by James P. Wind

As many readers of Congregations will recall, in 2008, the Alban Institute published a Special Report called Becoming a Pastor: Reflections on the Transition into Ministry. It was the first public report on a decade long initiative, funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. The report focused on more than 30 distinct experiments to help new seminary graduates move into their first calls with power, effectiveness, and success. Each project attempted to create a rich environment in which new pastors could learn the practice of ministry from mentors, peers, seasoned clergy, and wise congregation members.

From February 28 – March 2, 2011, I attended a Transition into Ministry Leadership Summit, convened by Lilly Endowment and facilitated by the Fund for Theological Education. More than 130 participants were present, the vast majority of them hands-on leaders of various projects focused on this pivotal transition in the life of American congregations. They were pastors, seminary faculty, and denominational leaders from around the country who were all doing more than talking about a problem that challenges all of America’s religious communities. They were doing something to address it.

The meeting provided an opportunity to see what had happened in the three years since Alban released its report. Dr. Chris Coble, the Lilly Endowment program officer who guides this initiative, gave some orienting statistics. Since 1999, more than 132 organizations (102 congregations, 18 seminaries, 6 independent/ecumenical religious organizations, 5 national judicatories, and 1 college) had become directly involved. That number was far larger than the cohort David Wood and I had counted when we wrote the report. The Lilly Endowment has invested more than $78 million dollars in the effort—again a much larger number than when we reported in 2008. As Coble looked at the size of the effort being led by the people in the room, he concluded that the initiative had become a movement. As the meeting unfolded it became clear to me that the movement he was pointing to was actually a movement of movements.

I could count at least five. First, there is the growing number of individual clergy who benefited from this major effort to start their pastoral careers in intentionally reflective ways. A growing alumni association has spread across the US and now works in a wide variety of congregational settings. Its members are advance platoons of reflective practitioners who now work in a wide range of denominations and who serve a wide variety of congregations—urban and rural, small and large, white, black, and multicultural.

The second movement is a growing group of clergy, congregations, and others who are refining ways to help entering clergy do the kinds of learning that can launch them into flourishing pastoral ministries. More than 100 congregations are now thinking carefully about their role as teaching congregations and several of them are intentionally teaching others how to do this. Books and other resources are being written to help congregations and clergy learn how to construct residency models for clergy, how to mentor, etc.

A third movement is the intentional creation of congregational clusters to work together to shape residency programs for new pastors. Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis created the first cluster program in 2000 when it launched its TIM residency program. It’s now becoming one of the most promising models. Several of the early, pioneering congregations in the initiative are revising their programs to include neighboring congregations. Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas is now working with First Presbyterian Church, Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, Saint Michael, and All Angels Episcopal Church and a congregation in Mobile, Alabama to shape eight pastoral residents for their ministries. Several other congregations are doing this cluster building in major cities around the country. Suddenly what had been the enterprise of one congregation now becomes the shared work of five or six. Interestingly, these new collaborations cross denominational boundaries, opening the possibility of ecumenical formation of first call pastors. Interestingly, a couple of the congregations are considering pushing beyond ecumenical collaboration into interfaith projects.

A fourth movement is financial. One of the big questions about this initiative has been about the ability of the various experiments to become self sustaining. That pressure has led to many of the clustering projects mentioned above. More partners allow costs to be shared. But all of these efforts are seeking to find ways to raise their own funds. Some congregations have ambitious endowment campaigns underway and have put money in the bank to support their work with these entering pastors. Others have written the additional costs of their programs into their operating budgets. Still others are creating collaborations that assess each congregation that joins the effort. And many are finding ways to support new clergy in more cost-effective ways.

A fifth movement is taking place within denominations. Several projects are building collaborations among congregations, judicatories, seminaries, and national church bodies. Wellesley Congregational Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts is leading an effort to help the UCC churches in the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC help every entering pastor become part of a New Clergy Group. If their program works, its leaders hope to spread this way of working throughout the UCC. Trinity Lutheran Church of Moorhead, Minnesota is working with the Eastern North Dakota and Northwestern Minnesota synods of the ELCA as well as Luther Seminary in a similar way with the intention of spreading this way of working throughout the larger denomination. The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago is working with sister dioceses in Dallas, Olympia, and Massachusetts to widen its program and is inviting interesting partners like the Willow Creek Association into its collaboration.

And so the movement spreads. What will it look like in three years? Stay tuned.

Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1