Lay people usually assume that graduates of an accredited seminary are prepared to lead a congregation and minister to its members. The question is, Does a seminary education alone qualify a graduate to lead a congregation? Some graduates easily make the transition between seminary and congregation, but others flounder. Can the gap be narrowed so that all newly ordained clergy are able to move quickly into a leadership role?
Some Lutheran bodies that are now part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have sponsored programs for newly ordained pastors for more than fifty years, and the denomination is developing a new national program. The United Methodist Church requires that persons entering the ministry be ordained as deacons and undergo a two-year probation; during that time each annual conference conducts a program that addresses their adjustment to their new role. For more than twenty-five years Presbyterians have held conferences and conducted programs for “young” pastors. The Alban Institute also has consulted with churches and seminaries and has published some very helpful guides for newly ordained pastors, among them Roy M. Oswald’s New Beginnings: The Pastorate Start-Up Workbook.
But the efforts have not eliminated the gap. The difficulty is that neither denomination nor seminary perceives solving the problem as a primary responsibility. In 1992, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, with the support of the Lilly Endowment, invited leaders of three Texas presbyteries to meet with some seminary professors who were responsible for the practice of ministry courses. The group studied what the denominations were doing, interviewed consultants, and discussed current books on ministry. It devised a two-year project, “Entry into Ministry,” to be managed by presbytery leaders, that would help the presbyteries test a program and the seminaries to identify areas where they could help bridge the gap.
Entry into Ministry Project
Participants in the project were nine newly ordained Presbyterian ministers who had attended denominational, evangelical, and university-related seminaries. They were serving churches ranging in size from seventy-five to 250 members. The evaluation at the end of the trial period was so positive that ways of conducting the program at a lower cost are now being tested. (The design and evaluation of the program are available from the Reverend Stewart T. Coffman, who directs it, at Grace Presbytery, 8000 John W. Carpenter Freeway, Dallas, TX 75247.)
The first group of novice ministers wanted help primarily in three areas, and the second program focuses more sharply on these. The first area is the ability to understand the “ethos” of a congregation. Ethos is the spirit of the congregation as expressed in worship, commonly held beliefs, program, projects, style of decision-making, interpretation of congregational history, buildings, and its expectations of its pastors. Identifying a congregation’s unique ethos and, above, all, its potential for carrying on the ministry of Christ in its community is a daunting task for someone with no previous experience.
The second is an understanding of the minister’s own leadership style and how it fits the congregation’s expectations. Unless new ministers have such an awareness, they may plan and lead without sensitivity to the spiritual needs of congregation and community. If their style clashes with congregational expectations, the mismatch will prevent useful ministry.
The third is the character, traits, or life style of the minister. What counts in a congregation is for the minister to be approachable, considerate of others, and one who is struggling to live a Christian life. It is also important that the minister be able to lead the congregation in worship and other church activities. Traits such as a hypercritical attitude, a confrontational style, impatience with people who disagree, or a tendency to withdraw from conflicts involving moral principles are not readily accepted in pastors—although they may be tolerated in a seminary if the offenders are students who do well in their courses.
Another way to narrow the gap between studying for ministry and actually practicing it is for denominations or clusters of churches and the seminary to share responsibility for bridging it. If both see the formal training of ministers as a process beginning with seminary and tapering off after several years of carefully examined experience under the guidance of peers and mentors, seminaries would be able to claim that graduates have a working knowledge of theological subjects, some experience in ministry under supervision, and are ready to start the practice of ministry. Churches would support new ministers as they learn their role. If churches and seminaries each understand their role, each would feel free to experiment. The Texas project is an example of how one denomination is testing ways to foster seminary graduates’ integration into their new congregational responsibilities.
The seminaries’ training task is complex. Students in mainstream seminaries are typically in their mid-thirties, have had experience in some profession, have families, are in debt, and are not well acquainted with biblical or theological literature. Faculty must equip them with a working knowledge of theology and deal with the explosion of knowledge in the physical, biological, and social sciences that touch on Christian beliefs.
