An innovative program helps Candler alumni navigate the transition that comes in the first decade of ministry and rethink their role as public theologians.
When new Candler graduates toss their caps in the air at Commencement, they’re celebrating a milestone well earned, the culmination of years of study and discernment. Next, they go out into the world to use the tools their professors, mentors, and ministry experiences have given them.
That shift from seminary life to the day-to-day workings of a pastor’s first congregation can be a challenging one, says Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching. But, he notes, it is only the first of several vocational transitions that effective pastors must learn to navigate throughout their careers.
“They have learned the rules of the game. The challenge now is to change the game.”
As new pastors establish routines and become steeped in their current ministry contexts, there isn’t a milestone that measures how far they’ve come in ministry. Of course, there are tributes and welcomes when a pastor moves from one church to another, and hopefully each year brings a vacation or a retreat to reflect—but otherwise, it’s nose-to-the-grindstone work. Long says that this can create a major breakpoint for pastors about five to ten years into ministry, after they have developed the essential skills and gained the basic repertoire of experiences to competently serve a congregation.
Long believes that pastors at this critical juncture need to acquire new skills and knowledge relevant to the challenges they face, deepen skills and knowledge they already possess, and be encouraged to grow by colleagues and mentors. “They now stand on the cusp of new ways of understanding themselves as leaders and of performing as decision-makers and influencers in their institutions and communities,” he says. “At this point, they have learned the rules of the game. The challenge for them now is to change the game.”
The group shares Communion with fellow Christians through the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso. Courtesy of Kathie Stasko
Enter “Crossing Borders,” an early career pastoral leadership program Long designed to help Candler alumni become game-changers. Funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., the program focuses on major transitional challenges facing not only pastors, but also their congregations and communities—challenges like immigration, education, transportation, communication, and religious pluralism.“Christian ministry is now being challenged to cross, even to transgress, many borders, to venture in faith from comfortable places where we have lived into new and challenging regions of experience, witness, and service,” Long says. “We want to focus on those places where the heat of social and ecclesial change has melted the iron, where the categories are in flux, and where dynamic leadership is urgently needed.”
In the spring of 2017, the first cohort of ten Candler alumni of various denominations wrapped up their two years of continuing education and pastoral formation through the program. During those two years, they gathered for eight educational sessions, one about every three months. Most sessions took place at Candler and addressed transitional challenges specific to Atlanta, home turf for the participants yet also a city that mirrors larger cultural trends that impact ministry.
Those game-changing trends include population growth, a lack of efficient public transportation, and a shift in economic focus. At the time of the 2010 census, metro Atlanta was the ninth most populous area in the U.S., and it has only continued to grow since. A 2014 Brookings Institute study found Atlanta to have the widest income disparity between rich and poor of any American city. And general population shifts have triggered changes in racial and cultural demographics as well. “Whites are returning to the city center while the suburbs are becoming multi-racial and multi-cultural,” Long says.
In the midst of these demographic and economic changes, Atlanta has become a city of many faiths. Christian traditions are in flux, with mainline denominations shrinking and nondenominational mega-churches growing.
Each session explored one of these challenges in depth, intentionally including the voices of those deeply involved in the issue, who offered context, inspiration, and know-how. “The program brings young pastors into contact with seasoned and courageous community leaders who have experience sailing confidently through uncharted waters,” Long says.
He acknowledges that attempting to do ministry in the midst of all of these changes and uncertainties could be seen as an overwhelming task. But instead, he contends that Candler’s entire approach to theological education takes it in the opposite direction, leading with the belief that the current historical and cultural moment is a rich and exciting time in which to do ministry. He also stresses how the program illustrates Candler’s commitment to the idea that leadership development in pastors does not occur separately from their ministry contexts.
“Preparing leaders for ministry in changing environments is in our institutional DNA… As pastors change, the churches and communities in which they serve are also changing, as is the very character of Christian ministry itself,” he says. “This program was birthed out of the same conviction about the leading of the Spirit and the new forms of ministerial leadership being called forth.”
It certainly embodied that conviction for participants in the first cohort. Josh Amerson 10T says the program was eye-opening. “At the close of each and every session, I felt like I left with a better understanding and a greater hope for how the church can be good and healing news for the world.”
For Jenny Anderson 06T, the program came along at just the right time. “I was entering year ten of ministry as a pastor-in-charge, and this experience challenged me to have thoughtful conversations with my congregation on important civic questions of today.”
Gad Mpoyo 08T 09T was struck by the breadth and depth of the speakers at each session. “Dr. Long pulled together an excellent team of academicians, civil servants, and community and religious leaders to share their knowledge and experience,” he says. “This program challenged me to think about public life and Christian life holistically.”
