I. Project Objectives
The past four years of this project were focused on achieving a better understanding of the congregations that call and support First Call leaders, especially those congregations that had a reputation for doing a good job with these responsibilities. With the previous Transition into Ministry grant we had learned much about the seminary preparation of these First Call leaders, the synodical First Call programs that supported them, and the challenging experiences they had in the transition from seminary to a First Call.
With the new grant, “The Vocation of First Call Congregations,” we wanted to connect this learning to the congregational side of the First Call equation. Thus, it was our intention to learn as much as we could from a sample of First Call congregations that had a history of providing healthy and supportive environments for First Call pastors. We also wanted to explore whether any of this learning shed light on the concept of congregational vocation. Further, we intended to share what we learned across the institutions and agencies of the ELCA, encouraging a more comprehensive view of transition into ministry issues, hopes and challenges.
A. Overall Project Objectives:
- Identify and study exemplary First Call congregations;
- Develop and pilot test leader resources;
- Strengthen systemic connections and partnerships; and
- Disseminate and utilize learnings from the project.
B. Project Objectives for First Two Years
Each of the four years had more specific objectives and anticipated outcomes, largely related to phases of the project which were parallel to the overall objectives as listed above. During the first two years, our work focused on (a) developing strategies for identifying a sample of exemplary First Call congregations; (b) choosing an appropriate research tool and style; (c) selecting and training competent researchers; (d) contacting selected congregations and requesting documents and information in advance of a site visit; (e) completing site visits, interviews and observations; (f) writing case studies; and (g) analyzing common and diverse themes across the congregational cases.
C. Project Objectives for Last Two Years
The last two years’ work organically built on these objectives and their outcomes. In broad strokes, the objectives included: (a) hosting three gatherings of leaders connected to First Call issues and programs (synods, regions, seminaries, first call pastors and lay leaders) to provide feedback on case study findings; (b) revising case study reports and analysis with these perspectives; (c) developing creative vehicles for disseminating this material; (d) hosting two young rostered leader events to further disseminate project work; and (e) consulting with key leaders across the church about how to continue systemic connections with and between First Call partners beyond the project timeline.
II. PROJECT Activities
A. Activities Accomplished
The following list of activities reflects recent accomplishments:
- Analysis and summary of fourteen congregational case study themes;
- Awarding nine mini-grants (total of $31,500) to synods for utilizing the findings of the case studies with congregations and/or synod staff;
- Attending three synod events with First Call congregations (and prospective ones) and presenting the findings from the case studies;
- Designing, producing and pilot testing a DVD and study packet with video interviews of lay and clergy leaders from several of the case study congregations;
- Producing a congregational workshop on discerning a vocational call to be a First Call congregation;
- Revising a Readers Theater presentation of common case study themes with directions for training readers and presenting in congregations, synods or seminaries;
- Sponsoring a second young rostered leader gathering of 80 rostered leaders in the ELCA under 31 years of age and connecting it to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly;
- Revising the First Call website with additional resources, including: (a) shortened version of the DVD to download; (b) congregational workshop materials; (c) best practices checklists for churchwide, seminaries, synods, congregations and First Call pastors and links to related programs and resources;
- Holding two consultations with key FCTE leaders about the future of this program and networking of leaders;
- Presenting the congregational case study findings to the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops through the use of a shortened version of the DVD;
- Working with ATS and ELCA’s Research & Education unit on an alumni survey on FCTE experiences with graduates five and ten years out;
- Attending one of the three theological education cluster/network meetings with four selected young pastors to explore how to develop better connections across generations and between First Call leaders, synods and regions, churchwide offices and congregations; and
- Laying the groundwork for a new network strategy of FCTE synod and regional leaders with other institutional leaders having common issues, goals and challenges.
III. Leaders and Partners
Because this project has been located at the churchwide expression of the ELCA, there have been many partners involved — identified as having a stake in the issues raised by the project, as well as those intentionally pursued by project directors to educate about the project.
