Beyond bffs

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Beyond bffs

Teacher. Advocate. Coach. Friend.
Mentors do more than pat us on the back and send us on our way. Their investment in our lives opens doors we hadn’t seen and gives us confidence to go through them.
The following eight stories highlight very different kinds of mentorships, yet each points to their significant impact.

January 4, 2016 | Photos by nicole hoefer, tony yang, sarah swanson, phil ahne, & james tolbert

The Volunteers

—Darlene Rutherford & Ginny Ellis

When Ginny Ellis enrolled her ten-year-old son Kevin in a church day camp in 1980, she wasn’t a church attender. A Jewish friend had recommended the camp at Peninsula Covenant Church in Redwood City, California, telling her, “I tell my kids, just don’t listen when they talk about Jesus!”   

Kevin came home the first day full of excitement about his camp counselor. He loved the macramé class so much that he didn’t want to move on to the next learning station. So his counselor, Darlene Rutherford, “broke the rules” to let him keep working with her in macramé.

Midway through the week the parents were invited to visit, and Kevin dragged his mother over to meet Darlene, saying she had to meet the “macramé lady.” Darlene invited Ginny to bring her oldest son on Friday because, as it turned out, their boys were the same age. That was the beginning of a relationship that has continued for the past thirty-five years.

“It all came about because our pastor issued a challenge,” says Darlene. In a sermon he asked, “Would you be a fool for God?” In response, she resolved to do anything in order to let God use her. “That was my motivation to come alongside Ginny and her family. It was a stretch for me. It was not my normal pattern to do something like this,” she says.

At the time Ginny hadn’t been to church in more than a decade. But soon she was a regular attender at Peninsula Covenant. When she was invited to join a Bible study she began to learn more about faith. And she started asking questions. “It was hard for me to grasp why intelligent people would use such a simple formula to invite Jesus into their lives,” she says.

Through it all, Darlene listened. “Even when I was demanding and perhaps demeaning, she was patient with me,” Ginny says.

Just before Palm Sunday the following year, the two new friends spent the day together. Ginny was feeling anxious and nervous, and Darlene tried to reassure and comfort her. That night Ginny couldn’t sleep. She went into the family room and all night long she fought a personal battle wrestling with God. By morning she had written a poem that began, “I came late but the door was still open.”

“Although it took me a year before I gave my life to Christ, Darlene was with me every step of the way,” Ginny says. “I consider her my spiritual mother as she patiently shepherded me.”

Once she came to faith, Ginny was hungry for spiritual things. She wanted to soak up all of Darlene’s spiritual and life experiences. Their families spent holidays together. Even after Darlene’s family moved a few times all over the country, Ginny always came to visit.

“I may have been there to mentor Ginny spiritually,” Darlene says, “but we ended up helping each other. Ginny is a powerful woman with strong leadership skills. She was the head of the Junior League and gave speeches for hundreds of women. She was so opposite of me. She taught me a lot about assertiveness and leadership skills.”

Ginny went on to serve the church in various leadership roles. She served on the board of North Park University from 1995 to 2000. This past year when Ginny’s second husband died, Darlene walked alongside Ginny as she grieved.

“I must say I miss those heady days when I was a ‘baby’ Christian,” Ginny says, “but I look forward to the day in five years when I’ll be able to say that I’ve lived half my life as a Christian.”

“We ended up sharing life with one another,” says Darlene. “We do a lot of key things together and have this rich relationship. Our journey has been long and rich.”

The Church Planters

—Peter Ahn & Michael Carrion

In his role as interim director of church planting for the East Coast Conference, Peter Ahn visited Promised Land Covenant Church in the Bronx one Sunday where Michael Carrion serves as the founding pastor. “I saw areas where I thought Michael and his church could improve, so I emailed him a list of ways I thought he could make his Sunday worship experience better,” Peter says.

He explains that he gets all kinds of responses from church planters when he sends feedback like that. Sometimes his suggestions aren’t taken seriously, and he wondered if Michael would respond that way. “Michael is older than me and has more years of experience in ministry, so he easily could have had a chip on his shoulder about getting feedback from me. He could have questioned my ability to mentor him—which he would have had every right to do.” But to Peter’s surprise, Michael not only thanked him for the feedback but promised to implement the changes immediately. Within a few months Promised Land almost tripled in size.