A highlight of the program was a weeklong trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to explore immigration. Amerson calls it “without question, one of the most transformative experiences of my ministry.” Mpoyo credits the trip with helping him better understand the complexity of immigration and border-related questions that people of faith face. “How should we treat our fellow human beings, documented and undocumented?”
One of the most powerful moments during the trip was a service of Holy Communion held directly on the border, the elements administered through a chain-link fence. “We were surrounded by border patrol agents,” Mpoyo recalls. “Despite the fence that separated us, we were able to share Communion, pray, and sing with our brothers and sisters in Christ from Mexico. It was, for me, a powerful symbol that shows that our unity in Christ transcends geographical and political boundaries.”
By the final session in May 2017, each participant had begun to develop a Community Ministry Action Plan outlining a new ministry initiative involving a new partnership with at least one community leader or agency to address a transitional issue in the pastor’s community. The initiative was to be realistic, sustainable, and within the typical scope of the person’s pastoral duties. Each pastor could apply for a small grant of up to $500 to help implement the plan.
Promoting Interfaith Understanding
When it came time for Josh Amerson to develop his Community Ministry Action Plan, he thought back to the program session on religious pluralism. He was particularly drawn to the concept of scriptural reasoning, a format for engaging people of different faiths with each other’s sacred texts. During that session, he was in a group including Protestant Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who together examined Scripture passages from the Gospels, the Qu’ran, and the Torah.
“I think the primary reason I connected so deeply with this practice is that it offers a means to build relationships with people from different traditions—and rather than developing relationships through a secular activity, it does so through holy dialogue,” Amerson says.
The Rev. Andrew Chappell 15T, Rabbi Max Miller, and Ms. Noor Abbady at one of Dunwoody UMC’s Young Adults panel discussions on interfaith issues. Courtesy of DUMC Young Adults
He sees such multifaith dialogue as having the potential to re-humanize “the other” in the eyes of congregants who, through fear or ignorance, have tried to keep other faith traditions at a distance.
Currently an associate pastor at Dunwoody United Methodist Church just outside Atlanta, Amerson has noticed that millennials in his congregation gravitate strongly toward opportunities for connecting with people of different faiths. One outgrowth of their enthusiasm comes in the form of a monthly multifaith panel hosted by Dunwoody’s young adult ministry and held in a local restaurant. A rabbi from a neighboring temple is a frequent panelist, along with representatives from Atlanta’s Islamic Speakers Bureau, Buddhists, and Christians. “There are typically 30 to 40 people of all ages who gather for that month’s forum, and the topics range from miracles, to heaven and hell, to why we all look the same at church on Sunday morning,” Amerson says.
“Rather than developing relationships through a secular activity, it does so through holy dialogue.” -Josh Amerson 10T
Crossing Borders also made Amerson more aware of ways to get involved in his local community. When the Community Assistance Center in Sandy Springs reached out to Dunwoody UMC to ask if a member of the clergy would sit on their board, Amerson volunteered. “If I had not had this experience, I don’t know that I would have put myself forward for consideration,” he says. Until he joined, it had been 11 years since the Center had had a clergyperson on the board. “It’s one of the ironies of community life today that pastors, who should be able to contribute a theological vision to the public conversation, are sometimes less willing and able to do so than some business and civic leaders,” Amerson says.
Driving Education Advocacy
Jenny Anderson came mid-program to Hopewell United Methodist Church in Tyrone, Georgia, where she serves as pastor-in-charge. In her first weeks there, several community members stopped by to meet her, including a principal at one of the local schools. And in this case, “local schools” really means local—Hopewell UMC is on the same street as an elementary, a middle, and a high school.
The church’s physical proximity to the schools spurred Anderson’s desire to build connections with each one—and to see the bigger picture of what that means. “The relationship between the church and the three schools on this road will continue for years. They have to work together side by side.”
The Rev. Jenny Anderson shuttles teachers to their teacher training at the start of the school year. Photo credit: Courtesy of Jenny Anderson
One way Anderson builds connections is by driving teachers from Richard J. Burch Elementary School to their teacher training and celebration at the start of the school year. It’s become a tradition for the church—located just across the street from the school—to provide transportation for the annual event. Plus, plans for a local health clinic at the elementary school mean that a new sidewalk on their road will soon make it easier for all three schools and the church to connect on a number of levels.“I hope that visually, sidewalks will add a sense of connection and invitation between the schools and the church,” Anderson says. “The schools’ job is to challenge the mind and part of the church’s job is to inspire the soul. Having a clear path between the two is the image we need.”