A. Stakeholder Partners
Those who have a stake that motivates them and who have been more directly involved have been:
- Synod staff (bishops and associates to the bishop) who have responsibilities in planning and supporting First Call Theological Education programs in their synods and regions;
- ELCA office of Research & Evaluation where staff has assisted us in analyzing case study material. Recently, their staff has worked with us and the Association of Theological Schools on a survey to all seminary graduates, five and ten years out, to determine effectiveness of seminary education and FCTE programs in supporting them in their early years of public ministry;
- Regional Coordinators for Mission who help plan and coordinate the FCTE program in their regions;
- Seminary staff and professors who have responsibilities in areas of internship, senior seminars and candidacy committees;
- The fourteen congregations who were selected for the case study; and
- Churchwide offices and staff who helped in three presentations of Readers Theater (presenting case study findings) and those who provided funds for the two young rostered leader gatherings we sponsored (including Mission Investment Fund, Women of the ELCA, Hunger Education, Augsburg Fortress, Board of Pensions).
B. Changing Networks
As indicated by one of the recent activities, we have been laying the groundwork for connecting the FCTE synod/regional network of planners with the wider theological education partners in the three seminary clusters. This effort will continue beyond the grant, coordinated by Dick Bruesehoff, Director of Lifelong Learning in Vocation & Education of the ELCA. A balance of grant funds will provide travel incentives for the FCTE network leaders to interact with the three theological education/lifelong learning cluster network, involving our colleges, seminaries, synods and lifelong learning centers. This strategy is expected to more systematically infuse the work accomplished from the two Transition into Ministry grants across the ELCA.
C. New Emerging Leaders
Young clergy and rostered lay leaders who were instrumental in planning and leading the two young rostered leader events have been identified as our emerging new leaders. In January, 2010, we invited four of these young pastors to attend and fully participate in one of the theological education cluster consultations (Western Mission Network). It was evident at this event that these new leaders were confident in their abilities to contribute their expertise and ideas in the mix of seminary presidents, college professors and synod and churchwide leaders. They also expressed a commitment to continue providing leadership in their respective synods and regions as a result of this gathering.
We are also aware of others who attended the young rostered leader events now becoming more involved in their synods and even churchwide programs. It is likely that these events — connected to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly — will continue to be supported and offered to young leaders as many in the church have become excited about recognizing and celebrating leadership competencies of these newly rostered persons.
D. Transition into Ministry Partner
Another important partner has been Trinity Lutheran Church, Morehead, MN, a Transition into Ministry grant recipient in the residency program. Project personnel from this program were invited and have participated in two of our churchwide consultations that sought feedback on our exemplary First Call congregations study. They also attended the recent Western Mission Network Consultation and spoke highly of our project. They are committed to using our project resources in their latest Lilly Endowment project which will construct a new approach to FCTE in their region, involving seminary and college personnel as well as First Call leaders and their congregations.
E. Ecumenical Partners
Over the past years, several denominational leaders have consulted with us and asked for resources and advice concerning support to new pastors. Especially interested have been the Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church. We have also attended two consultations of FTE’s “Calling Congregations” where we shared the work of this project. We have made available documents, resources and models to encourage inter-denominational cooperation and learning. The newly revised First Call website has additional resources and reports for use by anyone seeking help with ways to support and nurture newly ordained leaders and their congregations.
IV. Grant materials
A. DVD Resources
- The major dissemination resource, designed for wide-spread use in the ELCA, but applicable to other denominations as well, is the DVD, “Becoming a Vital First Call Congregation.” The 35 minute DVD, along with a discussion guide, has been distributed broadly across our church, including synods, seminaries, FCTE programs and also for congregations who can order it ($10) through our Resource Information Service at the churchwide office (800.638.3522, ext. 2700).
- A promotional version (12 minutes) is also available to view or download on our website:
www.elca.org/firstcall. We have also promoted it in a churchwide publication,
SEEDS for the Parish that is sent directly to congregational leaders throughout the denomination. Promotion strategies that reach into congregations have proven to be highly effective ways to disseminate information and resources.
