The first five years of parish ministry set an entire ministry. The habits, the inclinations, the dispositions, the way of understanding vocation is set in those first five years, and it lasts.1
That core belief—or a similar variation—is at the heart of four denominational initiatives that focus on new clergy as part of the Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry program. While the initiatives vary in format and approach, they share a commitment to helping new clergy learn to develop the disciplines, understandings, and relationships needed for a lifetime of healthy parish ministry.
How the programs are structured, how they have supported their participants, and what they have taught their sponsoring organizations are described in the following pages. As you read these stories of success and hope for a new generation of ministers, consider the following questions offered for reflection:
What challenges do you see new pastors facing as they make the transition from seminary to parish ministry?
What ways can you imagine that you and others—in denominational bodies, clergy groups, seminary communities, and congregations—could provide new clergy with concrete opportunities for support and development?
What are the benefits of having new pastors whose first experiences in parish ministry are healthy, productive, and nurturing? Who is affected by these benefits?
How might what is learned through these programs for new pastors be adapted to help others?
Making the Transition from Seminary to Parish Ministry
The Bethany Fellowships is a program for new pastors within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who are making the transition from seminary to parish ministry. Each year eight to 10 new fellows join the program and make a four-year commitment to a combination of semiannual retreats, peer support and accountability, and mentoring.
Over time, the Bethany project has gone through an evolutionary process. “We began by thinking that we would place a couple of recent seminary graduates in larger congregations,” said Don Schutt, who coordinates the program. “Our denomination does not have that many large churches, and we had some difficulty finding senior pastors who had the time to serve as mentors. After two years, we realized that an in-house residency was not going to work for us.” As a result, the decision was made to invite a certain number of new pastors to meet in a larger group twice a year at retreats held in metropolitan areas.
Each retreat begins on a Monday evening with worship. The fellows then share where they are and what they hope for from the retreat. In addition, each fellow shares a prayer request, about which the group then prays.
On Tuesday, the group visits a lively congregation in the area, usually a mainline congregation, but some have been evangelical megachurches or emergent congregations. The fellows learn about the congregation’s ministries and programs and hear about staff members’ work.
On Tuesday evening, a guest speaker leads a discussion of a topic that relates to a book the fellows read prior to the retreat. “We tend to focus on books that deal with practical skills,” Schutt said, “rather than something too intellectually heavy.”
The fellows then enter into 24 to 36 hours of silence during which they are free to pray, read, take walks, or sleep. On Thursday morning, they come out of silence and worship together. Afterwards, they break into small groups to debrief the experiences of the week. Thursday also includes free time and some type of party for the larger group. The retreat closes by noon on Friday.
Five seasoned pastors serve as mentors for the Bethany Fellowships program, both at the retreats and by telephone between these gatherings. Group e-mail and a blog site provide points of connection for the fellows as well, and a site visit by a mentor is arranged for almost every fellow.
One of the critical learnings that has emerged from the Bethany Fellowships, Schutt said, is the power and importance of peer support. “We have learned that the transition from seminary to congregational life is not easy,” he said, “and that new pastors need as much support as possible without curtailing their freedom to fail. Working in a congregation tends to be an isolating experience, but this program helps the fellows see that they’re in this together.”
Program participants have developed a level of camaraderie and a depth of interaction that have surprised program leaders. One fellow described the program as the “most nourishing, prayerful, and supportive group I have ever encountered. Being a pastor is such a lonely vocation that one begins to wonder if anyone else out there could possibly understand what it’s like. At the retreats, we realize that we have a whole network of brother and sister pastors who have been in the valleys we find ourselves in, and more importantly, have found their way back to a place of wholeness, health, and even resurrection.”
Another fellow said she feels “normal” during the retreats. “How wonderful it is to gather with other new clergy who are walking much the same path as I am,” she commented. “I often feel that the job I do is so utterly different than that of others around me that it is nice to come and be with others—ones to whom I don’t have to explain everything—ones who understand immediately.”
Another critical learning, said Schutt, has been that new clergy, despite all of their training and background, still have a need for spiritual formation. “We remain committed to including a large block of time for silence and reflection, as well as an opportunity for spiritual direction, during each retreat,” he said. “We want to help the fellows understand that prayer is critical for sustaining one’s life in a congregation.”
