My mentor and I met by accident, if there’s such a thing in a life of faith. We were invited to dinner at the home of some mutual Christian friends.
Peter had been a key leader in a local church that had experienced tremendous growth over the last 20 years. Fairview Louth Community Church began as a church plant in 1979, worshipping in an old school building on the outskirts of St. Catharines, with approximately 65 adult members and their children. During the first few years, they struggled to meet the annual operating budget of less than $150,000. Thirty years later, with a new name (Southridge Community Church) and a new location (a much larger old school building), the church has an average Sunday attendance of 1,500 (most of whom are young people) and an annual budget in excess of $2,000,000.
Four things attracted me to Peter as a mentor:
– the humility with which he shared the Southridge story —that the church’s transformation was due to the grace of God rather than to human knowledge or effort, or to some particular theology/ecclesiology;
– his track record in helping to lead a church to such effective packaging and presentation of the Gospel that people wanted to join the Christian community;
– his intimation that growing the church is not rocket science, doesn’t require big bucks or programs or staff, but rather Christ-centred, courageous leadership, a willingness to change, a commitment to becoming the kind of church our kids and grandkids want to be a part of (including the sacrifices required to make that happen);
– he didn’t pretend that this would be quick or easy or formulaic—there was not a simple five step program to propose.
By the time that initial dinner party ended, I’d decided to do two things: to invite Peter to St. John’s to glean his opinion on whether or not these bones could live; and to attend Southridge Community Church to experience what sounded so wonderful.
Together with our parish wardens and their spouses, I attended Southridge one Sunday. It was an experience I’ll never forget. The sermon was a profound message about our need to care more about what God thinks and less about what other people think. The music was wonderful—upbeat, alive, contemporary, led by volunteers who could be professional musicians. The 800 seat facility was packed (for the second time that morning) with people who were mostly a LOT younger than me.
There were a number of things I missed that morning. I missed a liturgy. I missed listening to passages of Scripture being read. I missed intercessory prayer as a community. I missed praying the Lord’s Prayer. Mostly, I missed the Eucharist. However, I realized that it didn’t have to be one or the other—that I could learn from what Southridge was doing to attract and nurture people in a relationship with Jesus Christ, without having to forego much of what I love most about our church.
I approached Peter about helping our church re-start. We agreed to meet for breakfast weekly. He generously invited me to attend a Leadership Conference as his guest. We agreed that our church leaders needed to be on board with seeking a new direction, including being willing to sacrifice and change to make that happen. I invited members of the congregation who were keen to see the church grow to form a team called ‘Navigate the Growth’ and Peter agreed to attend our monthly meetings.
Over the past three years, we’ve watched our church come to life. We have grown according to every indicator you can imagine: worship attendance, financial contributions, individual spiritual growth, number of children and youth, a decreasing mean age, energy, vision, joy, pastoral care, outreach, sense of mission.
At the risk of cramping the Holy Spirit’s style, I am convinced that we could not have accomplished what we have at St. John’s without Peter serving as a mentor to our leadership team and to me.
Here is why Peter’s mentoring has been so vital:
Experience. Countless times, as we’ve faced a new challenge, crisis, experiment, Peter’s been able to guide me because he’s seen the movie before. His proven track record means that I trust his advice in a way that I would never trust the judgment of someone who hadn’t walked this road before. So often, the specifics of the situation are different, but the learning that Peter had already done in another context was entirely transferable.
Objectivity. As someone from outside our parish and outside the Anglican tradition, Peter is often able to help me to look at things differently, to consider other angles, to consider more options.
Encouragement. I’ve had the courage to try things because Peter has been there to point out what could be important, what could make a difference in the project and reassure me that the place wouldn’t blow apart. He has helped me pace change so that people know we’re changing without moving so fast that we leave people in our dust.
Wisdom. Peter has encouraged patience when I thought things weren’t progressing quickly enough; courage when I would have backtracked or caved; boundaries when I’ve been tempted to over function. He has guided me to focus on preaching and pastoral care, and allow the other members of the Body to function as variously gifted ministers. I’ve been reminded of what’s important (preaching, relevance, how involved youth are) and what’s not (kind of building, the way we’ve always done things, keeping everyone happy). I’ve learned the lesson of not moving too fast, before I had resources at hand to launch a new initiative. Peter has also introduced me to resources like Willowcreek’s Global Leadership Summit, books, and other clergy.
Intentionality. I have learned to pause weekly to ask where we are, how we are, and where we are going.
I recently read a story of a young woman who was competing in a high level cross country race. At the end of the qualifying run, she was elated to hear that her time had been good enough to take her to the next level. But then the officials disqualified her.
Because in the last few hundred yards of the race, one of her teammates was cheering her on from the sidelines, running alongside her and screaming words of encouragement as she pushed her way up the final hill to the finish line.
It turned out that having a pacer run alongside you gives you an unfair advantage. A committed mentor has been that cheerleader for me. Peter’s role has undoubtedly given me an advantage, running alongside me to say: “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Cathie Crawford Browning is rector of St. John’s Anglican Church, Thorold, Ont.