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.
Eleven years and two parishes after graduation I transitioned out of parish ministry into administrative roles in higher education. My parish years were good years, ones that I look back on with fondness, appreciating the privilege to be so deeply involved in people’s lives. I believe I was good at what I did, and was affirmed by my congregations. What led me to transition out, however, was a growing awareness that I was burning out, trying to be everything to everybody. Partly this was a maturity issue (I would be wiser now) and partly it was the nature of ministry. My personal life and spiritual life were suffering. I had the wisdom to walk out rather than blow out. University life has given me the boundaries to have a life after work and an opportunity to grow spiritually in ways that probably could not have been sustained in the parish.
J. Stephen Jacobs (M.Div., 1976)
In my first pastorate, I struggled with depression and discouragement. In part, it was a response to some unhealthy dynamics in the congregation I was serving. However, I had to deal with some of my own patterns of behavior that went back to my family of origin. God graciously provided a compassionate spiritual director and a Christian counselor who worked from a family systems perspective. These two friends “saved my life.” In those days, I discovered that pastoral work has a way of forcing us to deal with matters that we would rather avoid!
W. Gale Watkins (M.Div., 1983)
The hard thing in ministry has been deciding whether I wanted to be a minister at all. It’s taken fifteen years to say yes to that question. I didn’t want to be a pastor in the early years, even as I went through the motions of ministry. It was all so strange and scary. The great challenge has been to learn to trust that God has called me to this work. I don’t know why I’ve been such a slow learner in this. My ministry would have been so different if I had been less stupid, if from the start I had trusted God’s wisdom, God’s call, more than my own.
Chris Brundage (M.Div., 1993)
The biggest single challenge to my first few years in ministry has been battling the anxiety of a “program church” in order to create a space for a healthy ministry.
Amy Morgan (M.Div., 2006)
As I look back on the early years of my ministry, I think the single biggest challenge I had was translating the language of theology and biblical understanding I had learned at seminary into a language that was accessible and relevant to the people I was called to serve. I also learned that in spite of my twenty-year experience in urban and international economic development, I needed to develop a new set of skills. Walking with the saints in a church would require something new of me. I needed to listen to their journey. I needed to learn from and about them. It would be after taking the time to understand their heart and hopes, after loving them in the brokenness of who they were, that I could be embraced as a person they could trust to follow. It was then that I could hope to serve as an effective pastor and leader.
Ruth Faith Santana-Grace (M.Div., 1994)
I was called to be the single pastor of a small church in Absecon, New Jersey, and my biggest challenge was to be guided by the Holy Spirit in that role. Of course there were elders [and deacons] and decisions were made by the session, not an individual. Nevertheless the direction of the church, choices, and vision belong to the right kind of leadership. Since I came into the church in my twenties, two-and-a-half years before seminary, I had no church experience, not even prayer, in my formative years. Those first ten years were a learning experience in every way for me, as a preacher, pastor, evangelist, broadcaster, and counselor to many.
Henk Vigeveno (M.Div., 1952)
San Diego, California
My biggest challenge was discipleship and outreach: I’d say the biggest challenge I faced in the first ten years of ministry was leading a congregation that said it wanted to grow but wasn’t really open to either personal or corporate change to reach people with the gospel and welcome them in. Leadership in this context was tough. Facing the reality that many in the church (including elders) were still spiritually immature even after years as Christians was a challenge. How to move people along spiritually and emotionally to follow Jesus in the church and into the world was challenging. What’s new? Many in the church had the mistaken notion that pastors are hired to do the ministry and the people come to receive it. That’s a recipe for congregational stagnation and pastoral burnout.
Andrew Ekblad (Th.M., 1991)
It didn’t happen often, but I found it hard to deal with being yelled at. As a student minister doing “teaching church” as we called it back then, I was adored. After ordination, I tended to take the anger directed at me personally. In a similar way, I also mistook the adulation I sometimes received. The problem with my reception of both the fury and veneration is that I thought they both had something to do with me, when in reality ninety percent of it had to do with those people themselves. I just wasn’t ready to be a projection screen for people’s expectations. Someone once said, “Ministry is not about you;” it really isn’t.
Doug Kelly (M.Div., 1986)
My biggest challenge was not understanding myself and how my own needs, insecurities, experiences, and interpersonal models informed my approach to conflict, working with groups, and pursuit of “success” in ministry. After twenty years of ministry, I am only now beginning to understand how a deeper understanding of personal mental health, group health, church health, and spiritual health would have helped me and the churches I pastored to avoid common pitfalls.
Doug Burford (M.Div., 1989)
1. I went from seminary directly to a small solo parish near Columbus. The biggest immediate challenge I faced was talking the trustees into purchasing a mimeograph machine and learning how to operate it, while setting up a functioning church office. The church didn’t even have a Sunday bulletin. I spent so much time writing newsletters and doing bulletins and updating files that there was little time for pastoral work. I found volunteers as soon as possible, but they needed supervision. So, I realized that the practical needs of parish life were my initial challenge, and these had only lightly been dealt with in seminary.
2. My second biggest problem was my youth. I found it hard to be accepted as a pastoral counselor. One woman looked at me dismissively and said, “You’re young enough to be my son. Why should I listen to you?”
John W. Sloat (M.Div., 1957)
One issue that keeps coming back in ministry is the dispute over church property. In each presbytery I have served (Maumee Valley, Hudson River, and presently Western North Carolina) the presbytery and one or more congregations have been embroiled in property disputes, usually involving the congregation leaving the PCUSA and wanting to take their property. These cases have often involved litigation where the outcome of one court was sometimes overturned by another. I remember covering property issues in polity class at Princeton, but knowing what I know now I wish I had thought about it more.
