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The Important Role of Congregations in Preparing New Pastors

Over the last several generations, congregations have done little to identify, encourage, support or equip new clergy. By and large, North American congregations have turned over that work to seminaries and denominational officials. However, seminaries are only good at a part of the training potential clergy need; they excel at the cognitive, at imparting crucial knowledge about the Bible, church history and theology. However, learning to "do" ministry is better accomplished by living it on a daily basis in a living congregation.

Too often, clergy are left to work out the doing of ministry on their own, which contributes to a range of problems, including burnout and discouragement. A better solution is an extended internship in a congregation, allowing for regular practice, reflection and learning, which leads to mastery, according to George Mason, longtime pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of Preparing the Pastors We Need, a book that explores more than 15 years of experience by some 152 religious organizations that have participated in the "Transitions into Ministry" initiative supported by the Lilly Endowment.

In an interview conducted by Louis Weeks for the website Resources for American Christianity, Mason discusses the key themes of his book, provides illustrations of the value of internships, and points out that congregations benefit as much from supporting new minister internships as do new clergy. "Your church grows from understanding itself as being primarily a kind of direct service provider," Mason said. "When congregations are involved in equipping young pastors, they start to get the idea they have a responsibility first toward these young ministers who come through. But that translates into a self-confidence that we actually know what we're doing around here."

As a result, Weeks says, "people work more collegially — staff and members alike. The distance between pulpit and pew is narrowed." In addition, young clergy provide a more vital relationship to youth culture, something older clergy and staff cannot achieve, which helps strengthen the connection teens and young adults have to the church, and potentially uncovers new candidates for the ministry.

For more, see Louis Weeks' 2010 interview of Rev. Mason that offers more detail about how his church structures its internship program. Read our feature article, "Ten Essential Skills the Next Generation of Religious Leaders will Need," for perspective on the kinds of congregation-based experiences that benefit new clergy. For help on how to identify candidates for the next generation of church leadership, read "Best Resources for Vocational Discernment."

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