Mentors, Part 5: Wisdom Bearer Extraordinaire

The Ministry Life Choices Initiative (MLCI) will assist those in years 1-5 of ministry with developing habits and practices for sustainable ministry. The relationship will span the first few years of theological education and the introductory years as a congregational minister. The MLCI is a ministry of the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in partnership with Lexington Theological Seminary.

The MLCI blog series, launched January 15, 2014, is designed to promote conversation surrounding issues related to clergy health and well-being. The blog seeks to include and incorporate writers from a wide variety of ministerial contexts, seminaries and demographics.

This fourth installment of the blog series, begun April 9th, reflects on the practice of mentoring as a means to overall health and well-being.

Dr. Wayne Bell

Dr. Wayne Bell

Clergy Health and Well-being: Mentors, Part 5: Wisdom Bearer Extraordinaire
by the Rev. Joanne VerBurg, retired Disciples pastor and LTS alum

It was 1974. It had been less than two years since we first said hello, yet the time had come to say goodbye.

I stood in the doorway of his office gazing at a man of grand stature, Dr. Wayne H. Bell.  After completing 14 years as Sr. Minister of Vine Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Nashville, TN, Wayne was called to be the President of Lexington Theological Seminary. I couldn’t have been prouder, but was quick to let him know that I was already secretly plotting to somehow get even with him for leaving me so soon after I began serving Vine Street as the Minister of Education.

(I succeeded in “getting even” by enrolling at LTS a few years after he became President!)

I was new to ministry and new to the Disciples of Christ, and in our brief time together he had become my touchstone for any and all aspects of ministry. While confident in what I had learned and experienced about church programming from my educational pursuits, I quickly discovered that I had so much more to learn about ministry.

I knew from the first hello that he was going to be the best mentor in ministry anyone could ever have.

Wayne taught me about the importance of being “fully” prepared for any task in ministry. Right down to the most minute detail, he offered practical advice like remembering to look where you are about to sit, lest you sit down on a box of pencils and call too much attention to yourself!  Or make sure the words to the Lord’s Prayer and the Words of Institution are taped to the back of the cross, knowing that the most familiar of words during Communion can escape your memory at any given moment. He was also quick to add how it isn’t necessary to know everything about the building, i.e. setting thermostats, how to fill the baptistery, how to run the dishwasher, etc.  When you know how to do these things other people let you do them!

It’s a huge understatement when I say I have learned so much by his example.

Wayne was, and continues to be, a wisdom-bearer, bearing witness to his love of God, his belief in Jesus the Christ and faithfulness to his teachings, and his commitment to the Disciples of Christ and its quest for not only Christian unity but for finding common ground within other faith traditions. Very much on the frontline of social justice issues, Wayne was found at the heart of the civil rights movement within the community, leading the congregation through those turbulent years, guided by faith, arriving at the understanding and belief that ALL people are welcome at the Table.

Early in my ministry I sought his wise counsel, something I continue to do to this very day.

Once I asked, “How does one discern when it’s time to leave a particular place of ministry?” He began by emphasizing the importance of first seeking God in prayer and meditation.  I then reminded him that I was one who looks for signs, physically or otherwise, and he indulged me.  “If you can get up most mornings, excited about some aspect of your ministry, then there is still work to be done there.  When you begin to lose that momentum, that excitement, perhaps the time had come to update your profile.  Regardless of whatever sign you receive, deep down, you WILL know…you will know….”

Another time, as I was weighing the pros and cons of long-term ministry, already being 12+ years in a former new church start, I again sought his advice.  He began by repeating his earlier wisdom related to knowing when  it’s time to go, and then added another layer of insight about the necessity of using the ensuing years for leadership development and congregational awareness of its mission and ministry.  Continuing to gain the trust of the congregation in response to one’s pastoral leadership helps to ensure the success and strength of these areas and enhances the overall health of the congregation, he reminded me.

Heeding his wisdom as I continued to serve Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the highly transient community of Cary, NC, for an additional 12 years, I was able to lay the groundwork for these nuggets of truth in leadership and congregational awareness of their mission and ministry. When I announced my retirement last August, one of my first conversations was with Wayne as he shared some helpful advice concerning interim ministry and my relationship with the Pension Fund.

The very day after cramming into my SUV the remnants of “stuff” the movers wouldn’t take, I headed down the highway toward my new retirement location at Christmount in Black Mountain, NC.  As I was driving, Wayne called and we talked for a long while.  His supportive words still ring in my ears, easing me into this thing called retirement.

I am grateful and will forever cherish his friendship, his loving and supportive spirit, his believing in me and preparing me to be a co-laborer in God’s Vineyard.