Preparing for and Continuing in Ministry
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
I had a lot of preparation for ministry. When I was ordained in MCC a BA in SOMETHING was required (study skills, contacts, social skills, negotiating shared space, research skills…these are the gifts of an undergraduate education that go well beyond one’s major and minor. Even a fluff major at a party school involves meeting deadlines, working with diverse people, setting and achieving goals, and these are all skills that are VERY useful in pastoring.
Beyond the BA (or its equivalent, there are alternative ways to meet the same goals), a set of courses was required from MCC’s ministry school (now defunct), or a master’s degree from a theological seminary was required in lieu of the course of study prescribed by MCC’s school. The training was meant to be at the graduate level and included very practical skills such as Church Administration, Religious Education, Preaching, Worship, and Pastoral Care as well as more “academic” studies such as bible and church history (a pastor is not only a care-giver and administrator, but is also a teacher and public intellectual, so the academic pieces are equally important).
The BA, the graduate level courses, a criminal background check, an internship, and an interview with a “Board of Ordained Ministry” rounded out the requirements. I can’t imagine if they had been less than they were…I have used every resource, and the thought of having fewer than I started with is terrifying! (MCC went on to increase the requirements…now a Master of Divinity, two and sometimes three internships are required, background checks and psychological testing are required, and there is still the final interview…I think MCC has done its pastors a HUGE favor by requiring more and thereby offering more for the work they must do).
MCC also requires 9 hours a year of continuing education for clergy.
I have spent most of my professional years getting those hours pursuing higher degrees. A liberal arts MA, an MDiv from a world class seminary, a Doctor of Ministry from another great divinity school, two semesters toward a third master’s degree, and lots of workshops, books, webinars, and conferences have kept me going.
So, while there is always more to learn, I at least don’t feel “under prepared” and I know lots of places to turn for further help and development.
That having been said, there are many “traps” that I have learned to avoid (after falling face first into a few of them).
1. In MCC, there is an assumption that only senior/solo pastoring is “real” pastoring. This attitude obviously won’t attract (and keep) quality staff ministers. I firmly believe that that some people are particularly gifted as support, programming, or team ministers. Staff ministers are ministers. Assistant pastors are pastors. Chaplains, interim pastors as well as senior pastors are all needed, have special gifts, and should be affirmed for doing what they do well. I have spent years trying to persuade my colleagues (I finally just gave up because I didn’t want to seem contentious about it) that at Sunshine Cathedral we don’t have associate or assistant ministers. We have ministers who bring their expertise to an executive team and I lead the team that collectively leads the church. I am the CEO/Senior Minister, but without my team I would be a solo minister and that is a very different job (I’ve been a staff minister, a solo minister, a chaplain, and a senior minister…and in every position I was a minister). So I very much appreciate the ministers who work with me in a way that makes us all collectively effective. If we don’t start affirming the legitimacy (and necessity) of all pastors (and not just senior pastors), we will lose a lot of great talent and that will not serve our movement well.
2. When denominations exist to equip, support, and encourage local churches and ministries, then the local church or ministry can do what it exists to do…reach out to the community. When churches are expected to make denominational bureaucracy a priority and meeting affiliation requirements are seen as more important than doing ministry and being a spiritual home for those in the local community, then ministry becomes a burden, stewardship becomes “taxation without representation” and the energy and resources needed to “be” the local church are siphoned off and the local church suffers. Sometimes MCC has longed to look like older, larger structures with superintendents, bishops, archbishops, archdeacons, overseers, apostles and prophets, but trying to build an institution rather than having a lean support system that can help churches build themselves has been very draining on MCC in recent years. I have great respect for a good Moderator, a good CFO, and an effective resourcing arm (like our amazing Office of Formation & Leadership Development) as well as a professional support staff and dedicated volunteer governing board, but I hope our focus in the future is more on local ministry than on “the organization” which, without local churches, has no reason to exist.
3. In churches (not just MCC), pastors are often seen as either super human or subhuman.
When I am put on a pedestal I quake with terror because I know that when the person venerating me figures out that I am as mortal (and maybe more flawed) than he or she is, then his/her disappointment may well present as rage and be directed toward their former hero!
Also, there are those who hate all authority figures and who expect churches to be the place that will allow them to act out their various dysfunctions (and when they are held accountable for their behavior, the behavior sometimes becomes much worse before it improves or the bad actor leaves).
The people who take out their disappointments with life or who try to feel good about themselves by controlling or humiliating an authority figure can cause a lot of emotional damage and the pain and psychic wreckage takes a huge toll; and while pastors are expected to be bullet proof, I can assure you that the soul killing experience of dealing with a full on antagonist is enough to make one consider a “safer” line of work.
4. Of course things like days off and vacations are important. Of course, having adequate support staff and committed volunteers is important. Of course continuing education is important. But what is as important as all of this is on-going spiritual practice.
Writing a sermon is not the same as hearing one; preparing a class lesson is not the same as taking a class. Praying aloud in public worship services is not the same as quiet time in the “secret place of the most high” and leading worship is not the same as participating in an experience you haven’t crafted and supervised.
The work and study we do is spiritual, but it is mostly what we give. The psalmist wrote, “My cup overflows.” The overflow is what we have to share, but if we aren’t filling our cups, all the “wine” will flow out and our cup will become empty.
Daily meditation, private prayer, retreats or classes or reading just for personal enjoyment and enrichment are essential. If spiritual leaders don’t intentionally renew their own spiritual reserves, then they won’t have what they need to endure the difficulties, uncertainties, and anxieties of ministry.
A piece on Ex-pastors.com offers these tidbits:
Most pastors are overworked.
90% of pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week and 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
And 70% of pastors feel grossly underpaid.
Most pastors feel unprepared.
90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.
Many pastors struggle with depression and discouragement.
70% of pastors constantly fight depression and 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
This means that half of the 1,700 or so pastors who leave the ministry each month have no other way of making a living. Their education and experience is wrapped up solely in the work of the ministry.
So, not only do pastors struggle with their choice to leave ministry, they have to worry about how they are going to feed their families.
Speaking of families, most pastors’ families are negatively impacted.
80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families.
Many pastors are lonely.
70% do not have someone they consider a close friend and 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
And 4,000 new churches begin each year while 7,000 churches close.
Working in ministry can be challenging. Families suffer, discouragement and depression – amongst a gamut of other things – runs like a river in the lives of those who sacrifice their own life to the cause of the church.
Self-care, spiritual practices, continuing education, an appreciation for all the kinds of pastors there are, and a primary focus on local rather than denominational ministry, I believe, are essential to survival in the professional ministry. Otherwise, the discouraging trends of decline, burnout, and bailout will likely continue. And that is something “the Church” can’t afford, and it’s something that people who need “the Church” can’t afford either. Fellow ministers, let’s support one another as much as we can. Our work is important and rewarding, but it ain’t always easy and if we aren’t careful, things might not work out as we once hoped and dreamed.