Anderson says that being part of Crossing Borders at Candler has encouraged her to examine how she makes decisions and leads conversations about church development. She was especially appreciative of the session focusing on education. “It helped me understand the current struggles in our state, and the importance of working at the local level. I now have a better understanding that education change, reform, and improvements are all local.”
Anderson knows that the schools and church will be sharing a sidewalk for many more years than she will be pastor at Hopewell. But while she does serve there, she’ll continue to build ties with the schools. From driving the elementary school teachers to being the speaker at the high school baccalaureate, she is laying the groundwork for long-term collaboration.
When Gad Mpoyo heard about Crossing Borders, he was immediately interested because “it addressed major issues that I encounter on a day-to-day basis in my community of Clarkston, Georgia: immigration, education, transportation, and interfaith relations.”
Mpoyo pastors Clarkston’s Shalom International Ministries, a multicultural congregation founded in 2011 by immigrants, refugees, and the Tri-Presbytery New Church Development Commission. People from more than 16 countries gather for worship in space provided by Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church. The congregation also has an after-school program for children and music ministries.
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mpoyo says that after the November 2016 election, he began to notice an increase in stress and worry among his immigrant community—himself included. “For the first time, I heard many immigrants and refugees expressing fear, feeling unsafe and unwelcome in this country, when they had come here with hopes to live a better life and prepare a better future for our children. The election cycle created in many a feeling of not being treated with worth and dignity as people created in the image of God.”
The Shalom Fashion Show celebrated immigrants’ diverse cultural backgrounds while raising money for the church’s programs for children and youth. Courtesy of Gad Mpoyo
In response, Mpoyo and Shalom International Ministries have been taking measures to show the wider community the positive impact that immigrants and refugees have on America, and vice versa. This included creating a YouTube video featuring refugee children involved in Shalom’s “Inspire” After School Initiative sharing their thoughts on why welcoming refugees is important. Mpoyo also took part in a panel on “Who is My Neighbor?” hosted by the nonprofit Friends of Refugees and the Clarkston Community Center. Shalom even organized the “Celebrate Shalom Fashion Show Fundraiser,” where immigrants and refugees donned their cultural finery to celebrate their homelands and raise money for Shalom and its after-school program, refugee children’s program, and youth scholarships.
“The negative portrayal of immigrants does not reflect the truth of who immigrants are and why they come to the U.S.,” Mpoyo says. “Through panel discussions and events like the fashion show, we are creating a platform that provides a space to learn from each other’s cultures. Our stories are woven into the fabric of America and it becomes a beautiful tapestry of the threads of all our lives. This tapestry of diversity is something uniquely American.”
Along with these larger community events, Mpoyo has also worked intentionally with immigrants so they know their rights under the law, organizing educational sessions with outside speakers. “Unfortunately, many immigrants do not know their rights due to language barriers and lack of understanding of how the justice system works,” Mpoyo says. “By organizing educational sessions, we are empowering them with a deeper knowledge of their rights. These sessions have the added benefit of equipping immigrants to know the laws of this country, which enables them to be better citizens in their new land.”
“We are creating a platform that provides a space to learn from each other’s cultures.” -Gad Mpoyo 08T 09T
Mpoyo’s Community Ministry Action Plan focuses on a demographic he encounters often at Shalom: immigrant and refugee students. Almost one-quarter of the 102,000 students in the DeKalb County School System where Clarkston is located are international. They hail from 150 countries, and many of them have experienced what Mpoyo calls interrupted education. “At some point on their journey, they stopped going to school because of war, political or economic instability, or because they were getting ready to come to the United States.” This puts the students at a distinct disadvantage when they arrive in Clarkston, not to mention the fact that they are also trying to learn English. Plus, Mpoyo explains, the school system in the U.S. is not fully equipped to receive them, compounding the difficulty.
Mpoyo’s study explores the classroom experience from the angle of both students and teachers, with particular focus on cultural sensitivity and care of students. It involves not only the DeKalb County School System, but also resettlement agencies and other Clarkston nonprofits, and, of course, parents and their children. “It is my hope that the findings will help teachers, parents, community members, and education policymakers to have a better understanding of the experience of students who come to the U.S. with interrupted education, and help them succeed.”
His time in the Crossing Borders program has empowered Mpoyo’s work in the community. “This has been a transformational experience for me. It has helped me to rethink local ministry in the sense that ministry does not limit itself to the walls of the church buildings. It lands in the community, where people are faced with issues such as immigration, education, transportation. We as ministers are called to walk alongside them and be the prophetic voice in the public arena.”