Columbia Theological Seminary board member John Aldridge provides a powerful example of long-range, solution-oriented thinking as he addresses both the recruitment needs of his institution and denominational pastoral shortages. Boards, at their best, strive for solutions that link their mission to that of the larger community they serve. Are you thinking beyond your walls?

In early 2001, a big idea seized Atlanta lawyer John Aldridge, who's a trustee of Columbia Theological Seminary in suburban Decatur, Georgia. The idea was this: The tools and tactics of the modern business world might help the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) address its urgent shortage of professional pastors. Forthright discussion of the vocation of parish ministry might lead the most talented young church members to entertain images of themselves as future ministers the way they now envision themselves as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Seminaries and churches might reach these young people using the same information management technology that may soon lead Aldridge's Atlanta law firm to replace its plush, book-filled library with a virtual one.

Aldridge sat down to lunch with the Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), his denomination's chief executive officer, and introduced a concept he had not yet committed to paper. When adult church people see teen-age and young adult church members display initiative and service in their churches, they could submit the youths' names (with their consent) to a central database that would be accessible to seminaries, internship and scholarship programs, and other churches. Moderated electronic forums might connect the young people with peers who are also considering future careers as church leaders.

Lawyer John Aldridge, a trustee of Columbia Theological Seminary in suburban Decatur, Georgia, is shown here in his office overlooking downtown Atlanta. His experience in the world of business shaped his vision for how to address the pastoral shortage in his church.

Photograph by Judy Ondrey

Aldridge moves fast. By the fall of 2002, not only the Presbyterians, but also the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church had signed on for the Pastoral Leadership Search Effort ("PLSE," pronounced "pulse"), a program funded by a $2.3 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to the Fund for Theological Education. In November 2002, young Presbyterian seminarians and Presbyterian leaders from around the United States sat around a table in Atlanta talking about how God works in people's lives and designing a program that the PCUSA will launch by September 2003.

John Aldridge is accustomed to leading, and to thinking in terms of long-term solutions to large-scale problems. A founding partner of McKenna Long & Aldridge, an international law firm whose clients include the State of Georgia and large multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola Enterprises, Boeing, General Motors, and AT&T, he has served as an elder at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the U.S. About working on PLSE, he said, "I've never felt more led by the Holy Spirit in doing something."

From the window of his fifty-third-floor office in downtown Atlanta, Aldridge gets an annual lesson in the efficiency of God's process. In the spring, when falcons nest in the building's ledges, Aldridge watches the raptor mothers swoop down on unfortunate small prey and sees the falcon chicks waddle, molt, and make their first attempts at flight.

As a seminary trustee, Aldridge began to make connections between seminary recruitment data, the shortage of pastors, and life in churches around the country. He attributes the speed of his response to a "business approach." He explained: "In business, you have to move fast before the facts change."

The current facts are clear. The median age of students in PCUSA seminaries is 40. The length of the average career in parish ministry is seventeen years, about half of the norm for comparable professions like law and medicine. Of serving Presbyterian pastors, only 7 percent are under 35 and 43 percent are over 50. Reflecting on these numbers, Aldridge concluded that the church "must do a better job in helping young people to discern a call to ministry." The young should be challenged to consider vocations in the church, he thought, as they begin to think about where they will go to college and what their life work will be.

"Once people become aware of the critical shortage of pastoral leadership, they want to know what they can do to help," Aldridge said. "It took little or no money to develop the concept, but it took an enormous amount of volunteer time and effort and in-kind contributions...We also had a lot of folks praying for us!"

Support came from people in all corners of the faith world and from Aldridge's professional network. McKenna Long & Aldridge provided pro bono secretarial time and supplies. Seminaries paid travel expenses for their student representatives to the planning task force. The FTE offered staff consulting time. The creative team who named and branded PLSE and the video production company were Presbyterians, who donated their initial time with the expectation of future paid work as the project progresses.

Several thousand dollars of unsolicited contributions went untouched until after the planning phase was complete. The only money spent was on travel, and task force members absorbed those costs themselves. "We just expected everyone to pay their own way, and thankfully, they did!" Aldridge said. He himself used frequent-flier miles for his travel and spent only "a couple of thousand dollars" on the project over one year.