B. Professional Papers
- A summary of our congregational case study findings was submitted to Alban Institute for a publication that is forthcoming.
- In April, 2007, Dr. Seraphine presented a paper on the congregational case study research as part of a case study panel at the annual American Education Research Association convention.
C. Other Resources
Other products related to this project can be found on our website (www.elca.org/firstcall) including:
- A congregational workshop on discerning a vocational call to be a First Call congregation;
- A series of “best practices” checklists earmarked for synods, seminaries, congregations, churchwide and First Call leaders intended to stimulate reflections about strengths and challenges within these entities related to educating, training, supporting and nurturing healthy First Call leaders and their congregations;
- A Best Practices Report that translates the key case study findings into recommended practices for synods, seminaries and congregations;
- Full case study reports of the fourteen “exemplary” First Call congregations (found on our website); and
- Several documents that report summaries of learnings from this study as well as from the young rostered leader events that we’ve sponsored.
A. Examining Congregational Vocation
With this project we set out to examine congregations that had a synod reputation for being healthy contexts that would provide a good start for a newly ordained pastor. We wanted to see if we could discover any common threads in their stories that could explain these positive behaviors. We wondered if behind specific actions and programs of these exemplary congregations would be a sense — implicit or explicit — that they had a mission or calling to help shape a new pastor that would have long-term benefits for the church; thus the title, “The Vocation of First Call Congregations.”
What we found was a more complex or nuanced picture of congregational or corporate vocation. Most First Call congregations are small and financially unable to call a seasoned pastor. This awareness can lead to a negative attitude and identity, forged out of a sense of inadequacy or defeat. As a result, a congregation might dig in its heels when any change is suggested or display a lack of enthusiasm when something new is tried. After all, “The pastor won’t be with us very long and we can go back to what we like after she leaves.” However, the fourteen exemplary congregations we studied had a different spirit. They didn’t allow negative attitudes about these realities get in the way of moving ahead with trying new ideas.
Members we talked to in these congregations expressed surprise that they were identified as “exemplary,” feeling they were just ordinary. In the case study process, these congregations were being affirmed by the visits of someone from the larger church, asking them questions to probe why they were considered strong and healthy First Call congregations. From their responses, they seemed to approach calling yet another First Call pastor with an attitude and openness to learning new things. Further, in the dialogues that researchers had with these members, they realized that they had a lot to contribute to the forming of their new pastor. When researchers probed such responses with questions to elicit a deeper sense of a vocational call, they were often met with blank stares. But with a little explanation, people seemed to catch on. As one member exclaimed, “It’s in our DNA, in our bones, to have ‘a mission of First Call hospitality’.”
B. Vision of a Congregation Vocation
In the ELCA, we have talked a great deal about the importance of establishing a “habit of the heart” for lifelong learning. In our First Call Theological Education (FCTE) program, written into a congregational call document is the expectation that the newly rostered leader will participate in the synod’s three year FCTE program of “structured theological education designed to assist newly called leaders in the transition to rostered ministry.” This program often includes participating in a colleague group or mentor relationship, several synod or regional retreats and other elective continuing education. Learning opportunities are focused on assisting new leaders to hone their ministry skills, understand their congregation’s context and culture and become clear about their ministerial identity.
To date, we haven’t established or formalized the role that congregations can play in these transitional learning challenges. The case study project was designed to probe this role — this side of the equation of what constitutes a healthy, life-giving First Call congregational ministry context, one that receives a fully educated candidate for public ministry. Thus, we are taking another step in reinforcing the vision of establishing a habit of the heart for lifelong learning where theological learning, reflection, and ministry commitments can thrive.
We think that a clue to a congregation’s sense of vocation
in the context of calling a First Call pastor — or perhaps any pastor — is the importance of “ministry partnership,” an underlying principle behind the case study findings. In the practical sense of establishing effective ministry relationships, both lay leaders and the pastor are dependent upon each other. But we believe there is more to this than merely the practical or pragmatic motivation to become partners.
