“I Learned the Hard Way”: Mentoring at South Woods Baptist


I wish I could tell you that it was my earliest pastors who taught me to pastor.

Yet my earliest mentors in my home church were several godly couples. The pastor himself was decidedly a-theological, more concerned with denominational programs than teaching the Bible or engaging people with the gospel. He didn’t offer any example even after several friends and I declared our interest in gospel ministry.

When I began my first church staff position as a college sophomore, I had little understanding of biblical ministry. My new pastor offered no help either. The Lord gave me enough discernment to see that something wasn’t quite right about his evangelistic methodology, along with his lack of pastoral care. I learned what not to do rather than what to do in ministry.

The next staff position was better since it provided many opportunities for fruitful service. The pastor gave me plenty of time with him and chances to preach and teach. Yet his work ethic and pulpit ministry left something to be desired. Again, I saw things modeled that I knew should not follow me into pastoral ministry.


My own poor experiences left me burdened to help biblically shape others, once I got on solid footing myself. The Lord brought godly men at various points to encourage me and shape my thinking. I also found help for mentoring in the lives of the prophets, the ministry of Christ with his disciples, 2 Timothy 2:2, and the Pauline missionary journeys. Each example nudged me toward serving my younger fellow ministers.

I am now in my fourth pastorate, and each one has helped me learn things that I could have been taught through good mentoring. Along the way, I have talked with older pastors to get counsel. They patiently mentored me. In my third pastorate, a retired pastor joined our church and became a confidant and guide through many difficult times. His friendship and sage advice gave me an increased desire to do the same for younger men.


In my present pastorate at South Woods Baptist Church, I approach my own practice of pastoral mentoring both formally and informally. Formal mentoring has two branches. First, we offer pastoral internships. The ministry student begins by spending one summer with our church, which sometimes branches out to spending over a year with us.

An intern’s syllabus includes

  • reading,
  • writing reviews and papers on the various aspects of ministry,
  • developing an expositional series through an epistle,
  • preaching two or three times with critique by the elders,
  • meeting with pastor/staff and elders,
  • observing the church’s teaching ministry,
  • attending committee meetings,
  • sitting in on pastoral counseling,
  • and making pastoral calls.

Upon completion of phase one, the intern might be invited back for a more intensive summer focusing on ten weeks of expositional preaching, teaching, critiquing, ministry dialogue, and the regular demands of pastoral work.

I also do formal mentoring with staff members. I remember serving on church staffs hoping one day to work as a senior pastor. I trust the same is true of some of my present staff. Therefore, I should always model pastoral ministry for them. Every decision made, person engaged, sermon preached, and attitude displayed sets the tone for the future ministry of those under my charge. Even in casual conversation, I realize that I must give no cause for offense or discredit the high calling of pastoral work.

Along with modeling pastoral ministry, I also try to assign men with tasks that will prepare them for the demands that they will face as a senior pastor. That might involve particular preaching assignments or administrative duties that will teach them how to take care of the details of ministry. When a staff member preaches, my fellow elders or I discuss the sermon with him to help strengthen areas that need refining. I also try to include staff in my discussions involving plans and people, especially giving attention to honing rough edges in handling relationships.

One of the most important things that I can do for staff is to help them understand the diversity in the body of Christ and how to work patiently with all sorts of people. If I can model servant-ministry to them, I think it sticks in their minds as they move to serving beyond our congregation.


Informal mentoring takes place throughout the week by phone, email, and face-to-face conversations. A number of young men in our church have indicated a call to ministry. They are in preparation stage, with some attending seminary while remaining active in our church. Though my interactions with them includes formal discussions about preaching, hermeneutics, pastoral work, and so forth, most of my instructive interaction with them is spontaneous, as I try to seize appropriate moments to teach, instruct, counsel, and give direction.

These opportunities abound! Maybe it’s taking a few moments to instruct a brother on how to lead the Lord’s Supper. Maybe it’s talking about publicly reading Scripture and then giving someone a chance to do so. Or maybe it’s an email on resources for sermons or interpretation questions.


One missionary friend calls this “investing in people.” At first, I thought this was a strange term to use for people. But the more I observed him and thought about my own ministry, the more I realized that “investing” is what we’re doing by helping others prepare for ministry. The yield isn’t immediate or even direct, but it will come.

Phil Newton

Phil A. Newton serves as director of pastoral care and mentoring for the Pillar Network after pastoring for 44 years, the last 35 at South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which he planted in 1987.

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