Two classmates graduate from seminary. Each has done well academically, and received glowing recommendations from the faculty. Each was affirmed by a field placement parish during the seminary experience. And each performed well amid the challenges of clinical pastoral education. Two classmates, both filled with promise and the potential to be highly effective pastors, transition into their first full-time positions in parish ministry. Fast- forward 35 years. One of these individuals is retiring after a rich and rewarding career in parish ministry. The other is retiring from a secular career, having left parish ministry within a few years following negative experiences in two parishes.

What happened? Why do some seminary graduates committed to the pastoral life successfully navigate the transition into full-time ministry and others don’t? Why do some pastors flourish while others do not? Why do some parishes seem to have a knack for producing great, young pastors? It is my conviction that the first two years of full-time parish ministry are the most critical. And my seven years of experience leading the Foundations for Spiritual Leadership program at Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, a pilot program funded by the Lilly Endowment, has taught me many lessons about how we can create the conditions for success for new pastors during these formative years.

We most often associate success in ministry with accumulated years of experience. Success can mean many years of ministry in one congregation, sharing their joys and tragedies and triumphs. It can mean starting a new parish, identifying a mission, and building a new community of faith where previously there was none. It can mean sequential parishes, each larger and more complex than the previous. Success can also mean transforming a struggling congregation into one that is engaged and flourishing, or creating and nurturing a unique and powerful “niche” ministry that is a catalyst for the transformation of individuals and communities. Success might also mean election to a position of enhanced responsibility within a denomination.

What if success in ministry was available to every clergyperson? What if success was created rather than achieved? What if clergy and congregations intentionally planned for success? Success could then be understood as a set of conditions that create life-giving ministry for the clergyperson and the congregation. With this in mind, what if success could be created most especially for new pastors, for those making the transition into what we hope will be a lifetime of ministry?

Creating the conditions for success for new pastors begins with understanding the significance of the initial years of ordained ministry.

The vocational formation of seminary carries over into the first two years of parish ministry. Adaptation and learning, innovation and meeting new challenges, attempting to balance personal and professional considerations all happen at an intense pace. Every ministry experience is new. Amid the intensity associated with this time, the full identity of the pastor as scholar, teacher, shepherd, and spiritual and congregational leader takes shape. The foundations for holy habits and healthy leadership practices for an individual’s entire ministry are also put in place. Herein lies the significance of these first two years of ministry.

Traditionally these first years have been viewed as a time of trial and error, a time when new pastors learn what not to do by painful mistakes, a time when recently ordained clergy have to figure out on their own how to balance vocational, personal, and family needs. Certainly, positive vocational formation can and does take place in the context of a trial-and-error model. Sadly, more often than not, formation in this context is negative, leaves scars for future years in ministry, and can even lead new clergy to leave ministry. Creating the conditions for success honors the first two years as unique in an individual’s ministry, as his or her identity takes shape through positive experiences and a structured learning model that embraces the pastoral life as both joy-filled and demanding, both intellectually stimulating and emotionally intense. Rather than trial and error, this context for vocational formation is both active and reflective, providing an opportunity to celebrate the privilege and responsibility of walking with others in their faith journey and to embrace the challenges of daily ministry.

Creating the conditions for success for new clergy recognizes that two distinct processes of vocational formation take place during these initial years: the integration of academic learning with the daily experience of ministry, and the mastery of basic skills in the practice of ministry.

From Classroom to Pastorate 

The first vocational formation process is to integrate the formal theological training of seminary into the specific context and experience of parish life. One bishop compared these early years of parish ministry to the novitiate for those who take monastic vows. He observed that a monastic cannot really learn what it is like to live in community until he or she lives in community. The same is true for a pastor. A pastor cannot really know what it is like to pastor a congregation until she or he has the experience of shepherding a congregation.

Academic study and the cultivation of rigorous theological reasoning are essential for success in ministry. One cannot preach the entire development of trinitarian theology using the sermons of the early church fathers. However, knowledge of that theological development serves as a powerful resource for a sermon on the Trinity. One cannot preach on a given Sunday a sampler of the types of sermons covered in homiletics. However, with the knowledge of different sermon styles for different purposes, one can choose the most appropriate for a given circumstance or text. With respect to all the disciplines in theological education, strong and vital academic preparation provides an essential foundational resource for the experience-based learning that occurs in ministry.