In a real sense, the First Call congregation can offer opportunities for extending everyone’s theological education. If the congregation is relatively healthy, open to new ideas, ready to give helpful feedback during the pastor’s early learning curve, it can offer a context for praxis
— a culture where the pastor and the people learn together how faith, hope and love are lived out in the practice of ministry. Some lay people in our case study congregations had a piece of this idea when they would say things like, “We help the pastor become a pastor who understands us,” “We especially like her preaching when she gives examples of how the Bible connects with our daily lives,” or “The pastor trains and empowers us and then let’s us go and just checks in with us from time to time.”
For the past year, we have provided resources lifting up our case study findings in ways that encourage congregations and synods to continue working on the attitudes and practices of developing healthy cultures of mutual learning and support for the ministries to which they have been called. In conversations stimulated by our resources, First Call congregations (and those open to this calling) can become aware of what they have to offer and how they can mentor, support and encourage these pastors new to public ministry. In this process, congregations would not only become healthy and effective ministry settings, but also have much to teach others about responding to God’s call to be the Body of Christ to each other and to their communities.
C. Impacts on Congregations
As previously stated, the process of engaging congregational members in reflecting on their actions and attitudes appears to strengthen their self-understanding and value as a First Call congregation. A congregation that is aware of its significant role as a teaching congregation that can shape young pastors for careers of pastoral leadership adds strength and vitality to its sense of mission. Inviting a new pastor to take chances, to explore how vocation is lived out in a congregation, to suggest changes and employ an emerging pastoral imagination is to offer a significant gift that is foundational for life and work.
The DVD and discussion guide we have produced and distributed is intended to give more congregations this opportunity for self-reflection. The key themes across the case studies are featured in the resource (Nurturing, Connecting, Flexibility, Partner Relationship, Spirituality Practiced and Advice to First Call Pastors and Congregations
) by several lay leaders and First Call pastors giving voice to them. It is intended that the discussion guide will help prospective First Call congregations reflect on their own strengths and challenges around these case study findings of exemplary First Call congregations.
D. Impacts on Synods
In our grant proposal, we also stated, “The project will also help synods better select and prepare congregations to be life-giving First Call contexts.” A variety of initiatives have been employed through this grant to move in this direction:
E. Impacts on the Larger Church
- Summits — Every two years, throughout the last nine years of Transition into Ministry projects, we have gathered key synod and regional coordination staff with responsibilities for planning First Call Theological Education programs for the first three years of rostered ministry. Vital to these summits has been time devoted to mutual sharing of ideas, struggles and resources from across the diverse FCTE programs. But we also built in time to present our various grant activities and learnings, including First Call participant survey research and the findings from the case studies of the fourteen exemplary First Call congregations, always engaging in discussions about the fit to their experiences and implications for their work. For instance, after presenting the common themes of best practices that emerged from the case studies, we asked them whether these resonated with their knowledge and experience and what else they might add to our analyses. This feedback was essential as a reliability check considering our small number of congregational cases. We found strong consonance between our findings and their more extensive experiences as well as elaborative examples to add to our findings.
- Case Studies — The decision to study exemplary First Call congregations through intensive case study methodology, utilizing a “naturalistic inquiry” approach proved to be a valuable decision. The researchers were trained by the leading expert in case study methodology, Dr. Robert E. Stake. The researchers produced case study narratives that conveyed congregational cultures through vivid descriptions of site visit observations and interviews, including verbatim quotes from the many members who participated in the study. While researchers paid particular attention to each congregation’s unique qualities, they were also trained to ask some questions around common issues such as conflict, hospitality, spirituality, views of congregational culture, context and spirit, decision-making processes and relationships between pastor and lay members.
The richness and depth of data in each of the case narratives allowed for a “cross-case” analysis of common themes, facilitated by the Research & Evaluation office in the ELCA. The project director, also trained in qualitative research and analysis, went back to the case narratives to search for examples of these common themes.