The seminary is a school, not a congregation. Its classes can simulate but not replicate an actual congregational situation. Even when students work in a congregation, they are more like learners than leaders. Probably seminaries do not need to offer more courses or provide more opportunities for practical work in churches. They should think of other ways to strengthen the “Personal and Spiritual Formation” and “Capacity for Ministerial and Public Leadership” components of the M.Div. degree.
What Seminaries Might Do One way to experiment would be for seminaries to test ways they could enhance their graduates’ capacity for leadership in the three areas that the Texas project’s first group of students cited.
Seminary students have enough church experience to know that each congregation is unique, yet when some of them become pastors, they have difficulty understanding the congregation’s ethos and fumble their leadership role. Honoring a congregations corporate personality does not mean that pastors are to be chaplains of the status quo. In his evaluation of the Texas project, consultant Bill Gould commented: “For me this program has reinforced the fact that the dissatisfaction some clergy feel in their ministry is because they do not want to see or are unable to see the importance of becoming a part of the congregation. Pastors who are effective clearly value the history of the congregation and in the light of that, help the congregation further develop and extend its ministry.”
Seminaries can help the new minister understand his or her leadership style. Personality tests plus counseling about the results would alert students to the way they work with others. If students learned this in seminary, along with some of the principles of congregational leadership, they would be better prepared for their pastoral responsibilities.
‘Pastors who are effective clearly value the history of the congregation and . . . further develop and extend its ministry.’
Second, seminaries can educate students on elements of leadership. They may be able to carry out the work of the church more effectively if they learn various methods of clarifying a congregation’s mission, setting goals, and organizing its work. Through the case study method, students can be helped to understand how a combination of methods may fit certain types of church. Jackson Carroll’s book As One With Authority contains illustrations of how pastors, while maintaining their authority, adopt a leadership style that fits their congregation.
Third, seminaries can teach students how to gather information about a congregation that will reveal its self-understanding and its potential for change.
The newly ordained ministers in the Texas project represented a cross-section of Presbyterian seminary students and probably were much like most other candidates for ordained ministry. During the small group discussions about their life stories, including religious experience and beliefs, it became evident that many of them were engaged in some kind of personal struggle. They expressed profound appreciation for this opportunity to share with peers and mentors the nature of their personal problems and the progress they were making toward solution.
Novice ministers become acutely aware of their personal/religious struggle, probably because their life style is now under close scrutiny and they are dealing directly with deep human emotions related to the sickness, death, divorce, or child-rearing problems of church members. While in seminary, their own character traits could be “parked,” but now these traits have a direct bearing on their ability to be ministers.
Probably all seminaries, even small ones, have some form of psychotherapy for students with personality disorders serious enough to interfere with their course work. What can they do to promote student awareness of temperament, feeling states, or ego needs that will adversely affect their ministry? How can they help students begin to work on these matters? Courses on spirituality or on the devotional life may be useful, but something more precise and better focused on individual students is needed.
It is not unusual for a seminary, during the orientation period, to assess students’ ability to speak and write and their competence in philosophy and biblical language. If remedial work is recommended, a specialist, often from outside the seminary, is available for individual tutoring. There is no stigma to remedial work, and it is not noted on the student’s transcript.
Similarly, the seminary could test leadership potential and share the results with the student. It is important that students perceive this as an expression of the seminary’s concern about their future leadership capacity and that all students participate. The psychiatrist or clinical psychologist who supervises this part of the orientation should be someone apart from the seminary. The professor of pastoral care might set up the program and serve as the connection to the dean and faculty. This would be a practical way a practical way for all students to view themselves apart from religious language. The few who need counseling will be able to start the process before their ordination.
The transition from seminary to congregation can be more easily bridged if seminaries and denominations each recognize it as a common concern and work to close it.