Alex McLean (M.Div., 1997)
Swannanoa, North Carolina
My biggest challenge was juggling church ministry, three tiny children, and a traditional husband who expected me to do all the household management, food preparation, and entertain etc., for his business obligations...and he also tried to sabotage my ministry. A strong sense of calling and sheer tenacity made it possible for me to juggle competing forces. The competition with family responsibilities was even bigger than the hurdle of being a woman minister in a context where women were not yet accepted as church leaders (first years in very traditional Raleigh, North Carolina, then in a parochial town in Oregon). Amazingly, God will provide and I was able to serve effectively as an interim pastor in my first years of ministry. That gave me excellent learning opportunities to start anew each year or so, and gave the churches the opportunity to have a spanking-new PTS grad with lots of enthusiasm for the church...and get used to women in ministry. I see the wisdom of interims being trained, seasoned pastors, nonetheless. Over the years, I mentored many women ministers. Now I am serving as a pastor in a Presbyterian church in a relatively small town in South Dakota. The church had been in decline for a number of years due to factors beyond the congregation’s control. It feels great to be in a revitalizing ministry---which is what I asked God to lead me to---careful what you ask in prayer!). I am now married to a fellow pastor who is very supportive of my ministry, for which I am very grateful--again, God WILL provide!
Sandra Larson (M.Div., 1977)
Madison, South Dakota
Actually what I have found most challenging in the seven years since I returned to the parish ministry (after nearly twenty years of doing pastoral counseling full time): getting up to speed with the new trends that have developed since I last preached regularly....things like “emerging church,” “Gen-X,” all the things we never learned about “leadership,” goal-setting, mission statements, core values, and the like. And perhaps most important of all, redeveloping a spiritual life after seminary years and the first years in the parish and even pastoral counseling, where there was never very much emphasis placed on having a spiritual life, a prayer life, a devotional life.
Jack Carlson (M.Div., 1973)
Apart from Endowments 101, I think I could have best used a class on psychological profiles that fly beneath the clinical radar. As a small-town, small-church pastor, I get to know individuals quite well, and have noticed that many humans who mix well with the overall populace (myself included) are quite insane, all in unique and lovely ways. Learning to identify and name those insanities truly does help a pastor cope, and long term I’ve found it to lead to laughter, trust in God, and healing for the soul.
Kirianne Weaver Riehl (M.Div., 2001)
Northville, New York
In Vietnam (1967/8), sharing the gospel with infantry Marines in language to which they could relate. Two examples:
1. In combat, a confrontation between life and death, a moment of truth, a Marine presents no facades when he worships. He offers God no argument, no defense, only himself, as he is, humbly. He is acquainted with death: Christ’s, his buddy’s, or the NVA soldier he’s killed, even the possibility of his own. Pontius Pilate, Roman soldier, penitent thief, Jesus’ disciples, Christ himself: he identifies with them all. When receiving bread and wine, he knows precisely what he tastes: death and life, judgment and hope, bitterness and salvation.
2. In the Citadel of Hue’, all the men of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines participated in a special act of “communion.” We shared a common lot, a common adversity, a common union (communion). The wounds of many were the wounds of all. The elements were not bread and wine but, rather, broken bodies and shed blood. Many who survived the inferno will never again be the same. They have come to know the bitterness of mankind’s alienation, the enormous cost of sacrifice, the futility of war, and the absolute need for reconciliation.
Eli Takesian (M.Div., 1960)
Baam! There’s been an accident, a tremendous collision, from which the hot and jagged fragments of the institutional church are still rattling off the median strip of the highways and byways of North America. My challenge, during the first ten years of ministry, involved negotiating the debris and wondering if I should pull off to the side of the road and offer (and perhaps receive) some triage. In my estimation, what has crashed is the typical congregation’s pursuit of the individual. That consumer-driven agenda has plowed into the covenant community ethic that we were taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. Graduating in 1988, I had been disciplined by the dialogue that took place among my classmates and teachers. That dialogue, often saturated with tears, often led to some of the most thrilling moments of koinonia and kerygma. And yet, given the responsibilities of promoting “membership” and lining up behind various theological coalitions, authentic, interpretative conversation faded. In its place we raced for disparate answers and faulty resolutions.
Today, my hope is to huddle with a few folks in the shadow of an institutional ruin. From there we will begin again to do the work of love in the name of Jesus, while welcoming the creative input of those who have been hurt by a bureaucracy’s broken wheels.
Charles Scott Kinder-Pyle (M.Div., 1988)
My biggest challenge in ministry was being accepted as a woman, losing members because I used inclusive language, suggested using the building for an afterschool care place, and generally wanting the church to move forward into some new ways.
Beverly Schmidt (Th.M., 1985)
My biggest need after coming out of seminary was understanding the grace of God. Two men visiting our rural church from Calvary Baptist Church in New York City aided us and one asked me if I understood grace. I told him that I did, but realized soon that I did not.
Our Lord used those men for me to look to Jesus, and the scriptures through the years, to more fully understand an exceedingly important part of our walk with our Lord and His truth. I needed to teach the full counsel of God.
Walter Menges Jr. (M.Div., 1953)
One of the biggest challenges was moving wife, two children, and self to Nigeria. After a year we had settled in and discovered great people, great mission, great ministry; but the months of moving there and getting settled were something else, including my first case of dysentery.
Rich Carter (M.Div., 1979)
St. Paul, Minnesota