Keeping the language of the researchers and the verbatim quotes intact, these examples were utilized in a presentation of the findings, using a Readers Theater format. During three consultations with synod, seminary and congregational leaders, the Readers Theater proved to be an effective vehicle for conveying research findings in a vibrant and engaging way.
- Mini Grants — In the third year of the grant, a decision was made to offer mini grants to synods that would propose ways to utilize the case study project material. Nine synods received these grants for a total of $31,500. Three of the synods offered workshops to new or prospective First Call congregations and reported very positive responses and plans to continue this with other congregations. In these synod events, either the Readers Theater or the DVD resources were used to present the case study findings. Two of the nine synods weren’t able to complete their projects, due to changes in leadership.
- Indicators of Impacts — From evaluations of the three churchwide events for synod/regional leaders (when we presented the congregational case study research through Readers Theater, DVDs and other documents), we received high marks for the quality and usefulness of these findings and resources. Subsequently, after the DVD presentation of the findings to the Conference of Bishops in September, 2009, there has been a spike in the orders of the DVDs. Our FCTE network leaders responded positively to this research as well and will be utilizing the reports and DVD in their subsequent First Call events.
While it is difficult to obtain concrete evidence on impact of our work throughout the ELCA denomination, we have confidence that our FCTE leaders (about 75 persons) and young rostered leaders who have attended our two Churchwide Assembly events (about 170 persons) will carry on the work that we’ve done and share it with others.
Unanticipated in the original grant proposal was a strategy for introducing young rostered leaders to the larger church. Two young rostered leader gatherings at our 2007 and 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assemblies evolved from an expressed desire for such an event from our Region 9 (Southeast) during their First Call event. For 2007, some funds from the Lilly grant (about $5000) were used to leverage other contributions, including a grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, for a total of $65,000. For the second event in 2009, we did not have to use Lilly grant funds since a major contribution ($30,000) was given by our ELCA Board of Pensions, along with other partner grants. Indications are that another event might be planned for the 2011 Churchwide Assembly.
Many voting members and churchwide staff at these Churchwide Assemblies approached the young rostered leaders and us with very positive comments about the importance of having these young leaders in their midst and how the church can only benefit from this kind of program.
1. NPG: Navy Pier Gathering: Affirming Young Rostered Leaders
This event was held over the first four days of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Churchwide Assembly in Chicago in August 2007. The vision for a national event emerged from a First Call Theological Education gathering in Region 9 in 2005. Some of the young new pastors at that event requested that an event be held for support and networking among ELCA rostered leaders. We obtained funding from various partners, leveraged by our Lilly grant. The ELCA churchwide office provided staffing and coordination. Invited to participate were all ELCA rostered leaders age 31 and under — pastors, associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers. Of about 400 invited we had 90 register and participate in this event.
A key goal for this event was to empower young leaders themselves who would provide the direction and purpose for the event. A planning team was convened of young rostered leaders who were full of ideas for how to offer a meaningful experience for their colleagues and for them. We worked closely with the Churchwide Assembly (CWA) planners to coordinate our event with the biennial CWA so that the young leaders could experience the legislative work of the church as well as network among themselves. The CWA planners gladly assisted and supported our planning efforts, expressing a deep appreciation for introducing young rostered leaders to the broader church’s programs, accomplishments and decision-making processes.
As an intentional leadership development initiative, this event’s evaluation pointed to a significant success. Following the event, some of the young leaders were asked to share their experience through newsletters and in conversations with colleagues and synod staff. We have heard of some who were nominated to synodical and churchwide leadership positions, and one participant became a voting member at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly as a result. Two of the planners agreed to be involved in planning the 2009 event and took significant responsibility in that endeavor.
