IN RECENT MONTHS, people concerned about the trends in leadership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have initiated a conversation about the role seminaries play in training leaders, and about what congregations and others can do to help. This conversation comes at a transitional time for some seminaries, too — with San Francisco Theological Seminary and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago both having brand-new presidents, and seminaries developing new academic initiatives, such as the Master of Divinity with an emphasis in church planting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
In short: This seems to be a season of asking big questions about the ways in which theological educators and others in the church can work together to provide opportunities and support for seminary graduates in a time of change.
This spring, leaders of the Committee on Theological Education wrote a Pentecost letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), pointing out that many Presbyterians have encouraged promising
young people to consider going to seminary. “Because of your good work, a new generation of amazing candidates for ministry is answering that call,” said the letter, signed by Theodore Wardlaw, president of Austin Theological Seminary and Kathryn Wolf Reed, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala.. They are the committee’s chair and vice-chair, respectively. “We encourage the whole church to ask the bold question, ‘Why not?’” the letter states. The committee invited the church to consider new ways of developing leadership opportunities, including pastoral residencies in small congregations; grants for recent seminary graduates starting new ministries; and more training and support for leaders of church transformation efforts.
“We’re getting feedback” to the letter, said Lee Hinson-Hasty, the PC(USA)’s coordinator for theological education and seminary relations. “There’s a lot of hope here — realistic hope and promise for the future. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take some risks.”
The Pentecost letter comes after at least a year of in-depth discussion among theological educators and other PC(USA) leaders. In 2010, a Joint Committee on Leadership Needs — convened jointly by the Committee on Theological Education, the General Assembly Mission Council and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly — released a report called “Raising Up Leaders for the Mission of God.”
That joint committee, led by Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., concluded that “we live in a time of major transition,” and that leadership education and formation require partnership and mutual responsibility.
The joint committee spoke of new approaches for the church to consider in nurturing seminarians and those already working in ministry —including such things as webinars and mentorship programs. “A priority needs to be placed on ongoing, interactive, accountable, lifelong theological education formation,” the report states. Some pastors, for example, participate in groups that meet periodically for prayer, theological conversation, sermon preparation and mutual support.
There’s also a need, the report states, to look with fresh eyes at bi-vocational ministry and the role of commissioned lay pastors.
“The transitional, in-between time in which we live creates anxiety and fear,” the joint committee wrote in its report, “but it also offers great hope and exciting new opportunities for the reformation and renewal of the church and its mission.”
HOPE IN ANXIETY
For some involved in this conversation, the difficulties present chances for renewal as much as they do challenges.
“We are living in this amazing time of opportunity,” Steve Hayner, president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., said during a workshop on theological education at the Big Tent conference in Indianapolis.
That Big Tent discussion also reflected the complexities of jumping into ministry in a very uncertain time. For example, Tom Evans, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta,
said that as a mid-council executive he’s seen both success stories “and the unmitigated disasters” of pastors moving across the country to serve a church where things didn’t work out.
Evans spoke of the importance of giving seminary students experiences in the kinds of contexts in which they are likely to be serving, so there might be fewer surprises. And some students are not willing
to serve in the kinds of places that often have the greatest need, Evans said — including small congregations in rural areas or little towns. Others said support needs to be given to those
who do accept far-from-home calls outside of urban areas. One young woman said she watched friends burn out in three years, finding such ministry isolating and difficult if, for example, you’re the only young, single female pastor in town.
People also talked about the changing contexts of ministry — that many young adults, including some recent seminary graduates, “don’t seem to connect to the traditional 11 a.m. Sunday worship service,” as one person put it.
Seminary graduates are being encouraged to start new churches or fellowships — to find a place where there’s ministry work to be done, and to nurture something new.
But it’s important for “us old people to make space,” Hayner said — to realize that many young adults involved in new ministry ventures are “inventing church, they’re sorting it out,” and
they need freedom to experiment as much as rules. “How do we hold it in the balance?” Hayner asked. “How do we nurture it? How do we give it space to grow, how do we fertilize it instead of pruning it?”
Rachel Parsons-Wells, who is involved with the Ecclesia Project, an innovative ministry project in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, said her advice to recent seminary graduates would be to “just go and do it.” Also, “don’t expect a professional job with Board of Pensions benefits. Do whatever work you feel called to do. Go do it first and ask permission later … Do the ministry. If you really want to do something outside the box, you can’t expect the box to pay you. Do the work that has to be done and needs to be done, and give the institution time to catch up.”
Parsons-Wells said she finds support for such ministry in places in the more institutional church. Some Presbyterians, for example, understand that their congregations are not connecting well with their own children or grandchildren — so they may be willing themselves or through their congregations to support something different. Sometimes, seminaries are being asked to prepare candidates who have little background in religion, said Margaret Aymer, an assistant professor of New Testament at Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta. “When I’m teaching New Testament, I’m teaching folks who haven’t really read the whole New Testament,” but will be expected to pass ordination exams in a few short years, she said.
Aymer has been suggesting investigating some other approaches — such as adding prerequisite classes for admission to seminary or reconfiguring degree programs, including developing a Bachelor’s in Divinity degree, to make sure candidates are better prepared for real-world ministry when they leave seminary.
The broader church also must consider the value of having trained clergy, Hinson-Hasty said in an interview. “I think it’s very important to have someone who can think critically,” he said. “I think
of walking into church the Sunday after a tsunami and making sense of that. I really appreciate my theological education. I appreciate having someone in a pulpit who has thought about questions of evil and natural disaster.”
Some question how many ministers the PC(USA) can support financially, with declining membership and congregations dissolving. Others see opportunities in ministry outside PC(USA) congregations. “There’s a whole world in dire need of good news,” Hinson-Hasty said. “We need leaders prepared to serve God in the world, not just to serve God in the church.”
To the many talented young people going to seminary, “we have said over and over, ‘God is calling you to ministry,’ ” Hinson-Hasty said. Then all of a sudden we say to them ‘Not yet,’” because not enough churches have jobs to offer. “I think this is a wake-up call,” for the PC(USA) to think differently about what God is doing in the world.
Despite all the challenges, Hayner remains optimistic — encouraging Presbyterians to step aside and make room for innovation.
The PC(USA) is rich with money, opportunity and imagination, he said. The trick is that “we need to get out of the way.”