A seminary D.Min. director presents research to his board

Seminaries are good at forming ministers who have the basic traditional (and expected) skills in preaching, pastoral care, and sacramental ministry. But seminaries are not nearly so proficient at shaping leaders who can be agents of transformational change. 

That’s what David Gortner has found over the last 15 years as he’s conducted research on the leap that seminarians make from student to pastor. 

Gortner, an Episcopal priest, psychologist, and practical theologian, is director of the doctor of ministry program at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), the largest of the Episcopal Church’s 10 seminaries. 

He is also the principal investigator of the Clergy Into Action Study, a Lilly Endowment–funded analysis of 45 “Transition into Ministry” programs that the Endowment has supported at theological schools across North America.

Earlier this year, Gortner was asked to submit a white paper based on his research to his seminary’s administration and board, along with recommendations for seminary action. An edited excerpt of his report follows.

More on the Clergy Into Action Study is available at http://into-action.net/. —Editors

An excerpted white paper 
Presented to the board of Virginia Theological Seminary

Clergy leadership for the 21st century

Are we up to the task?

The Virginia Theological Seminary board and faculty face a profoundly important challenge and opportunity as we move into the next phase of strategic planning. “What kind of a seminary will we be? What will we provide as education, formation, training, and development for the sake of the church and its mission?”

To address these questions, we must first consider another set of questions: What does effective religious leadership look like? Where is the church overall in terms of effectiveness in its ministry and leadership? What does the church lack, and what does it need? And then, how well do seminary and post-seminary education and development efforts prepare for effective Christian ministry and leadership?

I have spent a significant portion of the last 15 years on a quest, pondering and researching these kinds of questions. At two different seminaries, I have co-directed and directed research funded by the Lilly Endowment, searching for the habits, skills, and capacities that make a priest or pastor an effective agent or catalyst of transformational change in ministry.

Thank God, I have not been searching in vain. There are noteworthy ordained leaders who have brought significant growth to their congregations and other ministry settings — not merely in numbers, but in emotional life, spiritual vibrancy, and impact in their communities. 

As we searched, watched, interviewed, and learned, we found some clear markers of ways that effective clergy approach the challenges and opportunities of ministry. Over time, I have found that these markers hold consistently across denomination, age, gender, and race. These markers include a deeply positive regard and expectation for the capacities of people in the congregation, a moderate degree of assertiveness and decisiveness blended with a high degree of collaborative interest in others, a capacity to work with and anticipate conflict, a creativity that is vigorous yet well-managed and grounded, an ability to think theologically about situations in a way that moves toward transformational action, a savvy sense of networks of influence in congregations and communities, and a clear and consistent process of communicating and gathering feedback.

But I have also found a disturbing trend in mainline Protestant denominations toward “placeholder” clergy who may have basic skills in the core functions of preaching, pastoral care, and sacramental ministry, but who have not developed these other, more hidden (but perhaps more central) capacities for effective leadership of congregations. I have found a consistent pattern among Episcopal clergy of what my colleagues and I call “talented but tenuous”: highly creative people nonetheless lacking in self-confidence and decisiveness, who can come up with wonderful ideas but have neither the skill nor the will (nor feel the permission) to help communities bring ideas to fruition. They are kind, dedicated, and full of ideal visions of what the church could be; but they are also conflict-averse, uncertain how to manage their own anxiety, and unclear about the nature of human systems and organizations. 

The church as a system and culture is wired to select, train, and deploy for what it values most. This traditional emphasis supports a model of Christian religion that centers attention on the priest or pastor rather than on the community. In this model, the ordained minister becomes a religious functionary, a dispenser of religious goods. Such a model also assumes that interest in church will continue “world without end” in American culture, that people will come because it is their natural inclination to do so — despite evidence over the past four decades of decreasing interest by the American public in participation in church and organized religion.

Thus, pastors and priests who are effective transformational change-agents are not the norm. Indeed, they are swimming against the tide in denominational cultures that communicate mixed messages about what they want from their leaders. (It is only 15-20 years ago that “leadership” was considered among some of our faculty as a concept unbefitting Christian ministry.) Even in the face of a steadily increasing departure from organized religion by the American public, the systemic and cultural norm in the Episcopal Church remains one of maintenance.

