Reversing the great reversal: A role of pastoral residencies

Posted Mar 13, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Amy Butler

Amy ButlerI would venture to guess that for many of us clergy types our winding personal paths toward work in the church made all kinds of sense when we first set out.

In my experience, the church was a place filled with people who loved me, a setting in which I formed a clear understanding of God, and the place where I found direction and vocation.

What’s not to love?

When this institution for which we feel such affection, however, becomes our professional responsibility, our experience of church almost always radically shifts. Idealization cedes to reality, and that process can be tremendously painful. 

This is the professional ministerial great reversal for which no one is ever fully prepared. And when it happens, it’s not just a professional shock, but an experience requiring a recalibration of some of the most intimate assumptions about personal faith and vocation that got us to professional ministry in the first place.

It’s no wonder that attrition rates of clergy in their first five years of ministry are shockingly high. The disorientation of seeing how church is done from the other side of the pulpit painfully convinces us that the cost of vocational ministry is far too steep and no way to spend a life.

Most new ministers come to the task of church leadership, newly minted seminary diplomas in hand, ready to face the challenges of ministry with all the systematic theology they can muster.

While seminary is meant to give us tools for the task, there are some things that can only be learned on the ground, in the parish, engaged in the day-to-day experience of leading a congregation.

Pastoral Residency programs are beginning to help bridge that gap.

How do you supervise staff, deal with criticism, articulate and lead toward a long-term vision? How do you tend your own faith and nurture a spiritual life in the middle of ecclesiological function or dysfunction? How do you know when and how to have hard conversations? How do you hold and heal your own pain in the face of so many others’?

These are the kinds of skills that cannot be learned in a classroom; their acquisition and practice are “on the ground” learning experiences best practiced in healthy contexts with wise and experienced mentors.

The lack of opportunity to learn such practical skills is one reason my congregation recently began a pastoral residency program. As a faith community we’ve discerned an invitation to be a place in which new ministers can learn these experiential lessons. Starting next fall, we are calling two recent seminary graduates who will serve in full-time ministry among us for staggered three-year terms. When their term is complete, they will be called to serve other congregations, and we will search for other new seminary graduates to take their place. We’re hoping to extend our experience as a community of learning to those who will lead the church into a scary and unknown future.


Because shock at the first-time on-the-ground ministry experience is not the only thing about ministry that a newly minted seminarian won’t know. She might not know that beyond the shock and disorientation of early pastoral ministry lies a vocation that offers an invitation to deep and honest faith, the likes of which we never even imagined possible when we first started out.

If new ministers can learn the lessons they need to thrive in ministry, they will walk with people through their deepest pain and, in that process, confront their own. They’ll be handed hard questions and crippling doubts, inviting them to be honest about the questions lingering in their own minds. They will bear an expectation of continued growth and spiritual development, the hard work of which they might not have surrendered to had it not been required by their vocations. They will make mistakes in public, being called to rigorous honesty and regular accountability they may have never sought out on their own.

In short, the gifts of ministry, that terrible and beautiful vocation, are too wonderful to miss. And, as we think about equipping leaders for the future church, we’re called to a new way of growing and forming our ministers for the challenge and promise ahead.

Rev. Amy Butler has served as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., since 2003. She lives with her family in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Calvary Baptist has just launched a new pastoral residency program and is currently interviewing candidates.

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