I’ve found 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. While the program is a distinctive one, mostly intended to help deepen pastoral formation for traditions without the strong internship requirement we Lutherans have, the book has distinctive learnings to encourage the ways we work together in our common work of vocational formation for evangelical public leadership. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be reflecting on sections of the book, and encourage your questions and comments.
The basic model for the pastoral residency program is the same model as used for medical training. After finishing medical school, new doctors take their first job in a residency setting, working for a distinct time under careful supervision but as licensed physicians. The key here is a combination of really taking on the role—each person is a doctor, and engages patients thus—but with regular peer reflection on practice and supervision by an experienced physician. With a congregational model, a third key reflection loop is added: a lay leadership group meant to give direct support and feedback to the new pastor.
A key connection between Mason’s focus and our Lutheran practice of internship lies in how the pastoral residents are treated as pastors, albeit fledgling ones. There is an important learning difference between serving as a seminary student and serving as an intern pastor or vicar. One learns differently, and more deeply, when one ‘tries on’ the role. In the moment when someone comes to you as their pastor, the pretense of standing at some distance from the role evaporates. Immediately the question becomes how am I to be her or his pastor in this moment? The risk and responsibility of such moments, almost every one of them a ‘first’, are the stuff of pastoral formation in practice. As Mason puts it, “the foundation for a lifetime of ministry is laid in the first few years, for good or ill.” Because this is true, the holding environment of good supervisor, peer, and lay support for risking, failing, succeeding, and growing is crucial.
Mason makes the case for intentional work on the part of the congregation to become a teaching place. Opening itself to become a vital place of teaching and learning in ministry helps the seminary student, to be sure. Yet it changes the congregation, too, in positive ways. Churches know things—things basic to good ministry—if only they become aware of them for the sake of teaching newcomers to the life and work of ministry. They should not, Mason argues, feel what they have to offer is less important than the learning offered in seminary classrooms. Pastors need to know the basics of faith and ministry offered there. Yet knowing these basics does not make a pastor; another kind of learning is needed where this knowledge is put to use in congregational life. Pr. Jim Gertmenian, another pastoral residency mentor who serves at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, puts it this way, “I have tremendous respect for what seminaries do,” he says, “but for all their good efforts, they aren’t able to replicate the range of situations that prepare students for the ‘daily-ness’ of parish ministry.” Indeed. As one pastoral resident put it, “This isn’t a classroom; it’s the real thing.”
Thanks for being a crucial part of our work teaching ‘the real thing’ of ministry. Between classroom and congregation, the Holy Spirit draws us into the work of raising up a new generation of leaders for God’s mission of mercy and love for all creation.
Next Time: “Forming a Team for Mentoring in Ministry”