The fellows’ diversity also has provided opportunities for learning. The 50-50 gender mix, the participation of people of color, and the group’s theological diversity provide differences of perspective that are helpful, Schutt said. The opportunity for fellows from Disciples and non-Disciples seminaries to get to know one another also has been positive, he added.
In thinking about the future of the Bethany Fellowships program, Schutt said he and others within the Disciples of Christ believe it is critical to help develop viable, sustained pastors—especially in light of the national trend within the mainline of new clergy dropping out of parish ministry. Schutt said program leaders are grateful to the Lilly Endowment for providing the initial funding for the program and hope to raise private funds so that they can continue it “as a way of sustaining a new generation of pastoral leaders.”
First Parish Project
Learning to Serve the Small Congregation
The First Parish Project is a national, ecumenical program of colleague support, leadership development, and spiritual growth for clergy serving their first appointment or call in a small-membership congregation. The program is hosted by the Hinton Center, an agency of the United Methodist Church’s Southeastern Jurisdiction.
The Hinton Center, located in Hayesville, North Carolina, offers small-membership churches a variety of resources and services. The center also developed the Colleague Covenant Forum, a program providing clergy with the opportunity for fellowship, support, spiritual formation, and renewal.
When Delmer Chilton joined the center as coordinator of spiritual formation ministries, he began to brainstorm with others at Hinton about how they might support young pastors. “My sense was that most young pastors grew up
in urban or suburban churches that were program or corporate size,” he recalled. “They also did their field education in similar congregations. And most of their interaction had been with people their own age. But 90 percent of first calls are to chaplain- or pastor-size congregations in smaller settings with older members. That can result in culture shock and isolation.”
The First Parish Program, which Chilton directs, grew out of those brainstorming conversations. It targets pastors who are under age 35 and serve congregations with an average attendance of no more than 100. It is open to new pastors from all denominations across the country.
Each group within the program includes 20 to 25 participants and meets from Monday through Friday six times during an 18-month period. Although the largest percentage of participants are from the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Methodist Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, other participants represent traditions ranging from Orthodox to Unitarian Universalist to Christian Reform to Metropolitan Community Church. “We’re not here to convert people or to change their theology but to learn about the act of being in ministry,” Chilton said.
During each gathering, the group worships together and spends two hours a day in small groups. The group also explores a specific topic—such as the personal life of a minister and spiritual disciplines, family systems theory, pastoral identity and public role, transitioning leadership from corporate to spiritual, congregational involvement in the community, or how to maintain colleague support throughout one’s career. “We focus on self-care, Chilton said, “because what you learn about that almost always works and never becomes out of date.”
Each small group also participates in a weekly chat room between meetings. Some of the alumni chat rooms are still going.
“We are trying to teach young clergy not to be lone rangers,” Chilton explained. “Without peer support, they can crash and burn or make stupid mistakes. One of our participants said, ‘I would have quit without this program.’ Clergy don’t have supervision as other professions do, so there’s not that protection.
“At a minimum, we can be a place where pastors can appropriately talk about what’s going on in their lives and congregations. We hope that the participants will learn to form their own groups. We try to teach them that wherever they are, they can be intentional and proactive about finding support. If they can’t form a group, they can find a spiritual director or go to a pastoral care center for supervision.”
In reflecting on the program, Chilton said he is amazed by the quality of the people entering ministry today. “We’ve been hearing that the prestige of ministry is down and that there is not the same quality of candidate,” he said. “That’s not what I’m finding. Today’s new pastors are as good, if not better, than those 30 years ago when I entered ministry.” He also expressed amazement at the deep devotion of these young pastors, along with concern about the financial challenges they often face. Many of these pastors, he explained, finish seminary with a debt of $30,000 to $40,000. “I have to believe that this debt contributes to the drop-out rate that we’re seeing,” he said. “These young pastors are facing this debt while also caring for their families. At the same time, it’s becoming more and more difficult for small-membership churches to pay what is needed by their pastors.”
