Over the last decade a few dozen churches, employing various models unique to their own church cultures, have been pioneering and experimenting with the practice of training clergy. Other models sponsored by denominations or local judicatories have used congregations in different but similar ways to foster better transitions into ministry for young clergy.
These programs have shaped the young ministers being trained and at the same time renewed the churches doing the training. In the process of mentoring the young ministers, senior pastors, permanent staff, and key lay leaders have found new joy in their own ministries. While this work takes place in local churches and energizes those churches in the process, its larger effect on the wider church is only now beginning to be seen, as these well-formed young pastors find their places in the congregations that call them to serve.
But why should a church engage in this work? Isn’t it the job of seminaries and divinity schools to prepare ministers for our churches? Yes and no. Theological schools do their part in training ministers, but they are not the only agent in the process. Churches also have a crucial role to play. Likewise, churches are not only the beneficiaries of theological education; they are bearers of spiritual wisdom that must be conveyed to would-be clergy. Clergy training requires a robust partnership between the academy and the congregation. Neither can do alone what needs to be done. And it’s the nature of the learning that needs to be done that makes this clear.
Daniel Aleshire, who oversees the accrediting body of theological schools in North America, makes the case that schools and churches provide two different kinds of learning environments, both of which are essential to gaining knowledge and wisdom for pastoral work. “Schools are absolutely superb at certain kinds of learning,” he says. “If you want to exegete a Greek text, go to school, take baby Greek, then take intermediate Greek, then exegetical courses. If you pay attention and learn your lessons, you will be able to exegete a Greek text.”
We want our pastors to know these things. We want our doctors to know anatomy, chemistry, and the history of surgery. We want our lawyers to know the Constitution, legal procedure, and the history of jurisprudence. In like manner we want our pastors to know the grammar of faith, our foundational texts and how to interpret them, and the history of the Church in all its various shapes.
But knowing these things, and even being able to teach these things to others, does not make for an able pastor. Another kind of learning is needed, too, and it’s a kind of learning that can only take place in the midst of the practice of ministry in a congregational setting where such ministry most often takes place.
When I reflect upon my own ministerial training, I am grateful for the theological inheritance that was passed on to me by the seminary I attended. My training in biblical interpretation, theology, and church history gave me more than my own biases to test in pastoral practice. Seminary training gave me the witness of the church across time to take with me into my time of church ministry.
Seminary education leans more toward information than formation. It makes deposits of biblical and theological knowledge in the bank account of a young minister that she will be able to draw upon throughout her ministry. Seminary can only gesture toward the pastoral life, however, because the school classroom favors a learning mode germane to its purpose, while the church setting makes possible a different kind of learning that grows out of doing ministry itself.
It’s not so simple as to say that theory precedes practice, though, since theory and practice shape each other in the continual conversation between the church and the academy. Good seminary training and good congregational practice mutually reinforce one another. Those who dismiss seminary education as unimportant to ministry training miss a key component in the process.
And yet, the deficit in training among those who are seminary educated is often found more in the direction of the congregation. I was five years into pastoral work when I heard a chaplain in a hospital room tell a family about their options for a deceased loved one’s services, distinguishing between a funeral and a memorial service. It was embarrassing to realize that I could talk about matters of the soul’s eternal destiny with relative competence, but I couldn’t describe with proper terminology the differences of how the body would be treated in Christian services for the dead.
Some things are better caught than taught. But they aren’t best caught by osmosis—just by being in the same setting where others do these things. They are caught by doing them together with others in a congregational setting and then reflecting upon the doing of them with experienced practitioners.
Churches do ministry. They are communities of shared practices. Sunday worship, for instance, isn’t just about a preacher who prepares and delivers a sermon. It’s also about the congregation that hears the sermon, the sound technician who aids them in the hearing, the young acolyte who lights the candles, the choir that sings, the organist who accompanies, the secretary who types and reproduces the order of service, and the custodian who cleans the pews and checks the room temperature. And those are just the more obvious participants. We could also count those across the ages who wrote, translated, and preserved the Bible we read. Or those who labored to give us the denomination we serve in and the particular local church we worship in on any given Sunday. Multiply this instance by the many acts of hospitality, pastoral care, religious education, benevolence, and justice work, and you see that every aspect of ministry involves many partners. Which also means that effective pastoral training is hardly an individual learning endeavor; it truly is a group effort.
This is what pastoral residency work is about. Residents begin to get a feel for the pastoral role and for the nuances of ministry. They perform all the duties of the pastorate, albeit under the guidance of a mentor pastor and within a supportive and engaging community of faith. This extends their training and enhances their readiness to serve in permanent pastoral positions in their next churches.
This article is adapted and excerpted from Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation’s Role in Training Clergy by George Mason, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Amid the widespread discussion about “the future of the church,” an important point is sometimes overlooked: tomorrow’s church will depend to a great extent on the new pastors of today who will serve and guide our churches in the years ahead. George Mason’s Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation’s Role in Training Clergy makes a timely intervention, asking us to redefine pastoral leadership by analyzing how, in fact, pastors are made in the first place.
Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership
by Bruce G. Epperly
For more than thirty years, Bruce Epperly has followed the call of the spirit, moving through his vocations as a congregational pastor, university chaplain, seminary and university professor, and seminary administrator. Drawing on these experiences, he addresses the new pastor’s transition from seminary student to congregational leader; pastoral authority; the “honeymoon”; boundaries; death; the pastor’s spiritual life, health, and relationships; the role of the associate pastor; and continuing education.
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.
Letters to Lee: Mentoring the New Minister
by Paul C. Clayton
Each year, hundreds of newly ordained pastors enter their first congregations, unsure whether seminary training has truly prepared them for the day-to-day work of parish ministry. Clayton uses a unique epistolary format—from an older, experienced pastor to a novice—to address wisely such issues as preparing for weddings, funerals, and baptisms; planning education, evangelism, and stewardship programs; growing spiritually; developing a leadership style; and maintaining personal and professional boundaries.
How to Thrive in Associate Staff Ministry
by Kevin E. Lawson
A dead-end job? A sure route to burn-out? Congregational staff ministry is neither, according to Kevin Lawson. Rather, he presents ample evidence that associate staff ministry is a calling with its own identity, integrity, and exciting possibilities. Based on his groundbreaking study of 400-plus associate staff members in 14 denominations, Lawson demonstrates here the communication and self-care skills that people in these often highly specialized positions can utilize to grow beyond mere survival into dynamic ministry.
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