Transition into Ministry
As you will read in this issue, continuing education at Princeton Seminary has a new name and a new ministry to better meet the needs of pastors and congregations in a changing church and world. The School of Christian Vocation and Mission has been conducting research in order to discern how best to serve pastors and congregations, and one area that has become a focus is the transition into ministry. For this inSpire interactive question we asked what was the biggest single challenge in ministry our alumni/ae faced during the first ten years after graduation. We thank everyone for their responses.
The greatest challenge I faced in my ministry the first ten years out was the sudden departure of the pastor. I was asked to be the interim pastor even though I knew my position as associate pastor was being dissolved within a few months. I found myself preaching to a large university church congregation I knew I would be soon leaving. There were those that encouraged me to apply for the senior position and there were those who thought I was too young for the position. A few members were indifferent. I was so inwardly troubled about what to do that I came back to Princeton and visited with Dr. McCord who told me to “move on.” I went to Atlanta and did clinical training and met my wife there. I thought leaving University Church at Purdue would be the end of the world, but it turned out to be an open door to eventually going to Tusculum College, where I have been for almost thirty years, which has been the most exciting work I could ever have imagined.
Steve Weisz (M.Div., 1965)
The most significant move in my ministry after Princeton involved the spiritual task of becoming a parson. In those first ten years, I became a husband, an asociate pastor, a father, and a head of staff. Yet slowly, by the grace of God, I became a parson for the church. That old English term for a pastor intimates the way a church leader exhibits the Christian life as a genuine person. In my early years the robe I wore on Sundays was an identity that, to some degree, I put on and took off. I was eager to set boundaries and keep my sanity. Yet, truly, at graduation I knew so much and had lived so little! It took a decade of self-definition in the school of prayer and hard-knocks to build the confidence to stand as a parson---immersed in ministry, yet free in God’s claim and call.
Brian Paulson (M.Div., 1987)
My ministry was not conventional, in that I consider teaching religious studies in a university to have been the principal part of my ministry. At the same time, from ordination to retirement, I also assisted in the worship of the parish I attended, usually preaching one Sunday a month (two services) and for the greater part of my ministry, celebrating the Eucharist at least two to three times a week, at the “daily mass.” The happiest and also most challenging period was 1977–1979, roughly, when my bishop put me in charge of The Anglo-Catholic Mission in St. Columba’s Chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a small sixteen-to-twenty-member group of loyalists from the seceded parish of St. Mary’s-of-the-Angels, Hollywood. I celebrated and preached twice a week and handled extraordinary pastoral situations while continuing to teach a four-course, two-semester university assignment. Church duties earned perhaps $300–$400/month. I sang all the propers, major and minor, chanted all three lessons, censed the altar twice, sprinkled the congregation twice. It was great fun, but pretty much exhausted me at the end of the period. We lost the lawsuit for possession of the parish buildings. I stayed in charge of the congregation in two succeeding buildings, then left. I doubt that my teaching was at its best during the period.
Howard Happ (M.Div., 1968)
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
I would say that the single greatest challenge a new pastor faces in the parish is the need to know something about administration and finances. In 1973 when I graduated the church was not ready for women pastors, but when I finally got to the parish these were the greatest challenge areas.
Dianna Pohlman Bell (M.Div., 1973)
Dana Point, California
God blessed me with several years of experience in ministry prior to studying at PTS. Hence, the single greatest hurdle I encountered on the other side of commencement was the lengthy candidacy process, in part due to a tough overall economy and a surprisingly competitive “market” for full-time pastoral service. For example, I had to clear seven stages of interviewing over several months before accepting the call to serve with The First Evangelical Free Church in Chicago out of a field of roughly 250 prospective pastoral candidates. Students should be advised to begin sending out résumés at the beginning of their senior year at the absolute latest if they hope to serve in a pastoral capacity immediately after receiving their degrees, joyfully pursuing their callings with sober attention to the potentially protracted challenge of finding and tending that first flock post-Princeton.
Jacob S. Heiss (M.Div., 2008)
I am an ordained minister in the Mar Thoma Church in India. The biggest challenge during the first ten years of ministry was to communicate the gospel to a group of parishioners with different age groups. To catch the attention of kids was a struggle. Most of them are politically minded and the religious pluralism in India was another challenge to make the gospel relevant to the audience.
