A promising set of new experiments has the potential to make a collective impact on the way people enter pastoral ministry in the twenty-first century. The Transition into Ministry initiative (TiM)—an effort funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and participated in by more than 800 beginning pastors to date—has drawn hundreds of new seminary graduates, a variety of denominational and judicatory leaders, congregations from at least 11 Protestant denominations, several seminaries, and thousands of congregation members into a shared effort to change the experience of pastors at the thresholds of their ministries.
At its core, this initiative seeks to reshape the preparation of Protestant pastors by supplementing the seminary training received in the M.Div. program with a focused apprenticeship in an infrastructure of support and practical education (which we call a “community of practice”). Based on the assumption that pastors will be better prepared to lead congregations when they have had the opportunity to become reflective participants in a local community of practice—mentored by experienced pastors and supported by peers and a congregation committed to their formation—these projects seek to counter a two-centuries-long trend of viewing pastoral preparation as something that is largely completed upon graduating from seminary.
A Special Challenge Today
In contemporary America, a particular set of social and cultural challenges has shaped the transition into ministry in powerful ways. Explosions in knowledge, the emergence of American pluralism, a powerful consumer economy, and many other of the classic elements of modernity have exponentially increased what a pastor needs to know to minister effectively in our time. A variety of kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing are now demanded of the entering minister. At the very same time, the once thick religious subcultures that naturally passed on traditions of ministry and pastoral practice and supported new clergy as they assumed their roles lost a great deal of their formative power as the 20th century progressed. So new ministers have fewer sources of practical wisdom to draw upon during this formative phase. At the same time that their transition from seminary to first call demands that they learn how to practice ministry in a world of greater complexity and diversity, the communities of practice that their predecessors could count on have disappeared. Increasingly, they are on their own. They have less and less connection to the world of pastoral practice in which they will live out their ministries.
The Transition into Ministry initiative seeks to close this gap and restore communities of practice to this significant time in a pastor’s life. All of the projects undertaken in this initiative participate in a shared effort to build new, intentional communities of practice where entering pastors have the chance to learn pastoral ministry by doing it and reflecting on it. These projects put the congregation at the center of the learning experience and return practicing clergy to a central teaching role, while making reflective practice rather than academic study the pivotal way of learning pastoral ministry.
Why Should We Care?
What happens to people as they cross the threshold from a season of preparation to a life of leadership has great consequences. For the individuals who step into pastoral ministry as their personal vocation, everything is at stake. Some new ministers fall in love with the ministry, find a life’s work that gives them great satisfaction, and construct a way of life and web of relationships of the greatest personal meaning and value. Others never find the joy in ministry and experience their early years as an ordeal that leads to depression, breakdown, even resignation. In all cases, characters are set, expectations met or dashed, career paths determined, habits of pastoral practice established, family lives patterned, and worldviews and life stances confirmed in this liminal period of moving into a role and an environment not of one’s own making.
In a recent special issue of the Alban Institute’s magazine, Congregations, several young clergy wrote about their early experiences. One of these new pastors, Sarah Griffith, wrote of the invaluable support system that the TiM programs had provided her. But then she described the experience of a friend who was not in the program: “She quickly began to experience hazardous conditions, unsafe boundary violations, and rapid exposure to the diseases of the church. She lacked significant support from clergy colleagues, she felt overwhelmed and isolated. Her situation-induced depression consumed her, and the work became unbearable. Phone conversations revealed a person in a spiritual, mental, and physical crisis.”1 That friend left the ministry after a year.
Stories like this one make it clear that the transition-into-ministry process is an urgent task, a fundamental challenge in which everyone who belongs to a religious community or works in a religious institution or lives in American society has both a stake and a responsibility. In its insistence on a lengthy, collaborative, practice-based season of pastoral formation, the Transition into Ministry initiative can be seen as a significant new approach to the formation of pastoral leaders for American Protestant congregations. We therefore invite you to add your wisdom, resources, and best efforts to help create new conditions for the teaching and learning of ministry in our challenging times.
1. Sarah Griffith, “A Way to Flourish,” Congregations, Fall 2006, p. 28.
Adapted from Becoming a Pastor: Reflections on the Transition into Ministry (PDF), copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Explore the Transition into Ministry report online at alban-transitionintoministry.org.
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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. In Letters to Lee, Paul 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. Highly acclaimed while used in Clayton’s Andover Newton seminary classes, this book is the perfect introduction to parish ministry for students, new pastors, and mentors.
Blessed Connections: Relationships that Sustain Vital Ministry by Judith Schwanz
Statistics indicate that 15 to 20 percent of pastors leave pastoral ministry within the first five years—often because of a relationship failure. We cannot escape relationships in ministry, yet few seminaries offer courses in how to build healthy ones. In Blessed Connections, seminary professor Judith Schwanz focuses on the person of the minister and the relational system of the minister’s life. She shows pastors how attending to their relationships with themselves, with other people, and with God can strengthen them and cushion them against the pressures and stresses of daily ministry. Ideal for seminary students and new pastors, Blessed Connections offers “Assessment Journal” questions at the end of each chapter for personal application.