When Michael first came to the Covenant, he suspected that the transition would challenge and change him. “I knew that the Lord was going to break me,” he says. “In those early days I could sense there was much for me to unlearn, reprocess, and relearn.” He was going through Covenant Orientation and working through what he believed missiologically and theologically. At that point he had already planted four churches and launched a charter school. “When I looked back over my life, I saw a lot that could have been different had I had a coach, mentor, and guidance. That truth in itself was a beautiful breaking and renewal process that ushered in a new season for my family and me as we integrated into the Covenant family.”

Peter was a big part of that welcome. “Peter has not only engaged, trained, and mentored me as a church planter and pastor, but he’s provided guidance, counseling, and executive level mentoring for all of the PLCC pastors and lay leaders by opening up his campus on a regular basis to train us alongside the Metro Campus staff,” Michael says.

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Peter Ahn (left), Michael Carrion (right)

Peter brings his own life lessons into the relationship. Eleven years ago he started Metro Community Church in Englewood, New Jersey, and he began to realize that he could support other like-minded pastors who are hungry to grow by sharing the lessons he has learned—mostly from his failures.

Five years ago, Peter almost quit ministry. He was traveling twice a month to speak at conferences, and when he was in town he was seldom home because ministry always took priority. Then one weekend pushed him to his limit. He was on retreat with his discipleship group, and had to leave at 3 a.m. Sunday in order to make it to church in time to set up at 7 a.m. (they are a portable church). After preaching two services, he went home and taught a newcomer’s class, then returned to his office to facilitate marriage counseling. “I left my office around 10:30 p.m., and I said these exact words: ‘I want to die,” he says. “The calling to be in ministry had become a curse.”

The elders at Metro encouraged him to take a three-month sabbatical. During that break, he picked up Peter Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. It transformed him. “Now, when I coach other pastors, I coach them not on church growth or Sunday worship but about becoming a healthy pastor.”

He explains that too many pastors leave ministry too soon either through burnout or moral failure. He sees other pastors sprinting through life, forgetting that ministry is a marathon. “If I can help one or two pastors not to burn out, then I feel like I’ve done my part in helping lead a new generation of pastors. It brings me joy when pastors fight the temptation of wanting people to spiritually lust after them because they are a bestselling author or an itinerant speaker. The greatest temptation that every pastor faces is not the things they lust after; rather, it’s the desire for people to lust after them.”

To that end, he arranged for Scazzero, along with Covenant pastor David Gibbons, to meet with the church planters he was supervising for personal, face to face coaching and mentoring sessions. Michael says the exposure to such prophetic voices has changed his worldview. “Mentoring is the cornerstone of how great leaders are forged and developed in every discipline,” he says. “An emerging leader needs to be mentored honestly, communally, and theologically. That is what it has been for PLCC and me to have Peter in my life as my coach, mentor, friend, and sounding board. He has become one of my best friends and really is a big brother to me in every sense of the word.”

Peter adds, “My hope and prayer for other pastors is to learn from my mistakes so they can flourish in every area of their life, and of course in their ministry.”

The Theologians

—Evelmyn Ivens & Armida Belmonte Stephens

Evelmyn Ivens was born in Mexico and moved to California as a teenager. She lived there for several years, graduating from college and working in nonprofits until she decided to move to Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in theological studies at North Park Theological Seminary. When she heard that theologian Virgilio P. Elizondo was coming to lecture on campus, she was eager to hear the priest who has been called the father of U.S. Latino religious thought.

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Evelmyn Ivens

When she met Armida Belmonte Stephens at the lecture, she says, “we just clicked.” Armida was teaching theology at the seminary, but the two hadn’t met before. They exchanged emails and not long after that, met for lunch, quickly discovering how much they had in common. Both are Mexican American, interested in the relationship between culture and theology. “We’re both pastor’s kids, speak Spanglish, and of course love Mexican food,” Evelmyn says. “Even though those points of connection may seem superficial, for me it was such a breath of fresh air. To find someone who understands me without having to explain my background was so liberating!”

For the next year they bonded over meals, discussing theology, politics, family and racial dynamics, and life in both the United States and Mexico—anything and everything. “The difference between mentors and friends is that mentors are more like an authority figure, but they use that authority in a loving way; mentors push you and are honest about your life decisions, but they also encourage you,” says Evelmyn. “Armida pushed me to think about continuing my education, and encouraged me about my writing. She helped me understand the importance of my voice.”

Evelmyn graduated from North Park Theological Seminary in 2013. She began an internship at the Christian Community Development Association, a nonprofit focused on restoring under-resourced communities. She now works for CCDA full-time and is considering doctoral work in religious studies at some point in the future.

