By Jeff Brumley
It’s hardly news anymore that Baptist and other churches are struggling to rediscover their identity and relevance in a postmodern, post-Christian era.
But what is getting church leaders’ attention is the growing number of congregations finding their purpose through pastoral residency. The programs feature hosting one or more young ministers to experience every facet of church life in preparation for careers in ministry.
Citing the need to enrich its culture as a teaching congregation, First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., recently announced plans to launch a transition-into-ministry program in September.
“We’re a brick church that’s seeking to dream new dreams and we are looking to support ministries and programs that also help create identity and support life in our church,” says Alan Sherouse, senior pastor at First Baptist.
That’s been a sentiment shared by several Baptist congregations since Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas launched its program more than 10 years ago with a grant from the Lilly Foundation.
Since then, pastoral residency programs of various kinds have been planned or launched in congregations like First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., Calvary Baptist Church in Washington and First Baptist Church in Kingsport, Tenn.
Ministers who have helped administer the programs say the biggest challenges include cost and the temptation to use residents to temporarily fill vacant staff positions.
Major benefits include the solidarity that mentoring young ministers fosters in congregations and staffs. Another is the knowledge that well-formed ministers are being sent into the world better able to withstand the challenges of the pastorate and other ministry callings.
‘Giving them a leg up’
Now in its 12th year, the residency program at Wilshire Baptist provides a consistent and tangible blessing by reinvigorating the congregation and leadership with each new class of residents, Associate Pastor Mark Wingfield says.
“There’s an ongoing vibrancy because we always have young ministers in our system here and we are made better by their fresh ideas and their enthusiasm and being forced to explain ourselves over and over again.”
As senior pastor, George Mason is the leading mentor for the residents, but every staff member and many in the congregation are responsible for guiding and nurturing the young ministers, as well.
The program has created a collegial and teaching relationship between the participants and the church, so much so that many of the now 23 alumni return to Wilshire annually for networking, continuing education and fellowship.
It’s also among the largest programs of its kind in Baptist life, with four residents serving staggered two-year terms.
The idea was born when the Lilly Foundation spent millions to encourage and finance residency programs at some two dozen churches across the denominational spectrum. At the time, Wilshire was on the only predominately caucasian Baptist church to participate.
“Ours is modeled after hospital residency,” Wingfield says. “They come in as full-time staff members, making hospital visits, preaching, teaching Sunday school, attending committee meetings — learning the ropes of the church,” he said.
Wilshire takes only recent seminary or divinity school graduates who seek to become senior pastors. While some other churches do not adhere to that limit, Wilshire has found the focus beneficial for the graduates.
“When they go to their first pastorate, it’s really like they’re going to their second pastorate,” Wingfield says. “We are really giving them a leg up.”
‘Ministers without portfolio’
Since then, Wilshire has become a model program and often guides other congregations — Baptist and otherwise — in establishing residencies.
Residency programs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with some hosting just one resident at a time, depending on finances and congregational capacity. Others open it to candidates called to all sorts of other ministries.
“It’s a worthy model that allows a young pastor a much higher chance of survival,” Wingfield says.
But it can also be expensive.
“The way we do it, only a big church can do it,” Wingfield says, referring to having four full-time residents onboard at a time. The church also has four houses to house the residents.
Smaller and mid-size churches can pull it off, too, as long as they aren’t looking at the residents as a way to fill a vacant staff position.
“True residency allows residents to be ministers without portfolio.”
Transforming church culture
Whatever the size or style of the program, an important common denominator for churches with pastoral residency programs is that they be, at their very root, teaching congregations, ministers say.
First Baptist Church in Richmond drew on its history of nurturing summer interns to launch a residency program in 2009, says Steve Booth, associate pastor for Christian formation and the residency program coordinator at First Baptist.
The move has paid off for the church, which welcomed its third resident, Nick Deere, in August, Booth said.
Members of the staff and congregation are working with and mentoring the 27-year-old graduate of Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.
“The beauty of this thing, for the congregation, is they come alongside this young person and get to make a contribution and some reward in helping him or her develop,” Booth says.
Even after just six years, the process is transforming First Baptist, he adds.
“It’s becoming more and more the culture of the church, and the church is getting it. This allows us to live into being a teaching congregation.”
Deere gets his hands on all aspects of church life, Booth says. He has preached Sunday night healing services at churches around Richmond. He serves as a Sunday school teacher and works with the church’s social outreach ministries.
“He gets quality time from [senior pastor] Jim Somerville on preaching. He’s in a residence at this church — not just passing through.”
Discerning a calling
And in not just passing through, Deere says the residency program at First Baptist is giving him the time and experience he needs to discern the ways in which God is calling him to ministry.
It’s a supervised setting where the Houston native says he can learn the ropes and have a good network of support.
“It’s a chance to get relevant pastoral experience, and … a chance to continue learning,” Deere says. “Having that will make me better at whatever ministry setting I’m in.”
Deere says he’s already learning one of the key skills pastors need to survive the stressful church environment: how to ask for and accept help from mentors.
“This has been a great way to get feedback and advice. These are all guys who have gone through it before.”
‘A statement of identity’
The drive to fight clergy burnout in the face of the huge challenges confronting churches is another factor influencing the creation of a residency program at First Baptist in Greensboro, Sherouse says.
In turn, the church will live into its history of being a teaching congregation by welcoming residents — first one, then two residents for two-year, overlapping terms.
In addition to First Baptist and its future residents, Sherouse says the church hopes to inspire other congregations doing the work of discerning their missions.
“We want to be a model for how a church does this,” he says.
The test for that question is whether or not a congregation feels it has teaching and sending ministers as a core purpose.
“This isn’t a model every church needs to emulate,” Sherouse says. “This is a statement of identity.”