I say this to provide a backdrop for the conclusions that have emerged from the research. Part of this backdrop is a picture of two cycles — a vicious cycle and a virtuous cycle. A vicious cycle emerges when clergy have not developed capacities linked to effective leadership, and as a result have not developed confidence, decisiveness, or assertiveness sufficient to be comfortable with being an agent of influence. With this low assertiveness, clergy then do not seek out the training that will help them be more effective.

A virtuous cycle emerges when clergy learn and practice effective leadership. Confidence grows. A natural assertiveness emerges. As children, we learned confidence as we practiced our soccer dribbles, our piano scales and chords, our swim strokes. We know this happens when clergy learn some basic effective practices of pastoral care and counseling, like how to listen effectively. We see it in liturgical skills, as clergy learn how to plan and help direct worship. These strengthen confidence — in specific areas of ministry — and encourage clergy to develop more skill in those areas. And, like all of us, clergy will devote more time to those areas of their work in which they have the most confidence.

So, the central questions I put before you are these: 

In what areas are we — and are we not — strengthening clergy capacities and thereby increasing confidence, decisiveness, and assertiveness? And, in what areas are we — and are we not — strengthening capacities that will help clergy move beyond maintenance into deeper and broader leadership for transformational change in the church?

These are questions not only for seminary education. They are questions for pre-seminary selection and parish-based and diocesan-based training. And they are questions for continuing education and development — and for deployment — beyond seminary.

Furthermore, in all locations of education and training, these are not only questions of explicit curriculum (what is taught directly and purposefully). They are questions of both implicit curriculum (what is taught indirectly, by way of how things are done) and “null” curriculum (what is left out from teaching both purposefully and unconsciously, and what is learned as a result of that absence).

Research findings

 Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows areas of ministry arranged in order of decreasing self-confidence among 302 recently ordained mainline pastors and priests who also benefited from post-seminary training and transition programs funded by the Lilly Endowment (Transition into Ministry, or TiM). The bars represent average ratings on a scale of 1 to 4 for groups of individual questions having to do with each ministry area.

Across mainline Protestant denominations, recently ordained clergy report the highest confidence in work that had to do with communicating with integrity in sermons, making church services beautiful, leading a life exemplary of stability and self-discipline, empathic listening, and building trust. 

The lowest rated items had to do with personal time management, developing and empowering lay leaders, managing conflict, confronting destructive behavior, visiting lapsed members, assessing problems from a systemic perspective, working with groups to develop long-term plans, fundraising and financial record-keeping, mobilizing people to address challenges in the broader community, collaboration with other churches and faith communities, and starting a new congregation. 

The pattern in responses suggests that clergy are most confident in tasks that pull on their abilities to be benevolent, understanding, and religiously expressive, in settings that involve less risk. They are least confident in tasks that require more assertiveness, systemic thinking, and engagement with people beyond the walls of the local church or denomination.

Let us then turn to one more matter: how clergy use their time in addressing different areas of ministry and leadership. We asked recently ordained clergy how much time they spent in each area of ministry in a typical week. 

Here, as was the case with their confidence ratings, areas receiving the most time and attention from pastors and priests are preaching and proclamation, being a role model, pastoral care, and communications. Areas receiving the least time and attention are lay ministry development, self-development, supervision, sacramental ministries, community connection, and objective-setting.

 Figure 2. 

Like anyone else, clergy spend time in areas in which they are most confident. An exception is the little time devoted to sacramental and liturgical ministry — an area to which many clergy wish they could devote more time. Overall, the picture among mainline clergy — even the best-trained with special attention to post-seminary continuing development — reflects a model of ministry more in line with maintenance and less in line with mission. (See Figure 2.)

Clergy do not create this skewed focus in a vacuum. No, the whole system pulls toward maintenance, and toward a model of pastoral/priestly leadership that overemphasizes the pastoral, homiletic, and sacramental facets of ministry and de-emphasizes the facets of ministry having to do with organizational leadership and the high art of community-building. 

For consideration: Does VTS want to educate and train clergy to fit the cultural mold, or does VTS wish to exercise its position in the church to set a different pattern in motion?

So, given this system and culture in the church, how well is seminary education preparing people for leadership? And, how well is seminary education preparing people for the kind of effective leadership that will lead to transformational change?