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Armida Belmonte Stephens

Mentoring is really about collaboration, Armida explains. “Mentoring has the goal of nurturing what we call hermandad in Latino/a ecclesial communities—the bond of Christian sisterhood or brotherhood. There are too few women mentors in evangelical academic spaces, and fewer still Latinas in theological studies.”

Echoing the refrain that such relationships are both about giving and receiving, she adds, “Evelmyn is passionate and insightful, and it has been a joy to listen to her process theological perspectives and challenging social justice issues over a cup of coffee or a meal. I am excited to see her continued contributions to the church and the world.”

The Professionals

—Paul Backlund & Greg Crawford

The relationship between Greg Crawford and Paul Backlund began on a basketball court. In the late sixties, Greg, a future North Park hall-of-fame athlete, was an All-American forward on the college’s basketball team, and Paul, a recent graduate living in the Chicago area, would go back to campus for the games. “Greg was an amazing talent to watch on the court,” says Paul. They met through mutual friends and knew each other casually.

Paul was newly married and working for an insurance company when he was drafted to serve a two-year tour of duty in Vietnam. Upon his return to the States, he went back to the insurance company until his former sociology professor, Jim Broman, invited him to come work at City Colleges of Chicago. Soon Paul was helping to provide skills training for undereducated and underemployed residents on the near South Side of Chicago.

Greg had been working in marketing since he had graduated three years earlier. Paul knew he had roots in the community he was serving and would be an asset to their team, so he called and invited Greg to join City Colleges.

Working for Paul, “I learned to appreciate his professionalism, business acumen, and ability to work with individuals from different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and economic status,” Greg says. “I saw traits in him that I valued.”

As time passed, Paul gave Greg more and more responsibilities. When Chicago started a summer program to help increase employment opportunities for youth in the city, organizers came to City Colleges for help. Greg ended up coordinating the entire program.

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Greg Crawford (left), Paul Backlund (right)

“I probably poked and probed Greg to do a few things that were out of his comfort zone,” says Paul. “The summer program had him working with politicians, which he hadn’t done before, but he knew the community leaders because he grew up in that neighborhood.”

The two went separate ways for a few years until once again Paul called on Greg. Working as a senior executive for a marketing company, Paul hired Greg to breathe some life into an unprofitable unit of the company. Greg had never run a business before, but he understood the employer market and Paul provided guidance. “Greg was a quick learner. He knew enough to ask questions,” Paul says. “The primary way I mentored Greg was to have him shadow what I was doing. People had done that for me, so it was natural for me to do it for him.”

“Having a mentor meant having a trusted adviser,” Greg says. “There is a certain comfort level in knowing there is someone you can talk with and seek advice from, especially when that individual has had significant influence on your development as a professional and helped your career progress.”

Today Greg volunteers as a mentor and job skills workshop facilitator for Bridge Communities, a transitional housing program for homeless families in the county who are seeking to develop the skills to live self-sufficiently. As part of the outreach initiative at Naperville (Illinois) Covenant Church, Greg meets weekly with his client family to assist and monitor their efforts as they work on budget development, savings plan, debt reduction, financial literacy, self-esteem, emotional support, parental skills development, and healthy decision-making.

The Pastors

—Stanley Long & Bryan Murphy

“Spontaneous intentionality” is how Bryan Murphy describes his mentoring relationship with Stanley Long. “Much like parenting, most of what I’ve gotten from Pastor Long was ‘caught not taught.

When Bryan began attending South Bay Community Church in Fremont, California, seventeen years ago, he had no plans to go into ministry. He was working in the IT field in Silicon Valley.

Yet as time passed, he started to sense a call, and Stanley, who founded SBCC in 1985 and had served as its pastor ever since, became an invaluable source of wisdom and guidance. Eventually Bryan came to work at the church as associate pastor.

The two established a formal mentoring relationship when Bryan was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary pursing his MDiv. They started meeting regularly. “That was really just an extension of the investment he was already pouring into me,” says Bryan. “Long after the field ed requirement was fulfilled, to this present day, Pastor Long is still my primary resource for pastoral wisdom and advice.”

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Bryan Murphy (left), Stanley Long (right)

When he was still a part-time staff minister, Bryan would sit in staff meetings, asking lots of questions, observing his mentor, and trying to understand not only what he did but why he did it.

“As I got closer to readiness for a ministry call, Pastor Long would intentionally pull me aside for ‘mentoring moments’ to help me gain experience and perspectives that I might have missed on my own,” says Bryan. “Those interactions were incredibly valuable.”