Participant evaluations underlined the value of being brought together and the networking that resulted. They experienced reunion, a vital connection with peers, and a significant sense of support. They wanted more! The 90 young leaders (primarily ELCA pastors) explored ways of sustaining connections through blogs, photo sharing, Facebook groups, etc. They appreciated time away from their congregations, and discussing issues important to them. They particularly appreciated the low cost of the event (primarily travel expenses) that made it possible to attend. Many judicatories encouraged participation by their new pastors and some offered scholarships for travel.
A strong suggestion in the evaluations about a future event was to identify a problem or challenge in leadership development and engage with one another around that issue. This generation is not interested in being passive recipients of the knowledge of others. They want to dive in, to have their say, to chew on an idea and engage in dialogue about significant ideas and concerns that confront the church in today’s world.
2. TCG: Twin Cities Gathering: Affirming Young Rostered Leaders
In response to the positive evaluations of NPG in 2007, a second event for young rostered leaders was planned and held alongside the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A team of young leaders from Region 3 (a geographical area including Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota) was named. Two leaders from the 2007 planning team were also part of this team. The young leaders developed the event with staff support from the ELCAs Vocation and Education unit. The major funding partner was the ELCA Board of Pensions which also provided staff support and mentoring for planning and hosting the event. Other funding partners also consulted in the planning process. As in 2007, this event incorporated health and wellness into the themes.
The event included observation of several plenary sessions of the Churchwide Assembly and time for processing these experiences. Participants commented on how this experience deepened their insight and awareness of how the ELCA makes decisions. The documents and voting regarding the Human Sexuality Social Statement and the policy changes for ELCA rostered leaders created lively conversation, but we noticed that the conversations were respectful and constructive.
The event included visits from the ELCAs presiding bishop and the secretary. A resource fair provided significant networking and introduction to current developments and trends across the ELCA. Participant evaluations reflected an appreciation for the opportunity to be introduced to the wider church dynamics Participants claimed their capacity for impacting the system and felt empowered to make a difference in the life of the church.
This exposure to the way the church carries out its planning and mission offered another unexpected result. Seasoned church leaders and voting members encountered these energized and gifted young leaders in several ways. There were conversations in the halls, after worship, and during other events. These younger leaders do not seem content with “business as usual.” There was a sense of the stirring of the Spirit, creating movement and excitement in these encounters.
3. Reflections — Over the years of FCTE, we have learned that young leaders gain much needed support through mentors and colleague groups. These groups become a safe place for dealing with tough transition issues and, though required in the FCTE program, participants by and large learn from and accompany one another, often filling in gaps of what they did not learn in seminary.
An approach to theology, mission and relationships for young leaders is that “God is loose in the world.” Ministry is filled with movement, action, change and new information. Young leaders acknowledge, “We are really new at this,” but also see that everything is changing as they step into ministry in a particular moment. They often describe bumping up against sometimes strikingly different attitudes from members of the congregations they are called to serve. They may also feel the need to process and be healed from pre-call experiences, involving bureaucratic complexities, a lack of communication, a sense of isolation and the anxiety of going through a call process.
We believe that the impact of the young rostered leader events communicates to these leaders that the church is serious about recognizing its young leaders who, though they are just starting their ministries, are capable of offering their leadership skills and theological perspectives to the larger church.
The ELCA is serious about its theological education and many young leaders carry that sense of support and connection, knowing that the people of the church care, that they are supported in candidacy, at the seminary, through FCTE programs and collegial support, and then in their First Call contexts. As these gatherings at our Churchwide Assemblies hopefully continue (funding partners indicating their commitments to continue), impacts on the larger church from young leaders who carry positive attitudes about the church’s work, role in the world, and the leadership opportunities to serve can only reap positive benefits to the ELCA.
VI. Future of This Project
A. Networking Responsibility Shifts
We have been exploring with synod and regional ministry staff with First Call responsibilities ways to shift to them an accountability for networking, exchanging of best practices, and encouraging congregations to better prepare to be First Call congregations. In a May, 2009 consultation of key leaders in FCTE, these issues were discussed and followed up in a conversation with synod, seminary and continuing education participants at the January 2009 Western Mission Network consultation.