We asked recently ordained pastors and priests across denominations how well seminary prepared them for various areas of ministry and leadership. One group of over 450 clergy (the “TiMs”) also completed post-seminary training and development programs funded by the Lilly Endowment (the “Transition into Ministry” programs). The other group of nearly 700 clergy (the “non-TiMs”) did not benefit from such programs.

Clergy across denominations think they have been most thoroughly prepared for preaching and proclamation, followed by strong preparation for sacramental and liturgical ministry and for pastoral care. Many also consider themselves well-prepared for Christian formation and education. (See Figure 3.)

 Figure 3. 

But these same clergy consider themselves little prepared for the faithful work of objective-setting and program planning, lay leadership development, conflict engagement, organizational leadership, congregational development, and community connection. They consider themselves unprepared to provide leadership and ministry in supervision, youth work, finance and administration, and understanding and working with natural social networks. 

(It is worth noting that the patterns of TiM clergy and non-TiM clergy are nearly identical, with a few exceptions: TiM clergy indicate higher seminary preparation than their non-TiM counterparts in preaching and proclamation, self- development, communications, organizational leadership, and social networking.)

This chart reveals a great deal about the explicit, implicit, and null curriculum of most seminaries in the United States. What do we value as seminaries — and what do we devalue? In many mainline and evangelical Protestant denominations, the sermon is indeed considered the most important and central act of the ordained minister, followed by leadership in crafting worship and by good pastoral care. And these are indeed profoundly important capacities for clergy to have — good preaching helps focus and energize people in their Christian faith; well-crafted worship nurtures deep devotion, while sloppy or rigid worship frustrates people; poor pastoral care drives people away. 

 What is missing in curricula across most mainline and evangelical seminaries is a more robust emphasis on developing seminarians’ capacities in building communities and organizations. Such courses are relegated to “elective” status. Such content is not typically emphasized as part of field education. And such capacities are not typically assessed as part of ordination-related exams. Then, seminary graduates arrive in congregations, schools, and other settings ready to do what they have been trained to do, only to find themselves face to face with situations and systems they were not prepared to deal with. These include negative situations: financial disarray, deep conflict or latent hostility, organizational malaise, absence of evangelism and mission, detachment from surrounding neighborhoods and communities, deteriorating buildings, weak lay support of ministries. 

It is high art, to build and strengthen communities and organizations. The varied perspectives, skills, and capacities for this high art are not typically taught in standard seminary education. VTS has the potential to take the lead in such education and training through a careful adjustment in the current overall curriculum, field education, and co-curricular activities and programs, and through creation of specific paths for capacity development.

Recommended actions

  • Develop a “grid” of capacities and ministry/leadership areas as desirable outcomes for effective Christian ministry, leadership, and mission.

  • Examine its curriculum, field education, and co-curriculum in light of areas of these desired outcomes.

  • Adjust curriculum to increase exposure to and education in building and strengthening communities and organizations.

  • Develop partnerships with area universities, colleges, and organizations to fill gaps in curriculum.

  • Encourage faculty to develop their own capacities and intellectual familiarity in some of the under-represented areas of ministry and leadership, and to bring this into course conversation.

  • Overhaul “formation” activities of the seminary to address both personal and professional development.\Develop programs and partnerships that model for students a Christian community engaged in “best practices” of community engagement, and that provide opportunities for deeper leadership development.

  • Develop the M.Div. “tracks.”

  • Develop joint degree programs with area universities. 


In the months following this report’s release, earlier this year, it became the centerpiece of a lively discussion among board and faculty alike. It was a key reference point in the process in which board and faculty members collaborated to craft a new vision statement that will guide the seminary’s next strategic plan. 

The vision statement sets a course for VTS to “Commit to an imaginative curriculum which enhances our core disciplines with rich cross-disciplinary conversations and partnerships” and to “Offer programs to give our students the appropriate skills to engage with a diverse world.” It further envisions graduates who are “hopeful, Spirit-filled, and joyous” Christian leaders, deeply grounded in the core disciplines, but who also are “astute in understanding complex relationships; technologically literate; confident in addressing crises; and capable of reading congregations.” The overall goal: Seminary graduates who can “build up a community of faith through the full participation of the laity.” That’s a lofty but crucial purpose for the coming century.

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