Ninu Chandy Krupalayam (Th.M., 2005)
In the first years of ministry after ordination, what struck me most (without disillusioning me though) was the extent of marital problems and sexual misbehavior among church members. Perhaps I was simply naïve, but the reality was---and is---that the minister either is the last to hear of such, or is in for extended counseling with those involved, and often with family members.
Personally, I think that the church assumed everyone knew the moral norms and failed to teach directly, either through sermons or Christian education, and so allowed other norms to be taught by a secularizing culture.
Iain S. Maclean (Th.M., 1985)
I thought my biggest challenge would be working with families during times of tragedy, especially being with families during the imminent death of a child. Was I ever naïve. Instead, my biggest single challenge has been dealing with the corruption that permeates our churches, presbyteries, and synods today. I have seen diversion of funds from missionaries, blatant lies from the pulpit, adultery by pastors, bald-faced racism, the attempt to place occult objects on the communion table, sexual harassment of staff by pastors---I even had the clerk of a synod flat out ask me to be his homosexual lover. Yet, through it all, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Lord.
Peter Loughman (M.Div., 1993, M.A., 1994)
I think one should look at interaction between people and how to lead others. I have found a book on Lincoln’s leadership style very helpful, as I have one elder who is trying to run the show without my input. (It only takes one to mess it up.) So how to make this man a friend despite his stubborn nature and inclination to not trust anyone? The book is Lincoln on Leadership by Phillips. May I recommend it? All the theology and sermons will not help if you do not know how to lead people who do not want or know they want to be led. I imagine a lot of pastors have this problem.
I value the Princeton class I had by Professor Stewart on the devotional life, even though I know he thought we took it because he did not require a paper or final exam. This one class was practical and spiritual because, as St. Paul said, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal...”
David D. McMillan (Th.M., 2004)
I worked several years in a cross-cultural setting where ordained clergy are very highly respected. One of the biggest challenges working in that environment has been/remains to be the priesthood of all believers. Several times I was approached in order to “make someone Christian,” usually a spouse, as if I as a pastor had an inside track with God and could force someone to believe in Christ. In such a setting leading others to understand that God judges each impartially, that not even the pastor is closer to God than any other believer, and to empower them in their faith to know themselves as ambassadors for the Lord has been a big challenge faced over these many years.
Terry Cobban (M.Div., 1997)
Upon graduation in 1959 I (an American) was invited by the Presbyterian Church of Canada to found a congregation in Eastern Quebec Province among Canadians and Americans who had been brought there by the U.S. Steel Corporation to develop a massive mining operation on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. At that time, most Protestants still attended church as a custom. (Also, being far from any city, there was very little to do apart from work---no TV, videos, movies, or golf course.) We lived in a bicultural community, most of the residents being Roman Catholic.
My challenge: to develop a Presbyterian congregation among nominal Christians who had been raised in a wide variety of denominations. Few, if any, understood true Christian commitment. None had had any experience as an elder or deacon in a Presbyterian Church. I (at twenty-four) was the youngest man in the congregation. The nearest Presbyterian Church or minister was hundreds of miles away. I was visited once a year by the home missions supervisor.
Janvier (Jack) Voelkel (M.Div., 1959)
My biggest challenge was facing personal criticism. If I had only been able NOT to take personal criticism “personally,” I would have had a much happier life and a much more effective ministry.
In theory, I knew a little about triangulation, scapegoating mechanisms in church, and systems theory. Like everybody else, I took the required pastoral care classes at PTS. They were good classes, too. I truly thought I was ready for the heat!
However, soon after I arrived in my first solo appointment, I made all the classical mistakes a rookie pastor makes, in spite of my education. I responded emotionally rather than pastorally and took criticism very hard. What happened? Well, for one thing, I didn’t realize the criticism was going to be so personal. Secondly, I didn’t realize how upsetting it was to see my spouse and even my children criticized.
Is there any advice that would be helpful? I’m not sure. I think that every pastor will have to experience personal criticism (again and again) before s/he will grow a “thick skin.” The art of not taking criticism personally develops over time. It could perhaps be compared to an athlete’s “muscle memory,” which develops with training over a long period of time. Hmm, that’s a pretty Stoic thing to say. Perhaps there is another way? How about offering “bootcamp” courses at seminary to get future ministers ready for the harsh challenges of criticism? We could call them: Parish Hell 101.