As a Duke undergraduate, Aldridge planned to be a pediatrician but "fell in love with the law." Reared in a family that was first Lutheran, then Methodist, he attended church routinely as a young adult. When he married, Aldridge adopted his wife's Presbyterianism. Of his wife, the Reverend Lucy Aldridge, he says, "besides being the light of my life, she is responsible for the growth in my faith." Lucy Aldridge worked in prison ministries for many years before her ordination. She enrolled in seminary after the three Aldridge children reached adulthood. She is currently minister-at-large in the Atlanta Presbytery.

Aldridge does not deny that the life experience and maturity of second-career pastors can be invaluable to the church, but he hopes that more first-career pastors will result from a program that encourages church members from high school to college to entertain the notion that they might grow up to be ministers.

For the youths targeted by the project, the path to ministry may not be as clear as the path to other careers. Mentoring from seminarians and new ministers and contact with seminaries will educate them about what a pre-ministry major might be, what the course of graduate study is like, and how ministers work day-to-day.

Aldridge conceded that ministry does not offer the financial rewards or status that some other professions do, but added: "God calls ministers to service in his own time and for his purposes." He envisions PLSE as an ongoing, sustainable "part of the process of God's call ... creating an environment in which gifted young people will be better able to hear a call if they receive it and, hopefully, to accept it." 

John Aldridge confers with Thomas Daniel, whom he selected to chair PLSE's program design committee.

Photograph by Judy Ondrey

The task force chose to capitalize on the structure of the Presbyterian Church, which lends itself to denomination-wide initiatives. Regional presbyteries supervise individual congregations and report to a central administrative office in Louisville, Kentucky. That structure makes it possible to convey a consistent message even to the remotest, most rural congregations.

Denominational officials granted Aldridge an unusual level of access and endorsement. He was given a place on the agenda at a number of important church meetings across the U.S. in 2002, and at the General Assembly meeting in Denver in May 2003. PCUSA officials in Louisville arranged for briefings with the Committee for Theological Education, which consists of seminary presidents. Materials mailed to the 173 presbyteries included personal cover letters from the desks of Kirkpatrick, the slated clerk, and John J. Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council. The Reverend Victor D. Pentz agreed to let Peachtree Presbyterian serve as national host church for Presbyterian PLSE.

Detterick says he was impressed that the volunteer efforts of one "very dedicated, very committed layman working with other lay people" had generated such an on-target, thought-through solution. "The church at its best is church folks using their creativity and ingenuity...using the gifts God gave them to get the church to go where it needs to go, where God is calling it to go," he said.

The first phase of the Presbyterians' three-year project entailed gathering statistics from seminaries and presbyteries, speaking with seminarians in their 20s, conducting focus groups at churches, and looking for possible sources of money. Rank-and-file church members in the focus groups were stunned by the extent of the pastor shortage, Aldridge said. Seminarians often told him they had had no one to talk to about their hopes and concerns and said that finding a mentor had been critically important to them.

When Aldridge contacted Lilly Endowment to see if it would finance the effort, Endowment staffers suggested he consult the Fund for Theological Education, specifically Melissa Wiginton, director of the Fund's Ministry Programs and Partnership for Excellence. In Wiginton, Aldridge found a strong partner. The FTE allowed her to allocate a substantial portion of her time to the PLSE project.

A former attorney, Wiginton says she is an advocate at heart, and that her vocation is "the vocation of young people." She sees pastoral ministry as "the kind of work that can hold all of your deepest values, your intellect, your energies, and all of you" and is excited at the prospect of "issuing the invitation, keeping [the possibility of a pastoral career] before them, in their imagination."

In her view, the pastor shortage problem is primarily a crisis of relationship. What the PLSE database can do is give those communities a method and a tool to help them cultivate relationships between adult and youth members, and between congregations, seminaries, and denominational administrators.

After Aldridge and Wiginton met in Indianapolis with Lilly Endowment representatives, the Endowment suggested that they investigate ways to create synergisms with work the Fund already does across denominations, with seminaries and universities, and with individuals pursuing pastoral leadership roles. In March 2002, Aldridge presented his ideas in multidenominational meetings called by the FTE. The proposal Lilly funded calls for the FTE to act as the hub for the denominational PLSE programs.

