Candler’s Contextual Education curriculum ensures that Master of Divinity students will gain ministry experience in both clinical and ecclesial settings before they graduate. But MDiv students who are certified candidates for ordination in The United Methodist Church can also choose to fulfill their Con Ed requirement through the Teaching Parish program, a cooperative venture between Candler and the Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church with long-standing support from the Wayne Rollins Educational Endowment.

Through Teaching Parish, students are appointed by their Annual Conference bishop to serve as pastors-in-charge or associate pastors of local congregations, managing the daily ins and outs of parish ministry in tandem with their seminary studies. Not only do students pastor churches, but they also take part in regular reflection group meetings with fellow Candler students serving nearby. A local United Methodist elder facilitates the group, offers guidance throughout the year, and evaluates each student-pastor’s performance.

The opportunity to intertwine their Candler classes and pastoral experience provides a rich challenge that students say is absolutely worth it.  

Josh MilesFirst-year MDiv Josh Miles serves as minister of student life at Athens First United Methodist Church. He says he was especially excited to be part of the “support group setting” of the reflection group with fellow United Methodist pastors. “I knew that I wanted to be like a sponge. I felt that my call would be strengthened as I worked alongside others who are called to ministry, and I knew that soaking up wisdom from other pastoral leaders would strengthen my own leadership.”

For recent graduate Monica Sams 16T, senior pastor of Balls Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Jeffersonville, Georgia, Teaching Parish proved to be deeply significant to her pastoral and personal development. As the only member of a Pan-Methodist denomination in her reflection group, Sams says she found an encouraging environment where she could process and share her experience while simultaneously benefitting from new ideas.

“I gained a greater appreciation for the cultural, social, and familial experiences that were integral to my spiritual formation,” she says. “I was able to offer my unique perspectives as an African American female pastor grounded in years of serving in predominantly African American faith communities. At the same time, I acquired fresh insights from my United Methodist peers into creative ways to engage in ministry.”

Melissa MobleyWhen hearing from past and current Teaching Parish students, the phrase “in real time” comes up frequently. Melissa Mobley 15T currently serves as pastor-in-charge at Tillman Memorial UMC in Smyrna, Georgia. She says that her time in Teaching Parish gave her a way to test ideas and theories about ministry as she moved back and forth from the classroom to the pulpit. “The experiences I gained serving a congregation allowed me the benefit of applying in real time what I was learning at Candler. It also helped me clarify my passions and identify my strengths.”

Third-year MDiv Thomas Anderson, who pastors the two-point charge of Bethel UMC and Waldens UMC in the South Georgia Conference, describes his Teaching Parish experience as “life-changing.” He says that the biggest challenge, as one might guess, is figuring out how to manage school and pastoral duties side-by-side. But instead of viewing the balance as overwhelming, it lit a fire under him. 

Thomas Anderson with Vacation Bible School participants.“To get the most out of Teaching Parish, I have had to devote a substantial amount of time to the churches I serve. This has forced me to adhere to a schedule. Through proper time management, I have been able to accomplish everything that has been required of me.” And it’s allowed Anderson time to practice and ingrain a skill that never goes out of style: “The necessity of time management will be something that I carry with me throughout my ministry.”

Not only does Teaching Parish help students build ministerial muscle before they ever cross the stage to receive their Candler diplomas, it’s also a way to earn a living while in school: student-pastors earn a salary and may reside in parish housing if it’s available. But the most important perk comes at a deeper level: getting a chance to live out their call even as they’re still unpacking what it will fully look like.

As Josh Miles at Athens First UMC puts it, “Teaching Parish gives me a clearer eye toward the relationship between the work of the church and the work of the seminary. On Tuesday, I may be learning about God’s love and provision in the Old Testament. On Wednesday, I’m sitting in a Bible study at my church with youth and adult leaders engaging with that Old Testament text. On Thursday, I may be learning about pastoral care in all of its intricacies. On Sunday, I am greeted with the opportunity to provide pastoral care in a parishioner’s life.”

It’s that combination of communities that Miles sees as one of Teaching Parish’s greatest blessings, supporting and being supported by both Candler and his congregation. “Even in the dinner line on Wednesday nights, I’ll hear things like, ‘How’s class this week?’ or ‘What are you learning about?’ or ‘I am praying for your test this week, Josh!’ This time in my life is fertile ground where great seeds of love are being planted for a lifetime of ministry. I will never take for granted this holy privilege of experiential learning.”

Learn more about Candler’s Teaching Parish program.