Ten days into his first pastorate in rural upstate New York, the Rev. Jim Gertmenian faced the challenge of conducting a funeral for a member of the two-point parish that he served. He had recently earned a master of divinity degree at a large urban seminary, but his theological education hadn’t included instruction in how to prepare such a service. What’s more, he had attended only two funerals in his life. Geographically removed from professors and peers, he resorted to the telephone for long-distance guidance. He survived the experience, and 30 years later admits he was an “extreme example” of a young pastor who entered professional ministry with a gap in his hands-on skills.
“I have tremendous respect for what seminaries do,” assures Gertmenian, now senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, a 2,100-member congregation in Minneapolis. “But for all their good efforts, they aren’t able to replicate the range of situations that prepare students for the ‘daily-ness’ of parish ministry. There are certain skills that a pastor acquires only by working in a church setting.”
To bridge the skills gap and ease the transition from seminary to parish ministry, several churches across the country—Plymouth Congregational Church among them—are introducing two-year residency programs aimed at clergy who are new to the profession. The pilot projects are loosely modeled after medical residencies and offer seminary graduates the opportunity to work under the tutelage of veteran pastors in vibrant congregational settings. Not to be confused with the field-education component of a seminary’s curriculum, these residencies are full-time salaried positions with long hours, demanding duties, and a rotation schedule that exposes participants to all aspects of parish ministry.
“I see this as a gentle introduction to ministry,” says Baron Mullis, a Princeton Theological Seminary graduate who is one of two senior residents at Second Presbyterian Church, a 4,000-member “teaching” congregation in Indianapolis. “There’s an ethos around here that as residents we are doing a lot of things for the first time, and it’s not the end of the world if we fail.”
When Mullis and his colleague, Christina Starace, enter the job market in July, they will take with them months of valuable experience in administration, Christian education, urban outreach, pastoral care, and preaching. They will have performed weddings, funerals, and baptism services, as well as planned Sunday worship and delivered sermons that were carefully critiqued by the senior pastor and selected members of the congregation. “This isn’t a classroom; it’s the real thing,” says Starace, whose career aspirations have changed because of the residency experience. Once interested in joining the staff of a large church where her ministry would be specialized, she now anticipates a position at a smaller church that would enable her to assume a variety of responsibilities. “I think I have the skills required for such a setting,” she says.
Securing the Future
With nine “alumni” to its credit, Second Presbyterian’s residency program serves as a model for a number of pilot projects launched this year. Funding for the church’s program came in 1996 from a congregation member who was aware that mainline denominations face a shortage of young clergy and that too many seminary graduates drop out of parish ministry within five years of entering the profession. Senior pastor Dr. William Enright accepted the challenge of his generous parishioner to create a residency program that would address these concerns.
“There were no models for this, so I spent three months picking some of the best brains in the field,” recalls Enright. He talked with his governing board, visited seminary presidents, and exchanged ideas with friends in the Religion Division at Lilly Endowment, also located in Indianapolis. The program that emerged is multi-faceted and requires the enthusiastic support of church members who agree to act as encouragers, faith mentors, and host families. In addition to sharing occasional meals with the young pastors, designated members meet one-on-one to discuss their individual spiritual journeys and offer feedback on the residents’ sermons.
“Our church made a commitment to look for the best and brightest young people who wanted to enter parish ministry,” says Enright. “We crafted a program that has four rotations, with each resident spending four to five months working in each rotation. We also wanted to train ‘scholar pastors’ because we believe that education doesn’t cease with the master of divinity degree. We have seminars every Wednesday night, and once a month we bring in top theologians and scholars to lead colloquiums.”
Enright maintains a “covenant of confidentiality” with the residents. No topic is off limits, and the young pastors are free to question the decisions or actions of senior staff members. “They can ask me about anything they see,” says Enright. “They can say, ‘Why in the world did you do this?’ I walk them behind the scenes and explain the factors that folded into a decision.” The exercise becomes a learning process for everyone involved. “These young people bring us energy, insights, and the world view of their peers. It’s exciting to see what they’ve done for my colleagues and the congregation. As someone said recently, ‘What we don’t like about this program is that we have to say goodbye to them.’”
Endowing a Worthy Idea
The success of the Second Presbyterian initiative did not go unnoticed by Lilly Endowment’s Religion Division, long-time supporter of efforts to strengthen pastoral leadership. Curious to see the effects of residency programs on new clergy, the Endowment launched an invitational grants program in 1999 and 2000 to encourage selected churches and judicatories to experiment with ways to guide seminary graduates into ministry. The initiative is called the Transition-into-Ministry Program, and is all about new pastors “getting off to a good start,” says Chris Coble, a program director at the Endowment.
