In May’s issue of Ministry of Context I began a series of articles drawing from a little book by George Mason titled Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation’s Role in Training Clergy (Alban, 2012). Pr. Mason has led Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas since 1989. For the past 12 years, Wilshire has hosted a pastoral residency program focused on mentoring young pastors in their first years after graduation from seminary.
In the last post I discussed the crucial feature of learning in practice: one has to ‘try on’ the role of pastor! The classroom always remains at some remove from the moment when a person looks to you as their pastor, expecting ministry in God’s name from you! To those who have spent years in ministry, the magnitude of this moment can be forgotten. But for those going through it for the first time, well, it is a “Holy Cow!” moment.
Mason couches his discussion of forming a support team for preparing pastors in a congregation by saying it takes the whole congregation. I would summarize his perspective as entailing a three-legged stool of support for learning ministry in practice. The three legs are the staff leadership, the lay support persons, and peer colleagues. The crucial thing is for each of the three to work together in being a “teaching congregation”- a place both deeply engaged in God’s ministry and continuously reflective about what God is up to in, with, and under their life together.
More than this, however, as one student put it: the congregation “allowed my skills to develop and mature in real time, but from the safety of protected space.” While everyone deserves to enter into a new practice with space for growth and learning, sometimes new pastors are expected to already be wise mature pastors. Yet they are just beginning a learning journey lasting for decades. Wisdom in ministry comes by the Spirit’s work in us week by week, situation by situation, as new pastors faithfully open themselves to the needs of the world before them.
Staff Leadership means, of course, the lead pastor. While the lead pastor need not be the primary supervisor, the support of the lead pastor is crucial. Her or his support matters for the overall buy-in of the congregation, but also in opening up time to engage the new pastor. All staff members, from custodial and administrative support to associate pastors and music ministers, have wisdom to share about life in ministry. Both regular participation in staff life and openness to experiencing the breadth of congregational life facilitate time learning with and from the mix of staff.
Lay Support begins with a designated lay committee to pray for the intern, provide structured opportunities for feedback and encouragement, help integrate the intern into the congregation and community, and offer their perspectives on living Christian life day to day. They might also be an entree into specific aspects of leadership learned best on internship including administration and finance. They are also an entree to neighborhoods as the intern develops skills for reaching out with a Gospel invitation to those not connected with church.
Peer Colleagues are, despite what many might think, the deepest source of ongoing learning for pastors. Those who do not have peer friendships often suffer from loneliness and depression. Those who have good peer networks find they learn exactly because they share similar questions, concerns, and experiences, and talking through these in a safe environment offers an important space for reflection on learning as well as a space for idea sharing and generation.
Most congregations do not have more than one intern at a time. If they do, peer collegiality can fit in naturally. If not, seeking out a cohort of interns or new pastors can build in the space to learn together through the many firsts of beginning in ministry. Supervisors, too, Mason argues, need peer colleagues to learn from as they practice the art of teaching in practice.
Next up: Why is Reflective Practice Essential?