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New ministers need nurturing congregations

By David Wilson

On a sparkling day late last winter, I sat around a table with students from Queen's Theological College in Kingston, Ont. A few weeks later, I did the same with their counterparts at the Vancouver School of Theology and at Toronto's Emmanuel College. My colleagues and I wanted to explore ways to put this magazine on the radar of future United Church ministers. I hope they got something out of the sessions, but I suspect I came away with the lion's share of the dividends.

These students are smart, enthusiastic and dedicated people who likely would be successful at anything to which they set their minds. But they have heard a different kind of call and are channelling their abundant gifts to serve God and their church. To talk with them about their dreams and their anxieties, to laugh together and take the conversation to new and exciting places was like being administered a high-test tonic. I found the experience thoroughly invigorating.

It wasn't until later that I began to worry. I'm old enough to know that it's hard to sustain passion and exuberance in the trenches of everyday living. The grimy details pile up. I'd like to think that the students who are graduating this spring haven't peaked yet -- that the best is still to come. For some, great things undoubtedly will. Others will find ministry hard and nothing like they imagined it was going to be. It may not be fair, but that's the way it works. Always has.

Students in any discipline face a rude awakening when they cross the threshold into the real world. Future ministers get a taste of it in their third-year internships, but the final jolt must still be pretty intense. Compared to engineering, pharmacy or business majors, their goals upon entering seminary are barely tangible: to help others and to serve God (heaven help them if they're in it for the paycheque). After graduation and settlement, the idealism and passion of the seminar room will give way to Christmas pageants, bereavement counselling, leaky roofs, empty pews, Sunday school teachers gone AWOL and the challenge of writing -- then delivering -- a barnburner of a sermon 45 Sundays a year. Younger ministers may look out from their pulpits on congregations where the average age is twice, maybe even three times their own.

Hopefully, the passion and faith that got them through seminary will sustain them through a long and rewarding ministry. A lot will depend on how they're received at the churches where their ministry gets off the ground. The newly settled minister who just arrived on your doorstep may not yet preach like Harry Emerson Fosdick or fan the fires of justice like Lois Wilson. But I guarantee that they've arrived with the best of intentions. If they're going to live up to their potential, they need to be welcomed with the best of intentions. That means extending a welcome that lasts beyond the initial how-do-you-do. If they come equipped with families, it means welcoming their partners and kids into the community. It might mean cutting them some slack occasionally, turning a blind eye when they trip up. Ministers aren't manufactured; they're nurtured.

These days, when there's so much talk about churches needing to be genuinely welcoming spaces, the focus seems to be on the pews, not the pulpit. Maybe it's time to widen the discussion to stop overlooking the obvious. To the students who are graduating this spring: good luck. To the congregations they'll serve: good luck, too. You're all in this together.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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