Lutherans in Minnesota

First-call pastors need not go it alone as a transitional support program can help

ELCA Lutherans using Lilly Endowment funds for unique mentoring approach

A newly-minted Lutheran pastor, fresh out of seminary, is expected to be an instant expert when he arrives at his first parish. How realistic is that? Not very, it is safe to assume.

The Lilly Foundation, an Indianapolis-based funding agency committed to enhancing ministry and vocation, agrees. Its leadership has been pouring millions of dollars into a creative initiative, “Transition Into Ministry.” (For more information, visit the Web site: www.transitioninto ministry.org.) The idea is to help newly-ordained clergy across the ecumenical spectrum find the support they need in the critical first few years of parish ministry. Studies show many clergy give up on their callings during the first five years or so, often because they lack the support required to keep going when the going gets rough.

Pastor John Hulden, Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, metors first-call pastors in the Fargo-Moorhead area through a partnership funded by a Lilly Foundation grant.

Pastor John Hulden, Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, mentors first-call pastors in the Fargo-Moorhead area through a partnership funded by a Lilly Foundation grant.

According to Gretchen Wolfram, director of communication at Lilly, 30 mainline Christian congregations, judicatories, and ministry units have participated in Transitions into Ministry (TIM). There are two Lutheran parishes, both ELCA, currently in the program. One is in Davenport, Iowa. The other is Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, Minnesota.

The Rev. John Hulden administers the TIM program at Trinity. He told Metro Lutheran that his congregation has received two four-year grants and has just been approved for a third and final one. (Lilly will not provide a fourth grant to a parish.)

Says Hulden, “The grants are ordinarily given to large, multi-staff parishes. There are exceptions to that. But a large congregation generally has the resources to provide mentoring for recent seminary graduates. In our case, we call two or three of them for two years. During that time they serve as pastors on our staff, work with and learn from the other clergy here, and get the support they need in the critical first years of service.”

Hulden, who’s now in his 13th year at Trinity, currently convenes a monthly “colleague group.” It consists of the three new pastors on his staff and three more serving in rural settings in the area. “I’m not their senior pastor,” he explains. “I walk alongside them. And they teach one another.”

Pastors in the current colleague group which Hulden supervises include Trinity’s three newcomers, along with new clergy in Lancaster, Macintosh, and Miltona, all Minnesota communities. “It’s very clear that supporting first-call pastors works,” he says. So far his congregation has called a total of 17 clergy, all of whom stay at Trinity for only two years — they understand when they come that it is a term call — and then move on to other parishes, often as solo clergy. “These first-call clergy are enthusiastic about this program. I’ve gotten some great testimonials from them.”

A participant’s perspective

Such a testimonial comes from a previous participant in Trinity’s two-year program. The Rev. Matt Philaya now serves on the pastoral team at First Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Philaya, whose last name is Finnish (and means “mountain ash tree”), says he got involved following an unexpected e-mail invitation that arrived while he was a senior at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

“I was part of the first group that Trinity welcomed into TIM. It was good in more ways than one. For one thing, I got to serve those two years with first-call clergy from other seminaries. In my case, the other two, both women, were from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, in Columbus, Ohio, and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California.”

“This [training] program is about retention. Through it, we want to acknowledge that a pastor entering a ministry is never alone.”

“The program was a good confidence-builder for me,” he says. “At Trinity I was one of six pastors. I got to watch other clergy in action. It’s a big church, so a lot was going on. It was almost like an extra internship, but it was really more than that. I learned a wide range of things. It was really great.”

Was there any hesitation about Philaya’s accepting the term call to Trinity? “No — and yes. No, because my wife and I are both Concordia College grads. We’re from northwestern Minnesota and wanted to go back there. So this seemed perfect for us. Yes, because there was a risk. We bought a house in Moorhead. We knew if we didn’t get another call in the Fargo-Moorhead area, we’d have to sell it in two years. It turns out, we had to sell. Fortunately, the house sold fairly quickly.”

After the grant

Pastor Hulden is excited about the third and final grant period, now beginning. It has an expanded element. “This time we’re in partnership with Concordia College, just down the street from us, along with Lilly, Luther Seminary, the Churchwide unit of the ELCA, and the ELCA synods of Northwestern Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota. We’ll share educational resources with our TIM clergy, among other things.”

The intent this time out, he says, is to work with any pastor in a first-call situation in either synod. The hope is to provide site visits, orientation for participating congregations, stipends for spiritual direction, and encouragement for every participating pastor to have a mutual ministry team in the congregation he or she is serving.

The third and final grant from Lilly amounts to $870,000. That’s 60 percent of the total. (Trinity provides the other 40 percent.) So this question is raised: What happens after four more years? Will the program die?

Hulden is confident it won’t. “Trinity is already setting aside funds to keep it going. And we hope to get support from other sources. We hope that will include the two participating synods.”

One measure of the success or failure of TIM will be whether the first-call clergy who participate stay with their calling to ordained ministry. “This program is about retention,” Hulden says. “Through it, we want to acknowledge that a pastor entering a ministry is never alone.”

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