Connecting the Seminary to the Local Church

Pastors & Fellows meeting for their meeting

by Meryl Herr

Christ Community pastors Jonathan Rich, Kevin Harlan, and Tom Nelson (foreground), and pastoral fellows Andrew Jones, Gabe Coyle, and Dan Spino (background)

The twelve disciples never went to seminary. Peter never earned his Master of Divinity degree from an institution of higher learning. Neither did Paul or Timothy. Yet education was vital to their preparation as ministers. The disciples were trained by Jesus in more informal contexts; Paul trained Timothy as they traveled together and later through letters containing substantial in-ministry mentoring.

Much of the on-the-job training received by these first Christian ministers has been formalized in today’s seminaries. Before these institutional training grounds were established, higher theological education took place among the priestly orders and monastic communities of the Middle Ages—eventually leading to the formation of universities. A vacuum was created, however, as these institutions separated themselves from the specific purpose of training ministers, and thus seminaries started picking up where the old universities left off. But in a few short generations, seminaries became increasingly disconnected from local churches, creating an unnatural and unhealthy gap between theological scholarship and the pew. So what happens to seminary graduates who have to cross this gap when moving from the academy to the local church?

Seminaries are vital for the training of pastors, just as medical schools are essential to the training of physicians. But even medical school is not the end of a physician’s training. Young doctors engage in several years of residency training where they continue developing their medical skills in real-life contexts. Yet seminaries often release their graduates directly into full-time, full-responsibility positions with only a few hundred hours of internship work. Among the consequences of this abrupt end in training is an alarmingly high burnout rate among young pastors who struggle to make the transition from seminary to church ministry.

One church in the Kansas City area has responded to the disconnect between the seminary and the local church as well as to the need for more “in-residence” training of young pastors. Through its Pastoral Fellowship program, Christ Community Evangelical Free Church models the informal, in-ministry training that took place in the early church and demonstrates a profound commitment to work with the seminary to raise up the next generation of faithful pastors.

The Christ Community Pastoral Fellowship Program

CCC pastors and fellows convene their Monday morning meeting.

In 2001, TEDS professor Dr. D. A. Carson met with members of Christ Community Church’s missions team after a church-sponsored conference. One team member asked how Christ Community could support Dr. Carson’s ministry at TEDS, and Dr. Carson replied, “Send students.” That is exactly what Christ Community did.

One year later, Christ Community provided scholarships for Nathan Miller (MDiv ’05) and Jeanette Thomas (MDiv ’05) to attend TEDS with the expectation that they would return for a one-year internship upon graduation in 2005. Within the first few months of their internship, out of necessity Nathan and Jeanette began focusing on their next job placement. In response, and feeling “energized by this infusion of youth and leadership” in the church, the senior staff decided to extend this internship to a two-year fellowship and invite other TEDS graduates to participate. Conversations between Christ Community pastors Jon Rich and Kevin Harlan, former Trinity President Greg Waybright (MDiv ’80) and a handful of TEDS faculty were instrumental in this decision. Christ Community became a “teaching hospital” for pastors.

From that point on, Christ Community committed to bringing on two or three fellows every year as associate pastors. Candidates apply and interview for the Fellowship during the penultimate year of their MDiv program. Once selected, fellows receive a full-tuition scholarship for their final year at TEDS. In 2007, Christ Community accepted their first three fellows who had not been sent to TEDS by the church. To date, there have been sixteen fellows, and twelve have completed the program. According to former fellow Jeff Knitt (MDiv ’08), “The Fellowship has been the perfect transition from seminary into full-time pastoral service.”

Christ Community Senior Pastor and Trinity Board Member Tom Nelson (DMin ’98) describes the heart of the Pastoral Fellowship: “For too long, the local church and the seminary have not seen themselves as equal and vital partners in preparing leaders for the local church. The Pastoral Fellowship seeks to intentionally bring together the best of both the seminary and the local church for the purpose of fostering integral and skillful leadership for the bride of Christ.”