The central database the FTE is to host will hold information about young leaders in churches around the country who have agreed to participate in PLSE. Aldridge writes, "If each PCUSA church would identify only one gifted, young leader to participate in the PLSE initiative, we would have a pool of over 10,000 young leaders to inform and to nurture as they consider their career choices over the coming years!"

The UCC, United Methodists, and Episcopalians have also committed money and personnel but have just begun program designs. In some ways, Presbyterian PLSE is a prototype, but Wiginton emphasizes, "All denominations feel the need to attend to the same reality, but the way they approach that need is different because they are different cultures."

Steve Johnson, minister of higher and theological education for the United Church of Christ, noted that the UCC's final configuration of PLSE may be "a little different from the original vision."

The plan is for each denomination's data to be accessible only to that denomination. However, it is hoped that the participating denominations will share their successes and that synergisms created by PLSE will benefit all participating denominations.

Thomas Daniel, 28, is the director of Atlanta's North Avenue Presbyterian Church's college ministry and a student at Columbia Theological Seminary. Chosen by Aldridge to chair the program design committee, Daniel calls Aldridge's idea -- and his passion for it -- "contagious." He accepted the job because he was impressed by "the freedom he was offering me and the other students to come up with a program that would be effective."

In Daniel's view, effective communication has always been "the great task" of the church. He and Aldridge agree that the church must demonstrate its relevance to young people by showing willingness to use their media and rituals. The gatherings Daniel plans at his church include performances by rock bands as well as Bible studies. Many members of the generation born in the 1980s do not attend church socials at all. The most ambitious of them have full schedules of school, work, sports, and church activities. In their spare time, many visit chat rooms, send e-mail, and subscribe to online mailing lists. Online is the natural place to approach them.

Just a few years ago, Daniel was a Davidson College philosophy major, and describes his state of mind as "not a Christian or religiously affiliated." In his senior year, he took a class with Dr. John Kuykendall, who recognized his student's pastoral gifts and arranged a private meeting for him with the president of Columbia Theological Seminary. Daniel confesses, "I accepted the offer only because I needed a recommendation letter [from Kuykendall].... I showed up late and in my baseball cap."

Beth Godfrey, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, is another member of PLSE's program design committee. Although she is only 28 years old, pastoral ministry will be her second career. She says her job as a business-oriented designer was also a Christian vocation. It helped hone the skills that brought her to the attention of church members where she worked as a lay minister. Godfrey sharpened her intergenerational communication abilities on projects with architects and engineers much older than she is, and members of her church noticed her pastoral skills and told her so. "That is what opened me up to do the discernment and prayer," she acknowledged. In time that led her to apply to seminary.

She is excited by the possibility that PLSE will result in other young people having the same experience she had: "Local church members...that 75-year-old woman or 28 year-old married couple...need to look at that young person and say the words to them."

By September 2003, all 11,150 PCUSA churches will receive a PLSE kit that prepares pastors to educate their congregations about the how they can create opportunities for the younger members to serve, lead, and explore their faith. In addition to a video, the kit contains instructions for nominating the first group of PLSE honorees, for getting their consent to be included in the database, and for sending the contact information to Atlanta.

A host church in each presbytery will serve as a communication hub between the churches and the PLSE office at the FTE.

Now Aldridge is inundated with e-mail and phone calls from pastors. The task force has dissolved as planned, and he is actively searching for a full-time executive director or project coordinator. He is confident that by the time churches refer the first of their young leaders to the program, the database will be functioning and the staff in place.

The cooperation he has witnessed -- between laity and clergy, young and old people, funders, and administrators -- inspires Thomas Daniel. "We're modeling what I hope is the future of the church," he said.

Will Aldridge consider PLSE's work completed if and when the pastoral leadership crisis of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other participating denominations is resolved? "Absolutely not," he said, adding: "Even if 4,000 PCUSA pulpits were not vacant -- even if the PCUSA pastorate were not so heavily weighted to those over 50 years old -- PCUSA churches should still be identifying and lifting up gifted young leaders with potential for pastoral ministry.

"PLSE is not just a response to the current pastoral leadership challenge in the United States. It is the embodiment of a fundamental, core responsibility of every congregation, now and in the future, to be an active and vibrant part of the process of God's call to pastoral ministry."

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