It concerns him, too, that denominations are making it harder to get through the ordination process than it needs to be. “We are sending a double message when we say we need more young clergy and then make it so difficult to navigate the process—often because of denominational politics,” he said. “I hear stories from people who are good pastors but who went to the wrong seminary for their annual conference or are too ‘whatever’ for their specific synod. We need to be working with and encouraging these young clergy rather than treating them like political volleyballs.”
As part of the First Parish Project, Chilton visits each participant’s congregation twice. During those visits, members of the congregations often tell him that the program has helped their pastor to be more comfortable and confident. Some congregations share that they have never had a pastor stay so long. Chilton said he tries to help those congregations see themselves as teaching parishes that have a wonderful opportunity to help shape a ministry.
Company of New PastorsFostering Excellence among New Presbyterian Pastors
The Company of New Pastors is a vocational formation program designed to foster excellence in new pastors within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by deepening and sustaining the cultivation of their theological vocation.
The initiative grew out of a commitment by the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship to help pastors be agile, imaginative people of substance in faith and life, explained Sheldon Sorge, director of the program. The hope, he added, was that a pastor’s renewed passion and love for God, the church, and the world would affect the entire congregation.
Participants enter the Company of New Pastors program at the midpoint of their seminary experience and continue for four years after seminary graduation. The program has an ongoing nature so that participants can develop relationships that allow deep conversation and engagement.
Since its inception, the program has involved 300 people—250 new pastors and 50 mentors. The program currently includes students at eight Presbyterian seminaries. (Two additional Presbyterian seminaries are ready to join the initiative, and conversations are taking place with several non-Presbyterian seminaries.) Seminary faculty members who are ordained pastors convene their “companies” on a monthly basis to share in prayer and theological study of the Presbyterian ordination vows. All seminarian groups meet together in the fall for a national consultation at the denomination’s national headquarters.
Upon graduation, the participants are reconfigured into regional groups, which are convened and led by pairs of experienced pastors. The curriculum for the four years beyond seminary focuses on the “theological underpinnings of the Lord’s Day service,” Sorge said. Attention is paid to significant theological works, as well as to preaching and worship leadership. Most participants, according to Sorge, say the program has had a dramatic effect on their preaching and worship leadership.
Another participant explained that “finding space and opportunity to sharpen my own theological understandings and sharpen my own sense of theological vocation is a great blessing—not only for me, but I hope it empowers and enables me to go back to the parish and allow the people there to understand the world around them in terms of the language of faith.”
Between gatherings, participants follow daily disciplines, including scripture reading, prayer, and study of the church’s confessional resources. “The disciplines that I learned inform me daily,” said a former participant. “I think my ministry would be completely different if it were not for these disciplines.”
Initial research on the program, according to Sorge, shows that its participants are staying longer in their first calls. After the first call, new pastors often are left on their own, he said. In order for there to be ongoing discernment and renegotiating of the call, he added, people need to talk—as they are able to do in the program’s “companies.”
“Our program also helps those new pastors who go in starry-eyed and then have problems arise,” Sorge said. “The group provides friends who can help you discern whether it’s
a toxic call and staying too long will kill you or whether you need to hang in there, work your way through whatever it is, and not run from it.”
One of the surprising learnings from the program has been the unexpected sense of renewal among the mentors. “We selected people who embodied the graces of fruitful, faithful ministry and have been about it for awhile,” Sorge said. “So we were stunned to discover that they have found the program to be revolutionary for themselves. They report that it has made a huge difference in their own ministries.”
The program, he noted, also has been significant for the large group of people who have graduated from seminary but are not ready to be called to pastoral ministry—whether because a spouse cannot relocate or the candidate has not passed the ordination exams or completed the ordination requirements. It takes nine months after seminary graduation for half of the people who want a pastoral call with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to receive a call, Sorge said.
“This is a critical period,” he said. “How do you keep the call alive when you feel that you’ve been left on the bus or that you’re viewed as damaged goods? This program has become a significant way of helping people hold to their call. Some of our best pastors have come from this pool of people. This makes our program distinctive since most first-call programs are for people who already have a call. In our polity, the passage from candidacy to first call can be a lonely passage. Our program provides a community to help people work through it.”
