by George Anderson
“I went to Law School to learn Law. I learned how to practice Law after I joined a law practice.” Robert Ballou, a lawyer in the church I serve, said this to show that he understood when I said the same thing about ministry. While I can’t imagine anyone enjoying and appreciating seminary more than I did, I learned the practice of ministry serving in the church under the guidance of other ministers and laypeople who shared wisdom from their disciplines. Because certain aspects of a vocational practice are best learned while immersed in the practice itself, the focus of continuing education right out of seminary should shift from identity to practice, from theory to skills.
For me, much of that practical learning was “on the job” and not at continuing education events because I was blessed with gifted ministers and laypeople who offered me nurture and support. However, many new ministers do not have, and do not know where to find, such a network of support. A shocking number leave the ministry before the fifth anniversary of their ordination.
Bothered by the rough start many have in ministry, I began to notice that most continuing education events for newly ordained ministers carry on the seminary project of focusing on pastoral identity over pastoral practice and do not use parish pastors and laypeople as leaders. The lack of practical education becomes a problem when a congregation expects the ministers they call to already know how to deal with staffing issues, read a budget, raise funds, develop leaders, guide a church in long range planning, and manage competing interests.
Thanks to a fund for theological education, Second Presbyterian Church and Union Presbyterian Seminary have been able to offer one model for how practical skills can be shared in a continuing education setting. The sixth Kittye Susan Trent Symposium for Newly Ordained Ministers was held at Second Presbyterian Church this past March. The symposium is five and a half days that begin with worship and lead to seminars that focus on practice. To enhance peer mentoring, the group is limited to eight participants each year. The schedule includes times for rest and play. Ken McFayden, a Union Presbyterian Seminary professor, and two experienced pastors, Ed McLeod of Raleigh’s First Presbyterian Church and I, guide the symposium and lead some of the seminars. The rest of the seminars are offered by other experienced pastors or laypeople.
Imagine a day focused on finances where Ed McLeod talks about effective stewardship; Nancy Gray, president of Hollins University, talks about fund raising; Joe Miller, head of his own construction company and our church treasurer, talks about financial interpretation; Phil Boggs, Church Administrator, talks about budgeting and tracking funds; and, Steven Waskey a financial planner, talks about the minister’s personal finances. Such is one day of the symposium.
“I don’t think a day goes by where I do not reference in some way to something I picked up at the symposium,” says Dean Pogue, a first year participant who calls on various seminar leaders regularly. “The symposium provided some things I didn’t know I needed. Now I know what to look for,” said Caroline Jinkins who participated this year. All the feedback received has been similarly positive and grateful. At the recent NEXT Conference in Charlotte, I ran into many former participants who told me again how much the symposium has meant for their ministries. Because the nurture of new pastors has become a passion of my ministry, hearing these reports makes me deeply thankful for the symposium. My favorite quote was spoken tongue-in-cheek by Rachel Achtemeier Rhodes who last year said to Ed and me, “Thank you for teaching us what we need to know to someday take your jobs.” We laughed, but that is precisely why Ed and I have been doing this. I have heard it said that the church needs my generation to “get out of the way” in order to find what’s next. That’s true, as it is with every generation, but, first, we have some great stuff to pass on.
I am not suggesting that what is done at Second Presbyterian can be exactly replicated. I do suggest that the components which make the symposium such a helpful experience for new ministers can be sought out elsewhere. A sabbatical devoted to studying programs for newly ordained ministers led me to believe that in addition to spiritual disciplines of worship, reflection and prayer, these are the components most needed by new ministers: mentors to emulate, coaches to instruct, trusted peers with whom to share and learn, laypeople who are willing to teach what they know, exposure to “best practices,” and teaching congregations (either where one serves or where one can visit). Not all governing bodies can provide these components, and fewer can provide them well. Also, intangibles such as right leadership, chemistry among participants, quality materials, and accountability need to be in place, or even the best constructed program will bomb. However, ministers on their own or as groups can seek out some or all of these components, and keep after it till what nurtures and sustains is found.
What can be done for new ministers where you serve?