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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Preparing the Pastors We Need: Part Three

This is the last in a series of posts drawing from a little book by George Mason titled Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation’s Role in Training Clergy (Alban, 2012). The book could be described as practical guidance for congregations and clergy interested in supporting excellent "in context" learning for clergy in training. This applies to many contexts, not just the particular sort of pastoral residency Mason has led at Wilshire Baptist, the church he leads in Dallas.  This is so because Mason has his finger on the pulse of the heart of the matter with regards to, as his title puts it, preparing the pastors we need.

What IS the heart of the matter? According to Mason, the heart of the matter is getting into the rhythm and flow of ministry. Here, he means literally getting into it, as in jumping into the stream and getting wet. By rhythm, he means figuring out and following regular weekly patterns. This will not be obvious to many seminarians who have not yet had to cope with such a high level of self-management. Dock Hollingsworth, a Baptist theologian who teaches ministry at McAfee School of Theology, calls this the "syllabus problem."  Students who are used to structuring their days and weeks by the instructions laid out in course syllabi now find themselves without that structure, wondering what exactly the assignments are and how to fulfill them well. Offering clear expectations and helpful guidelines as to the rhythms of day to day ministry can reduce anxiety in this regard. Connected with rhythm, Mason comments on flow as a way to describe the arc of learning across time. During the first days and weeks everything seems new and one's leadership is halting, requiring carefully thinking about next steps. This is markedly different from months later when students take on the bearing of pastors in that place, seemingly making intuitive decisions about how to lead and act in this or that ministry situation.

What lies in between the halting efforts of a newbie intern and the intuitive leadership of a mature intern? Mason says many things help, but one is essential: reflective practice. It does little good to try something out with no feedback on how it went. Three levels of reflection practice are important, Mason argues. "Observe and reflect" lets the student--as a pastor in training--be an "authorized" observer, going with the supervisor to the hospital room, family home, or a pre-marital meeting. Being present together then provides the basis of a conversation about the "whats" and "whys" involved in the situation.  Supervisors need to be able to articulate their theological rationale and practical strategy for engaging the situation the way they did. Interns need to be curious, asking the so-called "naive" question which may be erroneous or may just focus in on a crucial point.

Yet many if not most interns will come with much experience in observation mode. Quickly, a second level emerges. The intern will not only observe but "participate and reflect." The supervisor can agree in advance on what role the intern can play in the hospital visit or the pre-marital session. Then, again, conscious reflection on the dynamics of the situation and the roles played by each opens up the experience to deeper levels of integration of learning by heart, head, and hands. 

Lastly, of course, and as a goal for each intern, a third level appears. This third level is "lead and reflect." While this may seem obvious, there are pitfalls to avoid. The supervisor should not simply send the intern off to engage in ministry, checking things of the list of 'to-dos' the pastor now doesn't have to cover. While of course some independence is helpful, the supervisor needs to be in proximity on a regular basis, observing the intern leading so adequate reflection can ensue afterwards. If, for instance, the intern only preaches when the supervisor is out of town, the level of feedback is greatly reduced. It is important for the intern to have a regular go at core tasks of ministry, growing into a leading role, and in the heart of the congregation's life.

In the end, growth happens through the reflective loop of learning--planning, acting, and reflecting. The goal is for this to happen with increasing risk and responsibility for leadership, alongside and with the support of an attentive and thoughtful supervisor whose aim is not to judge but to discern current strengths and next steps for growth. Remember, we do our part, but be confident in this: God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

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