This experiential learning takes formal academic study and applies it to the practice of ministry through an action-reflection process. This is a new style of learning for many people. It requires setting aside time to reflect on a particular experience, and identifying theological, personal, and other perspectives offered by a mentor. What happened? What could have been done differently? What would you do the next time and why? These are all questions that arise from experience and shape identity. How did you understand yourself as a pastor in this situation? How did you bring the compassion of Christ to a grieving family, or how did you explain that marriage is a life you create together in God’s love? What is your theology of stewardship and what do you think is the theology of the stewardship committee members you are dealing with? These are questions for the new pastor to contemplate. Reflection follows action, which follows reflection. This iterative process aims for integration and begins to shape identity in deep and powerful ways. Experiential learning incorporates academic learning with the daily experience of ministry.

Mastering Many “Firsts” 

The second vocational formation process is developing the skills for ministry. In the first two years, a new pastor experiences many activities of ministry for the first time: the first wedding, the first wedding rehearsal, the first funeral, the first baptism, the first confirmation class, the first time preaching sequentially and regularly, the first time conducting worship in this particular congregation, the first time balancing full-time ministry with personal and family activities. Often these firsts occur amid the emotional ups and downs that are common in the daily life of a pastor. A parishioner has died and the grieving spouse is on hold, waiting
to talk to the pastor. This conversation cannot be scheduled nor can it wait until after the Sunday sermon has been written. Building skills for ministry occurs at a rapid pace in the first two years. Confidence comes when situations or tasks have been handled appropriately. Competence is built over time by reflecting on experience, receiving effective and informed feedback from caring others, and completing the task to one’s own satisfaction. As new pastors begin to feel competent in the basic skills of ministry, their confidence grows.

The integration of academic learning with the experience of ministry and the mastery of basic skills for ministry are key aspects of positive vocational formation for new clergy. Both processes shape pastoral identity in important ways. Moreover, both processes are steep learning curves for newly ordained pastors. Navigating these learning curves effectively requires creating three conditions for success: a safe learning environment, mentoring from experienced clergy, and peer learning.

The Safety to Learn 

Creating a safe learning environment is the first and most important element to help new pastors succeed. All pastors make mistakes. What is crucial is that mistakes not become determinative of a pastor’s ministry. Instead of repeating stories of what went wrong, the focus should be on naming and celebrating what went right. Creating a safe learning environment means that mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities, mechanisms are established for effective feedback, and the congregation views its ministry as one of playing an active role in shaping clergy for ministry. Congregations that offer a safe learning environment can be understood as “teaching congregations.” Some teaching congregations have discovered this ministry through their dedication to serving young pastors. Through effort and in some cases intentional learning, these congregations have come to understand what makes ministry life-giving for them and for new clergy.

However, any congregation that welcomes a new pastor can offer a safe learning environment and pattern itself as a teaching congregation. A teaching congregation forms a relationship with the new pastor with the understanding that the congregation has as much to give to the new pastor as the pastor has to give to them. A teaching congregation appreciates the unique importance of the first two years of ministry in shaping pastoral identity. The relationship between the new pastor and the congregation has different dimensions from the relationship between the congregation and the senior pastor or other more experienced assistants. The relationship between new pastor and congregation is often time-bound, for a period of two or three years; it is fluent in praise and judicious with criticism; it is open to new ideas; and it provides time and opportunities for learning. Though this relationship has a different dimension, it is equally important that the congregation fully embrace the new pastor as a pastor. An analogy from the practice of medicine is apt. Medical residents treat patients and are appropriately called “doctors.” Even though the resident is supervised by a more senior physician, the resident has both the authority and the requisite skill to be fully engaged in the care and treatment of the patient. Both the learning and the care-giving take place in what we call a “teaching hospital.”

Similarly, in a teaching congregation, it is understood that the new pastor is learning and therefore needs time for preparation, reflection, and feedback in navigating the steep learning curves described above. Although the new pastor is involved in tending the flock, it is also understood that the new pastor will not be involved in every aspect of the congregation’s life all the time. Instead, there will be focused times for concentrating on preaching, or stewardship, or Christian formation, or developing lay leadership. There is a support team formed to meet monthly with the new pastor. The members of this team serve for the duration of the new pastor’s tenure, are trained in effective feedback, and serve as advocates and guides. In addition, a teaching congregation ensures that a portion of a more senior pastor’s time is set aside for mentoring the new pastor.