Members of the congregations the participants serve have provided strong affirmation of these new pastors, Sorge noted. They report that they perceive the participants to be good or very good pastors and positive representatives of the denomination. They also have described the new pastors as being open to concerns and new ideas, and remarkably able to affirm diverse groups of people.
Sorge said the denomination is working on a funding plan that will enable this program to continue beyond the life of the current Lilly grant.
Residency in Ministry
The Power of Pastoral and Congregational Mentoring
The Residency in Ministry program, now concluded, was an initiative of the North Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. The program placed new clergy in “mentoring churches” within the conference for a two-year residency.
Charles Johnson, the program’s director, said the program design team had decided that the mentoring churches should be large enough to have multiple staff. The senior minister would serve as a mentor for the resident, and a group of lay people from the congregation would form a mentoring group. The conference would provide salary support for the resident, and the congregation would provide housing, office space, continuing education, and benefits.
A new seminary graduate, recruited for the program because of promise, would then be matched with one of the mentoring churches and would serve there as a resident for two years. The resident would be free of a specific portfolio of responsibility so that he or she would have an opportunity to become familiar with the full gamut of pastoral functions.
Johnson met with the residents in a monthly covenant group experience that included Bible study, outside resource people, and spiritual sharing. During these group times, the residents “let their hair down” about their problems and what they were learning, Johnson recalled. As a result, they developed strong relationships.
During the program’s six-year life, 10 residents were placed in nine congregations. “We saw it as an experimental program that would help us learn about how new pastors can get a good start for a lifetime of service,” Johnson said. “We came to the conclusion that we had done that learning, so we are not going to continue the program.”
The learning has included feedback from participants in the program. Several of the residents bonded so well with the congregations where they served as residents that they stayed on as associates. Others moved on to new appointments.
One resident who was appointed to a congregation that was planning a building expansion said, “I felt so comfortable in that setting. My mentor and I had worked all of it through, so I had the right skills.” Another’s appointment was to a conflicted congregation. “The program prepared me for this situation,” the resident later reported. “I would have failed otherwise.”
The program also helped the conference learn the importance of identifying and affirming congregations that pride themselves on their ability to “train” young pastors, Johnson said. As a result of the program, the conference’s district superintendents have been asked to give serious attention to identifying these types of churches.
“Our denominational system of appointments can engender resentment,” Johnson explained. “Sometimes congregations become adversarial to their pastors because they don’t know how to be adversarial to the conference. When we put brand new people into those situations, they ask themselves what they did wrong and question their ability. If they can get a start in a place that is supportive and mentoring, then they are safe to make the normal mistakes of a new pastor.”
The program also resulted in learning about the importance of mentoring for new clergy. Johnson said the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry has a process in place for bringing new persons into ordination. The process, which lasts three to four years, includes a mentoring piece, a covenant group piece, and a writing piece.
“Doing mentoring well will make some people lifelong pastors,” Johnson said. “The mentoring relationship has to be between people who are close geographically—not 200 miles apart. We hope to begin to put a mentoring process in place that’s more effective and to work more intentionally with covenant groups. By doing that, we will let young pastors know that we really want them in ministry and want to help hone the innate skills they have for a lifetime of service.”
Johnson noted that the program also allowed the conference to do some things outside the box of United Methodist polity. The bishop and cabinet agreed to allow the program’s leadership team to identify the candidates for the residency program and then to bring them together with the participating senior pastors and congregational mentoring teams for a day-long discernment process. The bishop and cabinet then approved the assignments recommended by the team out of the discernment process. “It was a tremendous gift to our program to be able to try a cutting-edge approach to staffing,” he remarked.
Johnson also recalled that early in the program’s development, the developers received questions from other United Methodist conferences. Johnson then learned that other conferences were beginning to call their probationary process for ordination candidates a “residency in ministry.”
“They were using the terminology, but not the process,” he said. “I hope that we can help redefine the probationary process and change it so that it truly becomes a residency in ministry—not just another name for the same old process.”
1. James Small, coordinator, Office of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from Company of New Pastors, dir. Vernon Leat, prod. Blake Richter, DVD, Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2006.