By Jeff Brumley
Nothing John Jay Alvaro learned in divinity school prepared him for the “weird social dynamics” that goes with leading a church.
Biblical languages, hermeneutics and even the occasional preaching class provided no guidance in how to manage conflicts while juggling the sometimes-competing needs of staff and congregation, said Alvaro, pastor of Spring Creek Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
“Reading Augustine doesn’t prepare you for that,” he said.
What did prepare him was the two-year pastoral residency he completed in February at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. In that time, Alvaro and the other three residents on staff functioned as full members of the ministry team. They shared duties in administration, preaching, visiting hospitals, performing weddings and funerals and sometimes running staff meetings.
“That’s the most intensive learning I’ve had” for the ministry, said Alvaro, 30, for whom Spring Creek is his first pastorate. “I get to practically apply those things here, and it’s been invaluable.”
Equipping new pastors to survive the onslaught of ministry inspired Wilshire to launch the residency program in 2002, and since then it’s been the only congregation in the moderate Baptist movement to offer anything like it.
But that will change in May, when Calvary Baptist Church in Washington expects to issue calls to its first two pastoral residents.
The pastors at both churches say the approach to staffing and training new ministers is one that transforms both the congregations and recent graduates. Residencies are also a way of providing the wider church with capable, confident leadership for years to come.
‘Cutting edge ministry’
“This has a lot to offer the progressive Baptist community in terms of forming young ministers,” Calvary Baptist Pastor Amy Butler said.
The program at Calvary began to take form when one of the church’s two associates left last summer. Butler said she began to rethink church staffing.
Meanwhile the congregation was undergoing a year of visioning in which it defined its values.
“One of the values that emerged is we want to do cutting-edge ministry and we want to capitalize on the transient population here in D.C.,” she said.
With the second associate pastor set to retire later this year, the decision was taken to launch a pastoral residency program as a way of filling both slots.
‘This is an alternative’
Unlike internship programs, pastoral residents receive salary and benefits. At Calvary, they will serve staggered three-year terms. One of the first two will hold a two-year residency.
“They will have all the responsibilities that I do, including pastoral care, planning, teaching and preaching,” Butler said.
But it’s not only about Calvary getting its staffing needs met. Butler said the program will transform Calvary into a teaching congregation, offering it another way to operate missionally while also preventing burnout for some younger ministers.
“Most who graduate from seminary take whatever church they can and it’s often an unhealthy, conflicted church where they learn the hard way,” Butler said. “This is an alternative — a healthy church where they will be welcomed and honored, and they will teach us while we are teaching them.”
Residency addresses attrition
Organizations that track clergy success and burnout say residency programs, which exist in a number of American denominations, make a huge difference in promoting longevity in ministry.
“There is a high rate of seminary graduates leaving congregational ministry in the first five years, and these [residency] programs are designed to address that problem,” said Verity Jones, a Disciples of Christ minister and executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
The center provides Lilly Endowment grants to churches for start-up and operational expenses related to pastoral residency programs. Calvary is one of those.
The center views the Calvary program as it does Wilshire’s: key to cultivating leadership that will benefit Cooperative Baptist, American Baptist, Alliance and other moderate churches, Jones said.
“If these young people don’t make it after five years of ministry, the church loses them,” Jones said. “And we lose that energy and excitement and that talent.”
Ministry measured beyond church
Another form of energy residency programs can help preserve is that of church staffs, said George Mason, the senior pastor at Wilshire.
While the program does demand more from him as a mentor of the four residents currently serving at his church, they share pastoral and teaching responsibilities, giving him one Sunday a month off from preaching.
“That helps tremendously in my being rested,” said Mason, who has been advising Butler as Calvary develops its program.
It’s also invigorated the congregation, whose members see themselves benefitting from young, enthusiastic ministers who they in turn help prepare for pulpits around the country.
More than 20 churches are now being served by graduates of the Wilshire pastoral residency program, Mason said.
Wilshire now understands itself as a teaching congregation that loves and nurtures each resident, he said. The church follows the careers of each after they leave.
Mason said he does that, too, and feels he is part of the new ministry of each former resident.
“It’s gratifying to know my ministry is not just measured in what happens in my church.”