Have you ever had that nightmare where you’re about to walk into the sanctuary to perform a funeral and you realize that you know nothing about the deceased or his or her family and you don’t know what to say in your homily?
We all have dreams of inadequacy like this. But what if the nightmare comes true? Situations very similar to this have been reported by pastors in the first few days and months of their first call to parish ministry.
Picture this newly called pastor–let’s call him James–moving into his first parish office, unpacking his boxes and boxes of books from systematics, church history, Greek, New Testament, and theology for a post-Christian age, and lining them up in alphabetical order on a newly painted bookcase. James then signs a memo to the church council which the secretary has left on his desk and chuckles as he signs, “Rev.” The secretary interrupts this reverie by announcing that Sue is on the line and wants to talk to him about her need to resign as the coordinator for volunteers. Also, another caller left a message about setting up a marriage counseling session. Oh, and does he remember the 11:00 a.m. appointment with the treasurer about budget deficits?
Welcome to the real world of parish ministry. A pastor who is now a synod staff person recalled: “What surprised me, say the first six months or so, was to be involved in counseling with a grieving family, to planning a council meeting, and then looking at a stewardship campaign. And then jumping into teaching confirmation and going from place to place and subject to subject. You are making quick changes through a period of one day…through even one day!”
It would be easy to look back at one’s seminary education and place blame on the professors and the curriculum which didn’t adequately prepare one for the exigencies of parish life. Peter Marty (“The Pastoral Landscape,” Lutheran Partners, July/August, 1995) reflects, “Three quick years spent in hallowed halls were never meant to be the shortcut for [one’s] long journey to wisdom. Seminary educators do not have the time to cover the full panoply of issues that surface in a pastor’s study, a church council meeting, or Sunday worship. Seminarians are too busy nailing down the essential theological support beams upon which to construct a fruitful and faithful practice of ministry to grasp the full character and the detailed dynamics of parish life.”
Enter, stage right, First Call Theological Education (FCTE). From the ELCA Study of Theological Education Report passed by the 1995 Churchwide Assembly, (Appendix E, FCTE Churchwide Standards & Guidelines) “The common purpose of first call theological education is to enhance the transition from seminary to parish. The desired outcome is that during their first three years under call, pastors and rostered lay leaders in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will have made the initial transition into their respective leadership roles and will have grown in knowledge of God’s Word and the Lutheran confessional witness, in love for Jesus Christ and his Church, and in commitment to its mission.”
Synods have primary responsibility for providing first call pastors a “core” program of 25 contact hours per year which includes (a) ministerial identity, (b) discernment of context, and (c) ministerial skills and practice.
Seminaries, according to Phyllis Anderson of the Division for Ministry, “have given their best gifts to these new pastors and lay rostered leaders to this point. Now, they’re in the hands of congregations as part of this learning network.”
Bishop April Larson of the La Crosse Area Synod says it this way, “…we learn our academic learning–our biblical studies, our exegetical work, theological work, our pastoral care work from the seminaries. But the people teach us how to be a pastor. There’s a little bit of exaggeration in that, but there’s a lot of truth to it. We really learn to be a pastor from the people that we serve.”
Where congregations become particularly involved in FCTE is in the selection of “electives” (25 contact hours per year). For instance, if Pastor James has a mutual ministry committee (or equivalent group), he would develop a “Learning Covenant” which takes into account the congregation’s mission goals/needs as well as what he knows are his own growing edges in ministry. James might bring to the table his interest in learning more about various models for teaching confirmation age youth which fits the congregation’s expressed need for strengthening the youth program. A Learning Covenant form is sent to the synod office listing the core learning events, elective selections and a plan for structured reading, a third component of FCTE.
A fourth component of FCTE, the colleague group or mentor, is organized by the synod to assure that James and other newly rostered leaders establish supportive relationships with peers or mentors. Clergy who have experienced pilot colleague groups have reported very positive experiences. “I have felt that everyone in our group, including myself, has found it to be a forum in which genuine dilemmas of ministry could be honestly brought up and wrestled with,” said one person. These groups also help clergy clarify what areas of growth they should pursue. “Without this, I doubt if I would have done any continuing education,” reported a new pastor.
First Call Theological Education has the potential to make a marvelous contribution to the strength of the church. The promise of this new venture is to create a habit of the heart for life-long learning among the rostered leaders of the ELCA and Metro Chicago Synod, a habit that is grounded in God’s Word and the radical gospel of Jesus Christ, who promises to make all things new for those who believe.