In 2010, Bryan became lead pastor of SBCC. “It was painful to step down,” Stanley says, “but I had to keep telling myself that the church was not mine. I was just an instrument in the hands of God.” He recognizes the uniqueness of their situation. “It is tough following a founding pastor who has been serving for twenty-five years,” Stanley says. “I bought a shepherd’s staff and in the installation service publicly passed it on to Bryan. It was a very symbolic and moving moment. It was so hard to hold back the tears.”

And, like most good mentoring pairs, it’s a two-way street. “I feel a responsibility to give something back to Pastor Long, even while I am receiving all that he gives me,” says Bryan. “I think that’s biblical actually. I think Paul valued his relationship with Timothy just as much as Timothy appreciated Paul. Good mentoring looks like that.”

The Farmers

—Herb Carlson, Troy Melson, & Cole Spear

In the early 1970s Troy Melson was a wild kid. After three concussions the high-school athlete couldn’t play football anymore, so once he completed his farm work he had lots of time on his hands. Eventually he was suspended from both his basketball and baseball teams for drinking. “I made a lot of poor choices,” he says. “I did everything I was not supposed to do.”

Herb Carlson was a volunteer at Troy’s youth group at Trimont Covenant Church. He led meetings on Wednesday nights, took the youth out on adventures, and invited them to his house for games and food. He had known Troy since he was born. Their two farming families attended church together in their small community in southern Minnesota.

“Farm families are close,” says Troy. “We work together and care about one another, working the land and livestock. If someone needs help, farmers pitch in, especially during the hard times. I think that’s where Herb learned to mentor.”

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Troy Melson

One evening about two months after the congregation had moved into a newly constructed building, some of the boys were roughhousing after youth group in the hallway. Troy shoved another student hard against the wall and smashed a three-by-three-foot hole in the sheetrock. “Herb fixed it overnight and never said a word. No one was the wiser about it!” he says. “That stuck with me the rest of my life. Herb treated me with respect. He was never angry with me, never raised his voice or reprimanded me.”

Herb was also generous. A young mother of three in the church was struggling financially after her husband left her. Without telling anyone Herb bought her a washing machine. No one knew until the mother let it slip out at a church board meeting ten years later.

“You could tell Herb had a relationship with the Lord by the way he handled daily events and tasks and pressures,” Troy says. Herb, who died in 2010 at age eighty, served as church chair, deacon, cemetery sexton, Sunday-school teacher, camp counselor, and CHIC volunteer. “He modeled being a servant of God. I think that is why I serve on church boards now,” Troy says.

Melson eventually grew up to farm 3,100 acres with his brother where they feed 14,000 pigs each day. And like Herb Carlson, he mentors several young people in the church and community. Currently he is an AWANA leader and loves working with kids and getting to know them.

One of those kids is Cole Spear. Cole’s family started coming to church when he was seven or eight. Trimont Covenant had a church softball team and although Cole was too young to play, he helped out as the ball and bat boy. Troy fostered their relationship by attending Cole’s sporting events and band concerts and talking with him about life. They were already friends when Troy officially became Cole’s mentor in eighth or ninth grade.

They met every week on Wednesday nights after youth group or talked after church on Sundays. Four years later they were still meeting. Last spring Cole graduated from high school and now is a student at North Dakota State University. “We still text weekly,” says Troy. “We talk about school, girls, relationships, sports, life pressures, and God.”

“It has been a great experience to have Troy mentor me,” says Cole. “He has always been very supportive of me and it means a lot that he would still take time to see how I am doing and help me with my walk with God.”

“Herb made an impact on my life,” says Troy. “I hope that I can make a difference in their lives as Herb did in mine.”

The Teacher and the Youth Pastor

—Roger Schutter & Shelly Kurth

As a high-school speech and media communications teacher in Fruitport, Michigan, Roger Schutter was deeply committed to his students. One method he used to help them develop their public speaking skills was to encourage/require them to announce for sporting events. Shelley Kurth was one of his students. “I enjoyed working these events,” she says, “and being encouraged to discover new language and technique in my voice control.”

Shelley played varsity softball and one day she was announcing a JV game. “I accidentally gave away a play signal, and I remember Mr. Schutter laughing over the headset and letting me know that wasn’t proper use of my knowledge of the game!”

Shelley was a good student and an athlete, but she struggled in high school. She had relational challenges with peers, difficulties communicating with her parents and other leaders, and wrestled with thoughts of suicide. “I don’t recall how many of those details I ever shared with Mr. Schutter at the time, but he gave me space to cry, spend time with a supportive friend, and participate on projects where I felt needed—while still holding me to high standards as a student and a Christian. Truly, I’m not sure I would have survived my teenage doubts, fears about God’s faithfulness, and my own identity crisis if it wasn’t for Mr. Schutter.”

