In 2001, the Alban Institute published an issue of Congregations highlighting the significant decline in the number of young people (those in their twenties and thirties) choosing pastoral ministry as their vocation. At the time, this precipitous decline in mainline Protestant denominations was widely known but the subject largely avoided. Since then, discussion of the graying of the pastoral vocation has become a common topic of conversation, and many programs have been initiated to study and address the loss of the younger generation to pastoral ministry.

One such program, announced by Lilly Endowment Inc. in 2000, was the Transition into Ministry Grants Program (TiM). This program was unique in that its focus was not so much on recruiting young clergy as it was on improving the experience of those young people who were entering pastoral life. This effort was born out of the perception that one of the principal deterrents for young people choosing pastoral ministry is the negative experience of those who do. As troubling as the decline in the number of young people attending seminary was, an even more troubling trend was that fewer and fewer of the young people who did graduate from seminary were choosing to become pastors. Add to this the fact that a sizable number of those who did choose pastoral ministry were leaving it within the first five years and we have a developing cycle of decline on our hands.

Whenever I speak to a room full of young clergy in their initial years of ministry, I ask how many of them know other seminary graduates who have already left local church ministry or who are struggling hard to stay with it. Without fail, almost every hand in the room goes up.

The transition from the formal study of ministry into the actual practice of it has never been easy. The perception now is that making this transition is nothing short of an achievement! The professions of medicine, engineering, and education do not leave this transition to chance; all require significant periods of apprenticeship into the actual practice of being a physician or an engineer or a teacher. While few would dispute the importance of apprenticeship to the process of becoming a pastor, this conviction has not been formalized into the prescribed course of preparation for ministry. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and its requirement that seminarians spend the third year of their four-year theological education in a congregation is the exception. Field education programs provide only a limited, part-time encounter with ministry.

From the beginning, the Transition into Ministry program has been a bold investment based on the assumption that the actual performance of ministry in local congregations is how and where pastors finally become pastors. It is the context of the congregation that integrates classroom learning and vocational sensibilities into a pastoral identity. The kind of learning that takes place when one is immersed in the actual practice of ministry is indispensable to the pedagogy of ministerial preparation. This assumption does not require a negative judgment about the academic quality of theological education. The claim that the learning of ministry is inextricably bound up with the actual practice of ministry is an assumption every theological educator would affirm. What we have lacked is a sustained, somewhat controlled experiment to test this fundamental assumption about ministerial formation. The TiM program is the first of its kind to test this assumption across denominational lines and in a variety of ecclesial settings.

Since the first TiM projects were funded in 2001, the TiM program has grown to include 18 congregation-based “residency” projects and 10 institution-based “first-call” projects. In the residency-based projects, seminary graduates participate in full-time two-year residencies in local congregations, where they experience a sustained, reflective, and challenging encounter with the full range of ministerial duties and pastoral life. Residents are paid full-time salaries and regarded as full members of the pastoral staff. The remaining 10 programs are based in seminaries, denominational offices, and other church-related organizations and employ a variety of strategies for convening, mentoring, and nurturing young pastors (usually in two- or three-year cycles) who are already ministering in first-call situations.

The traditions represented in the TiM program include the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the African American Episcopal Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Church (U.S.A.), and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. To date, more than 375 young clergy have participated in the TiM program.

Here are some of our most important findings thus far:

  1. Seminary education is necessary but not sufficient. We have been suffering from too limited a view of what constitutes adequate preparation for ministry and too large a view of what seminaries can accomplish. Among the TiM participants there is a high level of appreciation for their seminary education—in terms of the cognitive competencies and interpretive capacities gained. But when it comes to the question of forming a “pastoral identity,” the consensus is equally strong that the direct, sustained, reflective encounter with ministry in a congregation is indispensable.
  2. The first years of ministry constitute the final and crucial stage of preparation for ministry. On the whole, participants do not experience their TiM participation as a delay or postponement of their entrance into ministry but as a capstone experience in their preparation for ministry. Framing these initial years of ministry as the final stage of preparation for ministry establishes a teaching/learning environment in which there is explicit freedom to question, explore, experiment, acknowledge limitations, and fail. As one UCC study concludes, there is increasing evidence that when classroom-based formation is not complemented with congregation-based formation the “very best seminary curriculum is lost or wasted.”
  3. While immersion in congregational life and the pastoral role is crucial to becoming a pastor, immersion alone is not sufficient. The critical innovation in the TiM program is not immersion. Rather, it is the discovery of the importance of participation in a “community of competent practice” (a phrase coined by Craig Dykstra, vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment). This community of competent practice names a relational field constituted by peers in ministry, mentors, and a variety of congregational leaders (lay and ordained). Ministry is experienced at the outset as a collaborative engagement. This relational field becomes the center of gravity for self-understanding, the development of sound judgment, the reading and negotiation of congregational life, and the validation of one’s vocational identity. No finding is more consistent and predictable in the TiM than the importance of peers and friendship to the learning of ministry and to thriving in ministry. I believe this finding contributes more than any other to our understanding of what is necessary for a successful transition into ministry.
  4. Young pastors feel marginalized—generationally and culturally—within mainline Protestantism. This dynamic of isolation makes the networking of young pastors with each other nothing less than a strategy for vocational survival.
  5. Mentoring is less a dyadic relationship than it is a relational dynamic. Increasingly, we are discovering that mentoring—a practice long regarded as important to the learning of ministry—is less about finding the right match between two i
    ndividuals and more about establishing the right conditions (a community of competent practice) within which a matrix of mentorship will thrive.
  6. Congregations can become teaching congregations. The TiM program creates a set of conditions that invites congregations (especially pastoral and lay leaders) to become more intentional in assuming their role of raising up a new generation of pastors. It takes time, but the impact on the identity of the congregation and its connection to the wider church is substantive. For too long the connection between congregational life and pastoral formation has been cast in negative terms—terms which are often cast from within the seminary context. A common refrain we hear from these new pastors is how their view of the congregation has been significantly reformed in positive ways through their experience in the TiM program. The firsthand, sustained, collaborative encounter with congregations sets up the conditions for a sort of congregational intelligence in these young pastors that provides an essential baseline for a fruitful engagement with congregations for years to come.
  7. Those who do can teach. For too long, pastors have been minor players in the pedagogy of preparation for ministry. Through the TiM program, pastors are learning how to teach ministry in the thick of congregational life. Furthermore, we are discovering that pastors become better pastors—reflective practitioners—when they are called upon to teach in the course of their ministries. As one recent Association of Theological Schools (ATS) study on the first five years of ministry concluded, “The seminary is at its best when it works in collaboration with those who are the very practitioners of the work for which the seminary is doing its formation, i.e., pastors. The ideal is that both the student and the theological school view both professor and pastor as playing equally critical roles in the formation of pastoral leadership.”2

As these findings suggest, focusing on the first five years of ministry and generating the conditions for a fruitful transition into ministry brings into focus issues that are central to growing the quality of pastoral leadership that go well beyond questions unique to young pastors transitioning into ministry. One of the premises of this program that will be tested in years to come is that a strong start in ministry establishes a trajectory of growth and learning that leads to thriving in ministry over the long haul. Such a development would contribute to the overall quality of pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism for generations to come.

1. Michael I. N. Dash, Jimmy Dukes, and Gordon T. Smith, “Learning from the First Years: Noteworthy Conclusions from the Parish Experience of Recent Graduates of ATS Schools.” Theological Education, Vol. 40, No. 2, (2005), p. 68.
2. Dash et al, p. 73.

photo  by celikins