Fellows enter Christ Community as staff members, and they have various responsibilities in their first year, including sermon preparation and service planning, preaching, and authoring weekly small group discussion guides based on the sermon. Over the course of their two years, fellows grow as they begin to specialize in specific ministry areas. Christ Community has welcomed the involvement of fellows in every area of the church’s life. For example, Neal Herr (MDiv ’06) worked closely with Executive Pastor Jon Rich and the elder team to explore the possibility of launching a third campus in downtown Kansas City. When Bill Gorman (MDiv ’08) became a fellow, he joined in that work and oversaw the development of the downtown campus. Incoming fellow Claire Nicholson (MDiv expected ’12) is eager to transition into a pastoral position that allows for mentoring, training, and dialogue, positions where she can “wear many hats” as opposed to focusing on one specific aspect of ministry. Claire has never worked on staff in a local church. Even though she worked with a parachurch organization for nearly five years, Claire knows that parachurch ministries are structured differently than local churches. She also looks forward to being supported in her call to pastoral ministry, something she has not always felt during seminary. She is eager to serve in a church that “believes in the giftedness and call of women into ministry.”

At Christ Community, fellows have unrestricted access to senior leadership. All first-year fellows attend and observe bi-monthly elder meetings. Senior Pastor Tom Nelson often invites fellows into his office to tell them about a particular ministry issue he is facing or to instruct them in a particular practice that he undertakes as a pastor. In one such meeting, he explained to them his yearly practice of sending hand-written thank you notes to major givers and volunteers within the church.

The Pastoral Fellowship program focuses on young pastors “as whole people.” According to Jon Rich, fellows receive “physical and nutritional training with a licensed trainer in our church, financial counseling with a professional planner in our church, marital and individual counseling, and career placement counseling.” Aside from ministry and life skills, fellows also gain lifelong friendships with members of the congregation and other fellows. Fellows join and participate in church small groups, but they also are a small group of sorts unto themselves, often turning to one another for support and fellowship. Nathan Miller (MDiv ’05) even instituted a monthly “fellows movie night” for dinner, a film, and discussion. From his time as a fellow, Dave Huber (MDiv ’07) recalls,

At any given time, we had anywhere in the range of three to six fellows on staff. These were much more than coworkers; they were partners in a unique life experience. We attended meetings together, worked on projects together, officed together, processed our experiences together, and even spent much of our free time together! Throughout our Fellowship experience, we journeyed through some of life’s darkest valleys together. My experience with the fellows reframed my understanding of gospel-shaped community.

Jon Rich adds, “The best way I can think to measure [the success of the Fellowship] is to see how the fellows who are now in other churches (and in our own) are flourishing and to hear their own testimonies about how the Fellowship helped them.” Four of the fellows have taken positions at Christ Community, four are serving at other EFCA churches, two serve at churches in other denominations, and two are enrolled in doctoral programs.

What Other Churches Can Do to Train Pastors

Christ Community Church's Leawood Campus

Not every church will have the capacity to offer a program as extensive as Christ Community’s. Still, every local church can play some role in developing young pastors. “Every local church, regardless of its size or budget, must see intentional pastoral leadership development as integral and not incidental to the gospel mission,” says Tom Nelson. According to Nelson, churches can be more intentional in creating a pastoral development program by “first, sending students to seminary, supporting them financially if able, and then inviting them back for an internship. Second, they can develop a partnership with a seminary such as TEDS.”

But churches need more than a resource engine and seminary partnership to create a successful pastoral development program. Jon Rich suggests that churches “have a culture that can support this kind of service to young men and women.” Integral to this, argues Rich, is a senior leadership of the church that is willing and able to mentor the young pastors with a high level of accessibility.

Meryl Herr (MDiv ’07) is a second-year doctoral student in the Educational Studies program at TEDS and was a Pastoral Fellow from 2007–2009. She hopes to serve both in the church and in higher theological education.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.