“Ministry is a little different from other professions,” explains Coble. “Often the youngest or least experienced ministers are sent to the most isolated place to serve the smallest congregations. They may be miles from their colleagues, and they may feel a profound sense of professional and personal isolation.”
To compound the situation, many new seminary graduates lack substantial experience in congregational life, having felt the call to ministry while participating in parachurch organizations or campus ministries. Anxious to put into practice all that they’ve learned in theology school, they attempt to make sweeping changes shortly after they accept their first pastorate.
“Then they run into a buzz saw when members of the congregations say, ‘We’ve always done things this way and we’re not going to change,’” explains Dr. Jackson Carroll, faculty member at Duke Divinity School and director of a multi-pronged research study of pastoral ministry. “They don’t take time first to learn about the congregation, develop a sense of trust with the laity, and then use that trust and experience as leverage to make changes.”
Exploring New Ground
Each Endowment-funded program is unique, with characteristics determined in part by the size of the congregation and the setting of the church. In Minneapolis, Jim Gertmenian of Plymouth Congregational Church is working in partnership with the Rev. Eric Nelson of First Congregational Church of Minnesota to enable their three residents—called Lilly associates—to experience ministry in both a large and a small congregation. The program combines the pragmatic tasks of leading worship and attending board meetings with less-structured opportunities of reflecting on various practices of ministry. The associa
tes meet one-on-one with each senior minister and as a group in half-day retreats.
“It’s an experience-reflection model,” explains Gertmenian. “Maybe the best way to typify it is to say that in seminary the balance is tipped heavily in favor of reflection; in a residency program the balance moves in the other direction.”
All of the churches involved in the Endowment-supported initiatives are feeling their way as they go, constantly evaluating and fine-tuning their programs as they learn what works best. Because the grants are for five years, the churches will host two “classes” of residents. At some point in the grant period—probably two or three years from now—the Endowment will gather the principal players together for a conversation to determine the lessons that the participants can learn from their collective experiences.
Making an Impact
Success stories are already surfacing. At Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago, the arrival of two residents has enabled senior pastor Susan Johnson to begin a chaplaincy program at nearby Jackson Park Hospital. “The hospital couldn’t afford to hire a chaplain, and we never had the resources to develop a mission there,” says Johnson. Since July 15th, pastoral resident Jamie Washam has been at the facility daily, visiting patients, praying with families, rocking babies, setting up clothing drives and working with the staff.
“My time there has been immeasurably beneficial,” says Washam, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. “In many ways, my hospital experiences seem more tangible—more like sermon fodder—perhaps because of their immediacy or simply as a result of meeting and serving people in times of profound vulnerability, hope, and pain. I leave there at the end of the day feeling exhausted, blessed, and filled. Plus, since I pray with patients routinely, my capacity for public prayer has increased eight-fold.”
After she completes her rotation at the hospital, Washam will trade places with the church’s second resident, Jocelyn Emerson, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary. She then will be based at the church and will be involved in Christian education as well as worship leadership. Emerson will make the transition to the hospital, an experience that she hopes will help her “gain a greater ease” in a medical setting.
Both Washam and Emerson were attracted to the residency program because of the diversity of duties that it promised. Fresh out of divinity school, Washam knew she wanted to enter parish ministry but wasn’t ready to narrow her work to a single area of specialization. “This program enables me to try my hand at a number of different types of church work: outreach, preaching, worship leading, youth and child ministries, and so on,” she says. “I feel that after my time here I’ll be able to make a more informed choice regarding where I should direct myself.”
Emerson, who had had some worship-leadership experience during seminary, looked forward to the opportunity to gain exposure to the behind-the-scenes aspects of ministry. “Field education doesn’t give you the total pastoral experience,” she says. “You don’t get to meet with the church board and learn how budgeting works. The residency program makes me a pastor at Hyde Park Union Church, and with that comes all the stuff of the church.”
Some of the differences between field education and the residency program have sparked adjustments on the part of congregation members. Because Hyde Park Church is located in a university community, it has a 40-year tradition of welcoming student interns who do part-time church work for a few weeks and then return to their classrooms. The residency program goes far beyond such brief assignments and offers church members an opportunity to actively participate in the education of the next generation of pastors.
“In some ways it’s hard for our members to treat Jamie and Jocelyn as full-fledged ministers, because the dominant model is that they are ‘just students’ and will be gone in nine months,” says Susan Johnson. “But I would love to see a deepening sense in our congregation that the local church still calls forth gifts of ministry. Too often we think that people go to college and make up their own minds as to what they want to do for a living. Some decide to go to seminary, and then the seminary is responsible for culling out those people who aren’t going to be any good at this job. I see it as a much more spiritual and community-bound process of calling. I’m hoping that through this residency program, our congregation will feel as though they’ve made a lasting contribution to professional church leadership.”