B. Infusion Throughout the System
We have paid attention in all the years of Transition into Ministry grants to the question “How does the system learn?” We have been curious about how the results of our efforts become infectious in ways that influence the system at every level. It is our belief that this system-wide learning can best happen now when leaders across the synods/regions FCTE programs intersect with seminaries, lifelong learning institutes and colleges. Thus, the encouragement (through travel funds) for the FCTE leaders to network with these other entities in our three cluster networks of theological education.
C. Short-Term Success
Indicators of success in the short term for a large church body such as ours cluster around information about and access to resources that have been requested. That is, if key leaders and decision-makers are exposed to relevant information and resources that resonate with their needs, our work has a good chance of being used in helpful ways. We think that this has happened through our project efforts.
For instance, in FCTE synod reports received a little over a year ago, a very frequent response to challenges they face stated that there was the paucity of healthy, life-giving First Call congregations. The case studies of exemplary First Call congregations deliver a strong message about what it takes to be such a congregation. These congregations had positive attitudes about change, partnership perspectives, self-perceptions that focused on strengths and practical actions and strategies that supported new pastors. A potential First Call congregation reflecting on these (encouraged by the DVD materials, Best Practices checklists and reports) could result in an attitude transformation as well as learning ways to become a supportive context in the formation of a new pastor.
D. Long-Term Success
We think that this kind of reflective and transformational process has all the marks of a vocation to strengthen the body of Christ through forming strong pastoral leaders for the church and its future. This would certainly be our long-term hope and would be measured by long and healthy pastorates as well as movement of these leaders into other key leadership roles that impact church policy, growth, vision and faithfulness.
A. FCTE Synod and Churchwide Reflections on Case Study Findings
On November 12-13, 2007 and December 13-14, 2007 sixty synod staff, nine Regional Coordinators, five First Call case study pastors, and a few researchers and ecumenical visitors came together to help project staff discern case study implications of the exemplary First Call congregational research. Summaries of the ensuing discussions and reflections on the implications of the case study themes across fourteen “exemplary” First Call congregations follow.
1. What Makes First Call Congregations Unique?
Throughout the consultation as participants reflected on the case studies and common themes presented by research staff, one discussion theme emerged as a question, “What makes First Call congregations unique from other congregations calling a pastor?” Major threads of that discussion were:
2. Key Challenges
- Intentional participation in the growth of the pastor
Realizing they are calling a pastor without experience, lay people take it upon themselves to help educate, nurture, support — as well as critique — their First Call pastor. They are like cheerleaders as well as coaches in this special nurturing role.
- Stakes are high
Hope for long term pastorate: While all congregations hope for a long term pastorate, First Call congregations seem to imbue this hope with more intensity, perhaps fearing their pastor may not intend to stay long in the first call — especially if it is in a context that is foreign to him/her. Making mistakes may carry more weight in first call congregations. Lay leaders may fear that if something goes wrong, their pastor will leave; thus adding tension to how they respond to their pastor, including his/her ideas for change and style of ministry.
Responsibility for influencing pastor’s future ministry: The experiences and memories of one’s First Call can color the rest of one’s ministry in positive and negative ways. Lay leaders need to be aware of their responsibility in giving shape and form to the First Call leader’s expectations in future calls and a sense of confidence throughout their pastoral ministry.
- Reframing of attitudes
More prevalent in First Call congregations, attitudes such as: “We can only afford a pastor just starting out,” or “We don’t have to change much since he/she won’t be with us very long” need to be reframed to create a healthy First Call ministry. Lay leaders should be aware that they have a unique opportunity in receiving an eager, new leader — a First Call pastor who could help them reflect on who they are and where they want to be going. An example of reframing a negative attitude might be that the First Call pastor “is on loan” to the congregation, providing an opportunity to continue, even for a short time, the substantial investment of the seminary, resulting in dividends to themselves and to the pastor and his/her family.
