Eleven years ago, I stood in the pulpit of a dying church. Despite an expansive building, the worship area was mostly empty as I preached the installation service for Rich Shadden. After serving three years as a pastoral intern in the church where I pastored, he was ready to leave the nest for the challenge of pastoral ministry. He and his wife had prayed often about doing revitalization work in a church in our community. Now the prayer moved to reality, but with reality came a challenge bigger than he ever imagined.
Aside from guests to cheer on the day, most attending were senior adults. No sign of children or teenagers or young adults appeared, other than the friends who were visiting. Rich had no idea that over the next three years, he would preach over forty funerals while navigating traditions that had left the church with little spiritual life. Having pastored since the late seventies, I knew he would have some tough battles to see the church shepherded to spiritual vitality.
Fast-forward eleven years to January 2023. I stood again to preach, but this time to a mixed generation, multiethnic congregation meeting in the church’s chapel instead of the vast, nearly empty auditorium. Instead of choruses and a couple of stanzas of a few hymns unrelated to the theme of the service, we sang theologically rich hymns, interspersed with Scripture reading, confession of sins, and pastoral prayer. Looking over the audience, I saw attentiveness to the exposition of Scripture and appreciation for the application addressed to the church.
After the service, many of those present gathered for a meal followed by a question-and-answer time that I led. Their questions demonstrated an understanding of the gospel’s centrality in the whole of their lives. Particularly, they asked about the church’s mission and how the body could embrace it, as well as their ongoing sanctification. They posed questions that likely would not have been thought of eleven years before.
The Journey Between the Two Sundays
What kind of pastoral experiences has Rich faced? Difficulties and joys. Times of despondency and times of elation. Opposition, apathy, misunderstandings, financial deficits, leadership quandaries, and crusty traditions made the first half of these years painful. Yet, he persevered in preaching the Word, praying, and shepherding the flock. In God’s mercy, the church moved from lethargic gatherings to those full of life. Youthful zeal and sage reverence had joined hands to serve Christ in their community.
Along the way, I’ve had the privilege to observe the pastor and the congregation. Having mentored Rich prior to his first pastorate, the mentoring continued in a much different form once he started his new role. We were now peers in pastoral ministry, with experience on my side and the desire to see the church revitalized on his. We had countless conversations—sometimes in his study or mine, sometimes over a meal, often by phone calls, ample texts, and emails.
Many times I could hear the anguish in his voice and sense it in the texts and emails, generally prompting a call from me to talk things through. He described difficult challenges. Together, we discussed ways the Lord works in hard times for his glory. We prayed for the Lord to work in power. Throughout, we’ve both profited from the deep friendship and fraternal bonds in pastoral ministry, as well as the joy of seeing the Lord work in a needy congregation.
The Responsibilities of a Mentor
Rich and I know that lots of other pastors have relationships like ours. But we also know that many young pastors struggle because they do not have this kind of mentor-mentee, pastor-to-pastor relationship to help them walk through the hard times. That’s what we advocate for all pastors, young and old alike. It’s important for experienced pastors to build a relationship and encourage with a young pastor starting out in ministry.
Pastors juggle busy lives and often do not want to admit they need others. Yet the curtain of busyness often shrouds the pain and loneliness felt by a young pastor struggling to get through another day. An older pastor could encourage, offer counsel, and provide a listening ear as he attempts to work through the pastoral labyrinth.
Older pastors who have walked through the hard times and maintained joy in Christ have far too much to offer to sit on the sidelines while younger pastors struggle. As an older pastor, I imagine we sometimes think the younger brothers have no interest in hearing our stories or listening to our counsel. While some may take that tone, most that I’ve encountered deeply appreciate an older pastor taking time to invest in him. They’re longing to have a faithful man of God listen, sympathize, offer counsel, and especially tell them (when true), “You’re doing exactly what I would do. You’re being a faithful shepherd. Stay at it.”
When my wife and I drove home from this recent Sunday visit with Rich’s congregation, we reflected on the conversations we had enjoyed around the table. The comments from the members warmed our hearts, leading us to reflect on the installation Sunday eleven years ago, the many mentoring conversations I’d had with Rich along the way—times when it seemed the church would not survive, occasions where Rich wondered if he could stay another month, and now hearing congregants excitedly talk about doctrinal application and the church’s mission.
My hope is that older pastors will take initiative to shepherd the younger pastors the Lord has placed in their lives. The richness of fellowship, mutual encouragement, biblical discussion, times of prayer, and seeing the Lord work in a church once dying, leaves older and younger pastors filled with joy and wonder at how shepherding the pastor bears much fruit.
Shepherding the Pastor: help for the Early Years of Ministry
Many pastors feel isolated and helpless, especially those beginning pastoral ministry. Phil Newton and Rich Shadden know what this road is like, and they want to share what they have gained from pastoral mentoring—Rich, a young pastor receiving support and guidance from Phil, an older, more experienced shepherd.