We are in the midst of a pretty bleak climate for anyone seeking a new career, but the outlook may look particularly ominous to recent seminary graduates preparing to start their first-call process. Throughout the denomination, students are told that they should lower their expectations for finding a call if they aren’t willing to relocate, tentmake or consider a small rural church. Is that the real state of the first-call process? Should graduates be worried?
According to Marcia Clark Myers, director of the PC(USA) Office of Vocation, most candidates come from large congregations that have shaped their experience and expectations for how they will function as pastors. In contrast, many available positions for first-call pastors are in smaller congregations in rural or inner-city settings that are unfamiliar to graduating candidates. To address the distribution problem, the
denomination created a program to match seminary graduates with underserved congregations. Participants in For Such a Time as This commit to a two-year residency in which they serve rural or
urban churches while joined with mentors in care groups. They receive ongoing support and are connected with church growth consultants and other resources to promote evangelism and discipleship. Not surprisingly, the available positions go quickly and participating congregations are pleased with the applicants they receive.
This is great progress, but it’s a small drop in the bucket. The Committee on Theological Education (COTE) reported that approximately half the calls to the Board of Pensions telephone consultation service are from new pastors facing loneliness, financial burdens or congregational conflict. Programs like For Such a Time as This and the Company of New Pastors provide support to address these issues. Seminaries also offer skill-building classes that help students develop spiritual disciplines and prepare them to serve congregations in conflict.
This is an opportune time for the denomination and rising leaders to discuss new models for ministry and new interpretations of faith communities. COTE encourages ongoing exploration of these “emergent congregations” within seminary education. Many meet outside typical church structures in coffee shops or living rooms and tend to have a strong mission and community focus. As a whole, the denomination has an opportunity — and a calling — to create a culture for these faith communities to develop and spread the Gospel. The denomination’s theological debt forgiveness program can help. This further helps create an atmosphere in which first-call seekers can feel supported to take risks.
One student who was willing to follow God’s lead beyond the bounds of church walls is Shane Webb, a spring 2011 graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The Presbytery of New Covenant (in southeastern Texas) approved his participation in a nontraditional ministry. He was recently ordained to serve two churches in Lima, Peru, in a temporary mission position as a Young Adult Volunteer. His openness to a new model for ministry enabled him to confirm this call soon after graduating. In interviews, other spring 2011 graduates from across the country who have already accepted their first call said the most prominent contributing strength was the support and encouragement of their sending committee on preparation for ministry (CPM) and receiving pastor nominating committee (PNC). One remarked on the incredible help he received in preparing his personal information form (PIF). Others shared how well their CPMs had advised them on navigating the call process, assistance with communication and help discerning a personal call.
One student was able to feel confident in his decision to turn down an extended call, noting that the calling church was “too healthy.” His CPM had helped him discern that he was being called into a place that needed revitalization.
In addition to exploring nontraditional ministries, Myers stresses that some students will need to adapt to a different leadership styles such as pastoring part-time and working part-time. Tentmaking can offer opportunities beyond the financial benefits. Myers told of a pastor who concurrently serves as a community emergency medical technician, a paying job that also provides a natural connection with the community.
Receiving a first call delivers new challenges. It can be difficult to bridge the gap between academic training and leading a congregation. In the past, it was often presumed that candidates grew up in the church and had a variety of congregational experiences that prepared them for ministry. This isn’t always true today. What is known is that graduates need deep experience in a variety of contexts to be ready to serve and lead congregations The ATS Accreditation Standards affirm the need for seminaries to document methods for preparing students for ministerial leadership. Certain skills can only be learned in the pastorate, but seminaries can better prepare students to be expectant and ready to learn these things. Myers reports that many first-call students have never practiced a baptism and must call their mentors for guidance on how to baptize.
CPMs and seminaries shoulder this challenge together. Myers suggests including the following goals:
» support graduating seminarians to go into
communities with great need and draw from
their education to bring growth;
» offer workshops on how to navigate the Church
Leadership Connection process well;
» facilitate face-to-face opportunities at General
Assembly and Big Tent to meet and interact
with search committees;
» stay aware of the climate so CPMs are able to
give honest information to potential inquirers
as they begin the preparation process; and
» explore seminary’s financial impact, helping
students assess their tentmaking potential.
So, what should current seminarians and the presbyteries
that welcome them into ministry know
about the climate of this process? Discussions
with spring 2011 Presbyterian graduates from the
PC(USA) seminaries reveal the following lessons:
» Connections. DeeDee Porter (Princeton
Theological Seminary) described the importance
of relationships and connections. “You
never know when that connection will be the
very one God is going to use to show you where
you are called.”
» Cast a broad net. One graduate never would
have pictured himself in the small congregation
where he was called far from home, but thanks
God he is serving there.
» Engage the conversation. Less than 15 minutes
into one graduate’s search conversation, he
admitted that he knew he was not a good fit
for the congregation. The executive presbyter
(EP) readily agreed — but was eager to pass his
information to another EP with a position she
believed would be a good fit.
» Trust the process. The match system provides
a good start, but don’t be shy to submit your
own PIFs. Many seekers reported self-referring
to dozens of churches before finding the right
» Do your time. Keith Leach (University of
Dubuque Theological Seminary) put effort into
the search process commensurate with fulltime
work for a number of weeks and part-time
work for many more.
» Show your whole self. Don’t discredit your previous
nonordained work (or ordained service
as a deacon or ruling elder). Maybe you don’t
have two years of ordination, but do have a
decade of experience leading worship; some
PNCs will consider this.
There is much ministry to be done. The field is ripe for the harvest.
Andrew Whaley (Columbia Theological Seminary) sums up well the spiritual rewards of a successful search for a first call: “The search process was very affirming. While we hear so much about struggling congregations, I read so many church information forms that celebrated what God was doing among people in various congregations throughout the country. They were talking about following Jesus and not institutional survival.
“From the moment I found the congregation where I am serving, I could feel God’s Spirit at work among us. … I could feel the prayer support of my home church and the church calling me buoying my wife and me up as we considered this opportunity.
“Now that I have begun, I am continually reminded of how much I still have to learn about being a pastor and being a disciple of Jesus. As we grow together, it is my hope that this congregation and I continue to proclaim the good news to all we meet.”