Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation's Role in Training Clergy by George Mason (Alban, 2012, 179 pp., $17)

I suppose I shouldn't admit this, but I expected to be bored. Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation’s Role in Training Clergy did not sound like a page-turner to me. I was pleasantly surprised. George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and guru of pastoral residency programs, is a strong and engaging writer who presents an almost irrefutable case for well-prepared churches to open their doors to interns fresh from the halls of seminary.

This book springs from the Transition into Ministry initiative, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., which began in 1999 with a handful of churches developing strategic, intentional internship programs to improve the preparation of pastors. Their idea: Prepare fresh graduates for ministry by doing ministry under the guidance of a supervising pastoral  team and lay people willing to help a newbie pastor fly. Presented in an accessible format, this book is the accumulated knowledge of the churches who participated in this “learning by doing” experiment of pastoral residency programs.

Preparing the Pastors We Need provides a blueprint for congregations to explore whether they can host a pastoral residency program, and then the book lays out how to do it well.

Mason is clear that such programs are not for every congregation, and a chapter devoted to that topic can help a congregation ascertain if it would be a good fit. Best suited are healthy churches where lay people view themselves in ministry alongside the “professionals” instead of simply receiving the ministry offered by a small group of trained pastors. “While we can debate whether any church should function that way,” Mason writes, “we have to be honest enough to admit that some do.”

Implicit in the theory behind pastoral residential programs, of course, is the acknowledgement that ministers may not be as prepared for the challenges (and joys) of pastoral life as they could be through their seminary training. In the foreword of the book, Christopher Coble, a program director at Lilly Endowment (recently named Lilly’s vice president for religion), reports an all-too-common professional and personal isolation felt by new pastors, along with an overly optimistic expectation from congregations that new pastors are experienced and ready for whatever comes down the organ pipe.

Board members and seminary leaders may want to use this book to find out what’s happening to their graduates—and to consider how they can facilitate similar programs. They may also want to ask if they can provide more practical training. After all, sending a lonely, bewildered new graduate into a congregation whose members have high expectations can lead to disappointment or frustration on both sides.

Mason’s book is a compelling argument for this two-year immersion into ministry, much like a hospital internship program —a comparison he makes. The key to the success of the internship program— and success can mean that a wonderful intern decides not to be a pastor after all—is buy-in from the congregation.

Mason points out that the resident is not a student brought in to lighten the load of a busy pastor; nor are they an afterthought put on the plate of a hastily formed committee.

They are a pastor-in-the-making adopted by a congregation already strong and well-formed, who understand that part of their mission is to help educate, equip, and encourage future church leaders.

What kind of pastors? 

An interview with George Mason, author of Preparing the Pastors We Need

Q: What kind of pastors do we really need?

A: We need pastors who have good pastoral imagination about the daily work of ministry. The preparation most pastors have serves them well theologically but doesn’t generally extend to the daily life of the congregation. There are so many matters of practical theology that are difficult to teach in an academic setting. This is not just about applying the theory to the practice, which can only happen in time—it’s also about learning-by-doing that is different from learning-by-reading or by memorizing or studying. It’s about the practice of ministry and reflection on it in the location of a living community.

Q: In the book you stress the importance of freedom to reflect on what the intern is experiencing. Why is that so essential?

A: Because residents can learn on the job without it crippling them emotionally or in terms of their career. Young ministers make mistakes, but sometimes congregations are impatient with those mistakes. Churches think that new ministers’ training should have prepared them for greater agility in pastoral life than is really possible — based on the nature of that training. Pastoral residents are able to fail with impunity.

Q: What message does your book send to theological school board members and the schools they serve?

A: I would like seminaries to hear from those of us who are outside of their walls — those of us who serve alongside them and who receive the products from their work. I would like them to know that we are on their side too. We know they have a difficult task.

Seminary leaders, your job is bigger than what’s possible for you alone. We’re grateful for what you can do. Seminaries have been a bit beleaguered by those in the church who blame them and say, “If they’d only done things differently, things would be better.” Some of us recognize the inherent limitations in what the seminary can accomplish. I’m arguing for a recognition of the partnership that we have, and the importance of the local church as a follow-up to seminary — that we are able to extend the learning experience in a way that leads to greater pastoral success.

Q: Can you spell out the difference between field education (which most seminaries provide) and pastoral residency, which your book describes?

A: I don’t want to suggest that field education is inconsequential. One of the most important things it does is give a student an environment in which to imagine congregational vocation. That is quite a contribution, because when you spend two or three years in a highly academic environment, there is a tendency to imagine yourself in that world instead of in congregational life.

There is nothing wrong with being called to the academy, but the purpose of seminary has always been primarily to prepare ministers for the church. The irony is that if a student living on campus and going to classes does not have a deep connection to pastoral life or a local congregation, the very purpose for which that education was created is undermined. Field education is an attempt to bridge that gap a bit, to invite the student deeper into the heart of congregational ministry.

The limitation is that you learn best when the outcome of your learning matches the goal. In field education you’re still paying tuition and being graded by the seminary, so you’re fulfilling criteria the seminary wants you to fulfill. Your motivation is a bit divided. In a pastoral residency your life is totally devoted to the congregation — you are trying to satisfy the very kinds of people you will be serving throughout your ministry. There’s a different mode of learning that happens in field education and internships versus pastoral residency programs. You move from learning by observing, to learning by participation, to learning by practice. 

In field education, you’re not given authority, and generally not much responsibility. There’s not a great deal at stake for you. When you are a pastoral resident, you are actually on the staff of this congregation. You are a pastor already— though still, to a certain extent, under supervision and in a peer learning environment.

Q: What has been your biggest surprise or personal learning as you have directed pastoral residency programs?

A: I began this project thinking that I was doing so as an act of service to the next generation — that I was shifting my focus from simply the direct ministry that I have in the church, to an additional area of ministry — to an investment in the next generation. I thought that this would mostly be one-directional. As it turns out, I now find myself deeply involved in the lives of these young people across time. They are my extended family; they bless me, move me, grieve me at times, and give me great joy. So this has affected me in a way that I had not anticipated.

When you have to do your work and know that you have to talk about it, justify it, and talk about why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you’re better prepared. You’re more thoughtful; you’re more accountable. The dirty little secret of senior pastors in larger congregations is that there tends to be a pretty good level of freedom for the directing of your calendar, your priorities, and things of that nature. A pastoral residency creates an interesting new accountability — you feel like you have to talk all the time about why you do what you do. Those were things I didn’t anticipate when I got into it. I’m a better pastor because of it.  

Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation's Role in Training Clergy by George Mason (Alban, 2012, 179 pp., $17).

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