In 2001, Duke Divinity School professor Richard Lischer published Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church (Doubleday 2001), capturing in its pages the journey of his transition from a Lutheran seminary to ministry at a small, rural congregation. Widely read over the past five years, this book provided the opportunity for many of us to reflect on a pivotal threshold-crossing moment in our own ministries—how that first entry into ordained ministry had affected the trajectories of our subsequent careers.

The book’s opening pages foreshadow the huge challenge that Lischer faced. On an advance scouting trip to Cana Lutheran Church, the soon-to-be pastor searched for a congregation in a town he had never heard of. When he pulled up in front of the church, “I felt something flop in my stomach,” Lischer writes. “Then a crushing sense of disappointment. So this is what has been prepared for me.” The view through the windshield of the run-down parsonage and the small church building in the middle of nowhere was overwhelming. Lischer could not get out of the car. He sat and looked for some time, then turned around and drove home.

Fortunately, a few weeks later he drove back to the church, got out of the car, and became pastor of the congregation. The rest of his moving book recounts his mistakes and epiphanies throughout his ministry there. Eventually, Lischer would move on to become one of the nation’s premier homiletics professors, but the lessons of that first call gave shape to his subsequent journey.

In Open Secrets, as he reflected back on his seminary education, Lischer concluded that “eight years of theological education has rendered us [Lischer and his classmates] uncertain of our identity and, like our professors, unemployable in the real world. After years of grooming, we were no longer sure what it meant to be a pastor or if we wanted to be one.” Here, Lischer puts his finger on a pivotal set of challenges that face seminary-educated clergy today: the entry into a first call or ministerial assignment poses unexpected and at times critical vocational challenges to all who cross the threshold. How that transition goes makes all the difference in the world.

An Ongoing Experiment 

The long histories of the Christian Church and the Jewish community are full of a stunning variety of experiments to shape new generations of leaders. Monastic communities, medieval and modern universities, and the Lithuanian yeshiva are just a few of the dramatic innovations that have been made over the centuries.

In our time, the experiments continue. From the founding of the first U.S. graduate seminary (Andover in 1808) on, the U.S. Christian and Jewish communities have invested enormous amounts of money and energy in seminaries. Currently, over 250 accredited schools graduate more than 14,000 students each year, half of whom are candidates for ordained ministry. An innovation that moved beyond the old “reading Divinity” model of colonial times, seminaries became specialized institutions of higher education that moved students through a constantly evolving and expanding theological encyclopedia of knowledge. But as central as the seminary has become in Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant worlds, we must remember that the experimenting has also taken place outside the walls of seminaries as various ministers enter their callings by other routes, like apprenticeship and even self-education. In many parts of non-Mainline American Protestantism (evangelical, Pentecostal, and new megachurch movements) the seminary is regarded as counterproductive and new forms of congregation-based leadership formation are taking place.

20th-Century Experiments 

The advent of the modern university and the ensuing culture of professionalism that grew up in and around it reshaped the threshold into ministry in several ways. First, professional education for ministry increasingly shaped itself around the norms of the research university. Distinct disciplines of research began to appear in biblical, systematic historical, and practical theology. Specialized faculties and distinct guilds of academic work reshaped faculties. As the century unfolded, new disciplines like sociology of religion, clinical pastoral education and the like sought their distinct places in the crowded curriculum. Disciplines like biblical theology and church history developed their own subspecialties like Reformation history, the construction of the canonical collections of Scripture, and ethics. As specialization and professionalization proceeded, many seminary faculties transformed themselves from collections of generalists who knew the world of parish ministry intimately to collections of specialists oriented more toward their specialized worlds of research than to the daily realities of parish life.

Seminaries tried to maintain educational ties with local ministry in several ways. Catholic and African American schools continued to hire experienced priestly and pastoral practitioners on their faculties as part of their cultures of formation. Evangelical mission and Bible schools emphasized practical courses and peer groups at the heart of their teaching. Mainline Protestant and Jewish seminaries realized the limits of realigning with the academy, so they developed field work sites and supervision—in teaching congregations, urban work, and clinical pastoral education. Although the need for building skills in ministry was universally recognized, the gap between academic courses and the practices of ministry widened.

At the same time there was a general theological discovery of the role of laity in religious and secular leadership. Parish clergy found themselves challenged on two fronts—by the growing authority of professional academic theologians and by lay leaders who demanded a larger role in ministry. In the second half of the 20th century, the world of clergy became, in the eyes of many, more distant from the world of the seminary at the same time that it entered a major leadership renegotiation with the people in the pews.

During the ’60s and ’70s major ideological cleavages developed in American culture—around issues of economics, social justice, war, civil rights, sexuality, and other issues. These conflicts made parish ministry a tougher reality to work in and widened the gap between seminaries and denominational bureaucracies on the one hand and local congregations on the other.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a growing cohort of practitioners and observers of religious life began to speak with more concern about the gap between the world and the seminary. Independent institutions like the Alban Institute, seminaries (especially their trustees and practical theology departments), and denominations began to name the problem in the 1970s and to experiment widely with ways to bridge the gap. New curricula became almost a constant fact of life in seminaries; new experiments in parish-based education, field work, clinical pastoral education, and contextual education became the order of the day. Sometimes new seminaries were invented, like Intermet in Washington, D.C., or the reinvented Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. Denominations began to introduce major new programs to deal with the transition—a movement that continues down to the various first-call programs that are underway in most mainline denominations today. But the gap remains. Some think it has grown wider and deeper. Others think it has become more complicated than before. But Lischer’s experience of not being prepared for the transition from seminary to parish seems to ring true not just for those of his generation (now in their fifties and sixties) but for those who are negotiating the transition today.

A New Experiment 

The same year that Open Secrets hit the bookstores, the Lilly Endowment began a new experiment in
transitional residencies for parish clergy, providing grants to congregations for the purpose of establishing two-year residencies where new seminary graduates would rotate through all the practical tasks of parish ministry under the supervision of gifted mentors and in groups of strong peers. After five years of this work, the Endowment invited the Alban Institute to probe these experiments for key discoveries and implications for those responsible for shaping the next generation of American clergy.

Alban has already begun this process, considering such questions as:

  • What is truly different and new in the experiments being undertaken in the Transition into Ministry program?
  • What elements of these experiments hold the most promise for the future of clergy formation and readiness for ministry?
  • What makes someone a good mentor?
  • What does it take to create a peer learning environment that truly makes a vocation-long difference?
  • What difference does it make that these new ministers start out in vital congregations, surrounded with resources devoted to their flourishing? Compared to many places where ministries begin—small, isolated congregations, declining urban congregations, etc.—what does it mean to start out where one can experience “success” in ministry?
  • These experiments are expensive and would not happen without generous support from an external funder. Are there ways that congregations and denominations can learn how to do this work in more cost-effective yet powerful ways?
  • Are we ready to renegotiate institutional roles in preparing new clergy for congregational ministry?
  • Is there a new way for new kinds of institutions to support some forms of the apprenticeships that excellent ministry requires?
  • Are we coming to a time of paradigm shifting in ministerial formation and education?

At the end of this year the Alban Institute will release a special report on this latest set of experiments, addressing our findings to these and other questions. Other articles in this issue of Congregations will give tantalizing glimpses of what we are already discovering.