was looking for a Methodist church closest to the movie theater.

Garden State had just opened at the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta, and I had booked a ticket for the earliest Sunday matinee’. If I wanted to attend a worship service, I’d have to find a church in the vicinity that offered an early service. When I did a web search for churches nearby the theater, the first site that appeared was Grace United Methodist Church. A few clicks later, my second Sunday in Atlanta was planned.

Two weeks into my first year of seminary, I had not yet ventured beyond the campus area and into midtown Atlanta. Since GPS was not yet a staple in cell phones or cars, I printed a map and directions down Ponce (a.k.a. Ponce de Leon Avenue—even I knew after only two weeks as a Georgian to call it only “Ponce”). I left the apartment early, just in case I got lost. The good news was that I didn’t get lost. The bad news was that I faced a church visitor’s worst fear.

I was early—for an early church service.

The band was still rehearsing when I walked into the fellowship hall. The greeters were sitting around a table, drinking coffee and talking. Two of them immediately rose from the table when they saw me. I don’t remember their names, but I do remember how naturally, grace-fully, they welcomed me. They poured a cup of coffee for me and introduced me to their friends. Before long, the room filled with people, and the service began. As the pastor stepped forward, I was intrigued.

He had just begun a series on the Nicene Creed, which I had to memorize for Church History class. I didn’t fall asleep during his sermon, but I’d already enjoyed a few naps in Church History.

He spoke with a gentle yet firm authority.

He was passionate about the Word he preached.

When the sermon ended and it was time to go to the movie theater, I was making plans to return the next Sunday.

Six years later, I knelt at a rail on the stage of the Jackson Convention Center. One by one, servants who have survived four years of college, three years of divinity school, three years of hands-on ministry, background checks, psychological examinations, interviews, essays, doubt, celebrations, thinking and re-thinking the decision, stepped forward to hear three words of the bishop:

Take the authority…

The day of my ordination had finally arrived, and the hands upon my head were as heavy as everyone told me they’d be.

Two of those hands belonged to Dr. John Beyers—the minister I’d met because he served a church near a movie theater.

When I left my apartment into the unknown of Atlanta that September morning, I was searching for specific destinations. What found me was a mentor.

I returned to “Grace on Ponce” each Sunday for two of the next three years. I listened to John the pastor as he carried confidence from the pulpit into the kindness of a conversation. I observed John the priest as he reverently poured baptismal water on the head of a child and delicately lifted the chalice of Holy Communion. I came to know him over the years not only as a minister I admired—but also as someone I could call on as a friend.

After graduating, I found myself as the pastor, priest, and “theologian in residence,” to use one of John’s favorite phrases, of a congregation. I did call often on John. I asked him to pray for me during difficult times. I sought his advice. Sometimes we would go for months without correspondence. But when I needed a mentor, he was there. When the time came that I was ordained to “take thou authority” in The United Methodist Church, one of the people I wanted next to me was the one who still spoke –and lived—the authority I’d heard in a fellowship hall years ago.

Seminary taught me a lot about ministry. One shelf in my office contains books on pastoral leadership, and every single one has a chapter about the meaning of “authority.” I learned the Old Testament meaning of “priest” and the New Testament definitions of “pastor” and “elder.” I am grateful for the case studies, conversations, essays, exams, and even the Church History classes that were hugely important in my theological training. The world of academia was not my sole training ground for life in the pulpit and around the table of a local church. Mentors like John taught me by example.

Paul often wrote to congregations with the command, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” He invited people to follow his example as he followed Christ’s example.* I am immensely grateful for all of the mentors God has brought, and continues to bring, into my life. Sometimes we were “assigned” to each other. Sometimes we “found” each other.

Through each other, God provides what we need when we need it. God provides whom we need when we need him or her. The finding often occurs when we’re seeking something else.

I first went to Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta because of a movie theater. I went back because of Dr. John Beyers and his hospitable parishioners. I keep returning to church not only because it’s where I work. I keep returning because we need each other—mentors to one another.

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian

* 1 Corinthians 11:1 (New International Version)

Dr. John Beyers now serves as the senior minister of Hillside United Methodist Church in Woodstock, Georgia. Their website is http://www.hillsideumc.org/ The website for Grace United Methodist Church of Atlanta is http://www.graceonponce.org/