Frank Schaefer (M.Div., 1996)
The single biggest challenge has been finding a community of peers who will deeply study theology and scripture together. I certainly have served with some outstanding pastors and staff. However, our time together is so occupied with ministry plans and the crisis of the moment that we find little time for the sustaining reflection that feeds call and intellectual growth.
Case Thorp (M.Div., 2000)
It was a faith test. Will my call to ministry be confirmed? Will my leadership be useful in building up the body of Christ? Will I provide leadership and encouragement to others in their faith journey?
Jim Clark (M.Div., 1963)
Green Valley, Arizona
The biggest single challenge was finding employment following graduation. I was a part of the Class of 1986---post reunion, which certainly had its impact on women entering ministry. I did not find employment in the church until 1991, and at that, as an interim associate pastor. After years of trying to find my place in professional ministry, and working outside the jurisdiction of the church, I have pursued a different career unrelated to ministry.
Kimberly Buechner Fouse (M.Div., 1987)
Cold Spring, Kentucky
The biggest challenge soon after graduation from PTS was that there was no position available for me in the PCUSA to serve in overseas missions. Unfortunately, at that time the missions department of the national church was not looking for pastors, but rather for other skill sets like engineering and the medical field. As a result, I ended up in the Anglican Church, which has a wider global network.
David Jackson (M.Div., 1990)
During the decade after graduation there were many pastoral challenges. One of the greatest challenges was, and still remains, the ongoing attempt to have Bible “dialogue” with the person in the pew. That is, my PTS degree was a Ph.D. in scripture, and the challenge was to work out a process to adapt the academic understanding of the Bible to a popular hermeneutic as experienced during the Mass homily.
Part of the difficulty in the adaptation phase was that the congregants were multicultural, ideologically varied, and linguistically limited. This meant that the “academic” preparation had to be so nuanced as to properly capture the biblical meaning for the congregants---that is, how to work out an effective hermeneutic. Most likely, this meant using a biblical method that allows for the reader/listener to be an effective interpreter.
In addition, the congregant’s imagination (fleshed out via theological themes) would have to be involved in order for the congregants to have some sense of ownership of the biblical readings during Mass. Otherwise, the readings would mean very little to them.
Even after many years, the academic-versus-pastoral interpretation of the Bible continues to be a challenge not only for the minister/priest but also for the person in the pew.
C. Gilbert Romero (Ph.D., 1982)
Seal Beach, California
Being a woman.
On returning to my hometown in Ohio in 2004, I entered the Episcopal Church and started the inquiry process for ordination. During the nearly three years spent singing in the choir, helping with the homeless meals and hospitality duties, working on various committees, leading a Bible study, and writing some articles for the newsletters, I was given only one opportunity to serve as liturgist. When I got involved in some important social and environmental justice issues here in Appalachia, I was told I would make a better nun and that I should join a convent. I am now, joyfully, reuniting with the Presbyterians. I joined the Second Presbyterian Church of Portsmouth on February 28. Praise the Lord!
Joni L. Fearing (M.Div., 1998)
My biggest challenge was responding to church conflict, over the course of one year, that involved multiple problems, rather than one or a few key issues. In all modesty, I had never had that many people angry with me before in my life. While the circumstances were challenging, they did sharpen my ministry and taught me the value of honest and clear communication and quick response in handling tense issues. It helped me to discern when to speak the truth in love, and when not to speak and be a pastoral listener. Prayer and hard work, along with listening to my conscience and my training, helped me to be objective as I lived through and guided some resolution in the conflict.
Chad L. Christensen (Th.M., 2006)
Mount Horeb, Wisconsin
I was forty-one years old at graduation and went out as an associate pastor with duties relating to youth, among others. Not having matured in the church nor having any youth ministry experience, it was a particular challenge to think on their level. Fortunately I had two teenagers in my family who helped me bridge the gap, as well as several young couples as sponsors and advisers. I survived and married many of those young people, baptized their children, and saw them into adulthood, some to and from the Vietnam debacle. God’s providence at work.
Leslie (Bud) Everitt (M.Div., 1965)