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Shelly Kurth (left), Roger Schutter (right)

Their paths crossed occasionally through the years until 2002 when Roger was chair of Forest Park Covenant Church in Muskegon, Michigan. In that role, he served on the search committee for the church’s first full-time director of children’s ministry. They were struggling to find the right person for the position when Shelley let them know
she was interested.

She and her family had recently moved back to Michigan from Minnesota, and they had sought out a church where Shelley and her husband, who were both teachers, could attend alongside some of their students. They had been at Forest Park about three years when the position opened up. Shelley was looking for a job that would allow her to serve others as well as spend time with her young girls.

Roger says that when he talked to her about the job, “I saw in her not only the passion our program was looking for, but even more, a deep commitment to personal spiritual growth.”

A few months later she joined the staff at Forest Park. And a few months after that, Shelley felt the call to a pastoral role. Her title change from director to pastor of children’s ministry made her the first female pastor on staff at the church.

As she transitioned into the position, she continued to glean wisdom and insight from Roger. “Preaching with my high-school speech teacher in the sanctuary has been valuable. Many times I have asked for his advice and expertise on my delivery and technique,” she says.

Roger adds, “It has been a special privilege to see Shelley’s growth over the years and her positive impact on our church leadership and church family.”

“I know I’m not the only student who valued his ability to mentor and encourage them. I learned the value of pouring into a young person’s life from him,” Shelley says. “Now, as an adult, I reap the continued benefits of a brother in Christ who loves God and comes alongside a sister in Christ.”

The Visionaries

—Willie Jemison, Catherine Gilliard, & Rose Cornelious

Catherine Gilliard grew up at Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago under the leadership of Willie Jemison, and when she began pastoring as a solo church planter, he gave her some wise advice.

“He told me that there were always people in his church who could quote the Bible more quickly than he could, people who were better Sunday-school teachers than he was, people who had more education than he did, and people who were more gifted than he was,” she says. Then he asked her why she thought God had called him to be the pastor, given all the gifted and powerful people in his congregation. She said she didn’t know. He replied, “Because I am the one God trusts with the vision.”

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Catherine Gilliard

The impact of that exchange was significant. “From that day forward I never hesitated to surround myself with the most gifted people I could find. God brought me onto teams where I felt inadequate because I was with some of the most gifted people I knew, or to the churches that I pastored that included such knowledgeable people—but I knew I never needed to feel insecure because God was trusting me with the vision.” She learned to say yes to God. “This one lesson has shaped my leadership journey,” she says.

In her ministry Catherine mentors dozens of people. Mostly they seek her out. “I can’t tell you why they would ask me to do such a thing. It is always a surprise to me,” she says.

She met Rose Cornelious thirty years ago when they were attending church together in Decatur, Georgia. They both ended up serving in leadership at the church and spent a lot of time together. Their families became very close. When a Covenant church started in Decatur, Catherine became a member.

“Catherine’s love of the ECC is genuine and infectious,” says Rose. At Catherine’s suggestion, Rose applied for a job in Covenant World Mission. “When I got it, she went out of her way to introduce me to Covenanters at various denominational gatherings. She has a history of promoting women in ministry.” Catherine also encouraged her to pursue theological training. Together they were students at North Park Theological Seminary, earning MDivs and doctorates of ministry in preaching.

“It is so important to have someone who will hold your confidences, give you truth, and be supportive of your endeavors,” Rose says. “Catherine has been that person for me for more than twenty-five years.”

Because of the role mentors have played in her own life, Catherine hopes to help her mentees navigate confusing, difficult, or painful seasons in their lives. She cautions anyone who mentors others to be slow to give advice solely based on personal experience. “I laugh,” she says, “when I think about how many of my answers in mentoring sessions begin with the question, ‘What did God say to you about this?’ Then, together, we listen to the Holy Spirit to discern how God will use us as we travel through this season of our life.”

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2 Comments

  1. What a wonderful piece! Mentorship, discipleship and investment is alive and well in the Covenant. Love these examples. Thank you so much for sharing your life experiences. God is good!

  2. My wife, Donna, suggested I read and listen to this article today as I returned from an appointment with the new chaplain at a facility where I volunteer. I am coaching this new chaplain through her first memorial services for a resident who died recently. I guess I qualify as a “mentor.” Thanks for these beautiful stories. They ministered to my soul.

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