How to Gain Experience Before You Step Behind the Pulpit

Examining the value of pastoral residencies.

How many pastors in their first year of serving uttered the words, “They didn’t teach me that in seminary!”

Most of us.

The reality is that there is a gap in training between seminary and the pastorate. Dr. Phil Sell, director of placement at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, uses the profession of medicine as an analogy:

“If you’re in the medical world and you graduate, you don’t just go out and practice. You have to be part of a residency program where you’re functioning as a doctor but there’s still a safety net; you’re still in an instructional environment.”

The church is without rival in the development of a leader.
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Yet far too often in the church world, recent seminary graduates immediately step into demanding spiritual leadership.

Seminaries such as TIU do require hands-on ministry work, but they acknowledge that the ideal for their graduates is a stronger partnership between seminary and church.

Thankfully, more and more churches are providing a bridge to span the gap between classroom and pulpit: the pastoral residency. The chief goal of a residency is to gain valuable, hands-on experience leading in the church in preparation for future ministry. Additionally, the resident learns about the unique lifestyle demands that pastors experience.

“There’s nothing that substitutes for real-life apprenticeship in the context of real people in a real congregation,” affirms Kevin Harlan, senior pastor of congregational development at Christ Community Church in the Kansas City metro area, which has hosted 26 pastoral residents since 2005.

Dr. Phil Sell agrees. “This is a deep transition into forming a pastoral identity, where they’re thinking primarily as a pastor and not as a student. We think it may be a better launching pad for many than jumping directly into a church.”

Above: At Hope Community Church, interns and residents are trained for church ministry and leadership through the Leadership Development Institute. Photo by Cor Chmieleski. Top of page: Residents at Christ Community Church gather regularly with campus pastors and senior pastors to discuss the complexities of the local church. Photo by Jeannie Lucas

Successful pastoral residencies unfold as residents immerse themselves into the church—doing meaningful ministry and not simply observing, but always within that safety net of other experienced pastors and staff. This might mean leading youth, teaching, planning services, counseling and preaching. The gifting and future goals of the resident, along with the needs of the church, will dictate where to best dedicate time and energy.

At the same time, the church must hold onto its resident(s) with open hands—being willing to invest deeply while knowing that a more mature, prepared person will emerge on the other end, and may leave for a permanent position elsewhere.

A final, vital aspect to any residency is mentorship—“where residents are given opportunities to reflect on and work through [their] experiences with seasoned leaders,” adds Kevin Harlan. So it is incumbent upon the senior pastor, or other elders and staff, to provide ongoing evaluation, reflection and training.

“There’s no substitute for real-life apprenticeship in the context of real people in a real congregation."
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Churches vary in how they qualify residents in terms of title and pay. Some churches call residents “pastors,” while others deem the position as no more than entry level. Consequently, those who view residents as pastors will provide a full-time salary and benefits commensurate with other pastors. Those who don’t will find alternative ways to financially support the resident—through housing help, part-time pay or sharing a resident with another church.

The church is without rival in the development of a leader. Unfortunately, too many churches are relying on seminaries to do what seminaries were never designed to do: provide all the necessary hands-on experience. So it’s time that churches provide the necessary bridge for these pastoral residents. And if they should say, “They didn’t teach me that in seminary,” may they also say, “But I did learn it during my residency.”

Considering a pastoral residency at your church? Contact the author for ideas/advice, based on his own church’s residency program, the Leadership Development Institute.

To read more along the lines of “they didn’t teach me that in seminary,” check out the spring 2017 issue of EFCA Today: “In the Wild: Lessons learned outside the seminary classroom.”

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