- Identity issues of the first call pastor and the congregation
Wearing the mantel of “pastor” for the first time carries with it complex but important identity issues to be discerned and reflected upon. Whether one is starting a first career or coming to the pastorate from other careers, pastoral identity needs attention across its various dimensions (ministerial role, authority, boundaries, leadership style). One’s self-identity comes into play especially during times of tension or conflict. A healthy self-awareness helps new pastors deal with whatever comes their way.
The congregation also has to deal with its corporate identity as a community of faith that is partnering with a new pastor to create a healthy, life-giving pastorate. The issue of esteem might be particularly challenging, especially if the congregation doesn’t feel they have much to offer or to sustain a First Call leader.
- Cultural match or mismatch is critical
First Call candidates are assigned to particular synods (sometimes not a first choice of a candidate). Within these synods, congregations that are open to First Call leaders may also be limited or be in contexts that do not match the background of the candidates. Synod staff is often challenged to recommend a congregation that would be suited to the candidate. Cultural considerations need to be taken into account. Matching the candidate to a congregation that would be a healthy environment for the gifts of that candidate may be more important than whether the congregation matches the demographics of the candidate’s history.
Perhaps the biggest challenge we have faced in this project was to find ways to effectively communicate to and impact synods as they work directly with congregations in recommending First Call leaders, preparing Call Committees and providing support to the called new leaders. By and large, synods haven’t played a direct role in educating and coaching congregations in how to be effective First Call congregations. This has challenged us to develop a process for doing this as well as convincing congregations that such a coaching process would be helpful.
Given that there are still many congregations in our denomination who struggle financially and may not have healthy attitudes about themselves, it would seem in the best interests of both synods and these congregations to learn how to become healthy, life-giving contexts for a First Call pastor. The resources we’ve developed — and have promoted to all our synods — could provide an entry point into such discussions and reflections. We feel that these kinds of dialogue would deepen insights into a culture of call within congregations.
B. Strengthening Our Work
As previously stated, the responsibility for ongoing work and learning connected to this project is now in the hands of our synod and regional First Call leaders, as well as synod bishops and other staff. The Vocation & Education unit, under Lifelong Learning, will continue to encourage and provide incentives for this shift in responsibility to bear fruit.
C. Lessons to Share with Other Congregations
When the lay leaders and First Call pastors in the case study congregations were asked what words of wisdom they would share with other congregations, the responses were many and varied. Most of the wisdom they felt other congregations could benefit from centered around the key content themes identified across the case study reports (Nurturing, Connecting, Flexibility, Partner Relationship, Spirituality Practiced and Advice to First Call Pastors and Congregations
D. Lessons for Other Denominations
Knowing that other Protestant denominations have different ecclesiologies from the ELCA, recommendations from our project and how we were able to infuse our church system with learnings from our research and churchwide events may not be applicable. However, over the years we sense the reports from the residency programs in the Transition into Ministry projects point to common congregational dynamics, challenges and opportunities in calling and supporting a pastor new to public ministry. It might be that congregations that are “First Call” contexts are more alike than one might expect across different denominational structures. For instance, most congregations that call a First Call pastor as a solo pastor likely have financial constraints and may be dealing with subsequent challenges such as negative identity issues. A lesson from our project related to this is to find ways to engage these congregations in identity transformation, focusing on the strengths and gifts they bring as small congregations to nurturing and supporting pastors new to ministry.
A lesson for denominational systems that may be relevant is to examine and identify who in the system has a stake — present and future — in healthy, life-giving First Call congregations and create ways to talk about these issues. Sharing perspectives and wisdom from across denominational partners can not only move this issue to a front-burner concern, but also create a platform for continuing to work together on strategies across denominational organizations that address common concerns.
In our denomination, we have learned that we often have to nurture networks and interactions between diverse partners in ways that stimulate a sense of common ground and common benefits. These partners often discover that it is in their self-interest to continue working on better communication, cooperation, and networking that result in better support to those leaders experiencing ministry transitions.