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Transition into Ministry program helps new ministers flourish

Moving from seminary to first assignment at a congregation is always a challenge for a new pastor, but it’s even more so today. Helping young graduates become confident and effective is the goal of the Transition into Ministry program.

No confidence. That was one of the first thoughts to cross the Rev. Timothy Luoma’s mind when the committee’s church budget proposal, with its $50,000 in spending cuts, landed on his desk that day in 2005.

Are they trying to tell me something?

The self-doubt was fleeting, though, thanks to the support Luoma has found through the Lilly Endowment-funded Transition into Ministry (TiM) initiative. The friends he has made through the program – young pastors just like him – helped him see the situation differently.

Taking care not to insult those who had worked hard to draft the spending plan, Luoma met with church leaders and persuaded them to hold off on approving it. A full stewardship campaign was launched, and when it was over, pledges at the tiny rural congregation had jumped more than 35 percent. Instead of carving the budget, First Presbyterian Church in Gallipolis, Ohio, boosted it by nearly 20 percent that year.

A chaplain friend later summed up what a turning point that meeting was, Luoma says. “He told me, ‘You became their pastor that night.’”

Helping young seminary graduates become confident, effective pastors is the goal of Transition into Ministry, a program launched in 1999 in response to statistics about the “dramatically low” numbers of young people going into congregation-based ministry, TiM Coordinator David Wood says. The need became even more obvious after talks with young clergy about how they were feeling in their first assignments.

“Everywhere we turned we found the same sort of reality, that these folks were struggling to find their place,” Wood says.

Hasn’t it always been an adjustment for new ministers moving into their first jobs after graduation? Perhaps so. But nowadays, the real-world learning curve has become a hairpin turn.

Dr. James Wind, the former president of the Alban Institute and co-author with Wood of a 2008 report on the TiM program, outlines some of the factors that make entry into congregational ministry more difficult nowadays:

  •  Traditional feeder systems for identifying and grooming pastoral candidates have weakened or disappeared. Seminarians may not have had the benefit of lifelong exposure to ministerial life the way a third-generation preacher might have, for example.
  •  Denominations are less powerful in American culture than they once were, and the congregations within them are much more diverse. In a typical local church today, “you don’t have one clear, shared sense that, oh, that’s what we want our pastor to be. You in fact have a marketplace of ideas in that congregation, people who come from a Baptist world or from a Lutheran world or even a faith beyond the Christian tradition, all in that congregation bringing different assumptions of how people should live together, what a pastor should be.”
  • Society in general is exponentially more complex, making the minister’s job more complicated as well.

And then there are the age-old challenges that can trouble any pastor: Congregational dynamics, loneliness and isolation, the need to set boundaries in a 24/7 profession.

Transition into Ministry helps young clergy navigate the new territory through three basic approaches.

Most of TiM’s 800 or so alumni went through one of its peer-based programs, such as the First Parish Project that engaged Luoma. These programs focus on creating peer networks that bring the young clergy together periodically, along with mentors, to share experiences and hard-won wisdom.

Other participants go into one of TiM’s congregation-based residency programs, where they spend two years as full members of a church’s ministerial staff and receive formal mentoring from the senior pastor and lay committees.

About 30 new pastors have gone through a hybrid version of the peer-based and congregation-based programs.

The Rev. Sarah Lund managed to double-dip. She took part in the residency program at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis and also enrolled in the Bethany Fellowships, a peer-based program run by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Though she started out “terrified” about church ministry, Lund, now 32, says the TiM programs helped prepare her for her current position as pastor of the United Church of Christ (Congregational and Disciples) in New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

“Things are going well, and I give a lot of credit to the skills and tools I learned in TiM,” she says. She’s not afraid to ask for help or for prayer, for instance, and she knows the importance of continuing education.

Lund has also taken one of the steps that TiM coordinator Wood believes is vital for the program to be a long-term success. Realizing how important her TiM peer network has been, Lund started an ecumenical “Sabbath Sisters” support group for women clergy in her area.

“My generation, the line was ‘pastors can’t be friends, because they’re too competitive,’” says Wood, himself an American Baptist pastor. “That tended to isolate us from one another.” One of TiM’s pleasant surprises, he says, has been the importance of peer friendships – “the surprise being just how incredibly fruitful that is.”



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