Finding a Mentor 

Mentoring is the second form of support that creates the conditions for success. While a mentoring relationship cannot be forced, the most effective mentor is an experienced clergyperson who knows the particular context and dynamics of the congregation the new pastor is serving. In a multiple-staff church, more senior clergy can serve as mentors. If the new pastor is a solo pastor, then a previous interim minister or another person familiar with that congregation can serve as a mentor. The important thing is that the integration of academic and experiential learning and the mastery of the basic skills of ministry take place in community, in conversation, in the context of a relationship with someone who has detailed, on-the-ground knowledge of the congregation.

The formative process of mentoring goes beyond a general conversation of how things are going. Instead, the mentor and new pastor review the ministry activities of the last week or month. The mentor helps the new pastor explore key questions about pastoral identity: How did you experience yourself as a pastor in that situation? How did you experience God in that moment? What were the dynamics in the room? What worked and what would you do differently? How did you feel when that comment was made?

The mentor also anticipates the “firsts” with the new pastor. Walking through the first wedding rehearsal reveals details that the new pastor needs to know. Preparing for the first funeral, the first baptismal preparation class, the first confirmation class are all opportunities for dialogue and teaching. Preparing for the first time when parish duties interrupt family or personal plans can be an opportunity to explore where to compromise and where to hold firm. Whatever the circumstance, the mentor anticipates the learning curve and offers assistance, guidance, and support. The conversation between mentor and new pastor follows the action-reflection model that forms the deeper levels of pastoral identity. The mentor’s role is to help the new pastor gain perspective, which in turn creates positive formation experiences that build success.

Learning with Peers 

In addition to support from a more experienced mentor, the third condition for success is peer learning. Again, ministry is based on relationships. Supportive relationships with mentoring clergy and with the teaching congregation are vital. However, without peers, without conversation with those who are at a similar stage in their journey, ministry can feel isolating. Peers share strategies for navigating the learning curve. Peers add perspective on ministry. They add a dimension of community and of self-understanding in the context of that community. Not every congregation will have more than one new pastor at a time. At a multiple-staff church a cohort of two or three new pastors can create a peer learning group. Across a judicatory or seminary alumni network new pastors can form colleague groups. Facilitated peer colleague groups can be a particularly effective way of providing meaningful connections with others whose experience most closely reflects their own. In the flurry of the first two years of ministry, new pastors will often forgo these groups in favor of the many other things they want to say yes to in ministry. Creating a structure where peer support can occur and designating that time as important to vocational formation often gives the new pastor permission to deeply engage in these groups. Just like mentoring relationships, peer groups cannot be forced. They can, however, be designed to go beyond casual lunch conversations to reflect on deeper questions: What particular gifts does our generati
on bring to ministry? What do we want to do differently? When we consider our call to ministry, how does it contrast and compare to that of our mentors? Where is there a disconnect between our generation’s seminary experience and parish life? How do we creatively bridge that gap? Where are the places of celebration? What do we need to learn?

All Can Teach 

Any congregation can create the conditions that provide the foundations for success and spiritual leadership among new pastors—a safe learning environment, mentoring, and peer learning. Small congregations can call a newly ordained pastor and create a life-giving ministry for all, knowing they will soon send this pastor forth to serve the wider church. Larger congregations may call one new pastor to assist the senior pastor, knowing that part of their ministry is to serve as a teaching congregation. And the largest congregations may call several new pastors at once to learn from more senior clergypersons, knowing their ministry is to set the standards of leadership and shape these new leaders for the future. Neither the size of the church nor the number of new pastors called determines the conditions for success. Instead, success can be created by any new pastor in partnership with any community of faith that is committed to the ministry of being a teaching congregation. The realization of this vision is life-giving and life-sustaining both to new pastors and to the congregations they are called to serve.


Questions for Reflection 

  1. Describe the experience of your congregation’s most recent newly ordained pastor.
  2. Name three ways to create in your congregation a process for experiential learning that integrates academic learning with parish life and builds the basic skills of ministry.
  3. How can your congregation be helped to understand that they play an essential role in shaping new pastors?
  4. What would a safe learning environment, mentoring, and peer learning look like in your context?