No question about it, ministry can be hard.
“And lonely,” says Alina Kanaski, a rising senior at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
And if having a cohort of classmates and friends on the journey toward ministry—both during and after seminary—will never lessen the vocation’s constant demands, at least it makes them easier to manage while also addressing a first-call pastor’s frequent sense of isolation.
“Our theme at Columbia Seminary is ‘Educating imaginative, resilient leaders for God’s changing world,’” says Lisa Schrott, a rising senior at the PC(USA)-related seminary in Decatur, Ga. “In that, they’ve really encouraged us to have peer support groups while we’re in seminary and beyond, with resilience being a key aspect. Part of our understanding of resilience is knowing that we need other people to support us and to bounce ideas off of and to share common experiences with.”
And that’s where the Company of New Pastors comes in.
This fall, the Company of New Pastors (CNP)—formerly known as ‘Excellence from the Start’—will celebrate over fifteen years of providing for the support and formation of new pastors and pastors-to-be.
With more than 400 current participants and 500 alumni, CNP—a transition-into-ministry program centered in helping seminary students develop a deeply theological core as they enter pastoral ministry—offers support through mentored peer groups, encourages the practices of daily prayer and scripture reading, and facilitates sustained theological reflection for seminarians.
Last fall, the program was expanded to include first-call pastors who did not have the opportunity to participate in a CNP group while still in seminary. Recent seminary graduates, such as Paul T. Davidson, who graduated from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in 2014, were also invited to take advantage of the mentored peer groups which continue to meet over a four-year period following seminary.
“When answering God’s call, the challenge and responsibility is great,” Davidson says. “That is probably why most new pastors do not make it after the first five years. The fellowship and resources offered by the CNP helps to relieve some of the anxiety of the position, and helps new pastors, in time, to become seasoned pastors.”
This fall, seven seminaries—Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian—will sponsor CNP groups of eight to ten students each.
“We are especially excited to be welcoming Vanderbilt Divinity School into the program,” says the Rev. Karen Russell, who provides oversight for CNP in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship. “This will be our very first group that will offer a connection to a local congregation and local pastors. It’s a new model in a new place with people like Katherine Smith, Vanderbilt’s assistant dean for Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship, and Guy Griffith, associate pastor for Adult Education and Spiritual Nurture at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, fully invested in its success.”
Company of New Pastors, while simple, has often provided a lifeline for new ministers as they navigate the early years of ministry.
“The program shows that the PC(USA) values the development of new pastors in many realms, not just their intellectual, educational training, but their emotional, mental and spiritual health,” says Schrott, an aspiring, second-career pastor, who formerly served as a professor of pharmacology and neuroscience at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in Shreveport.
Schrott, a candidate under care of the Presbytery of the Pines, has discerned a call to two areas, ministry with adults in middle age and pastoral care. She says that a program like Company of New Pastors is especially important in the context of serving a rural church.
“In a rural setting where Presbyterian pastors are few and far between, where are people that I can talk to?” she asks. “The PC(USA) ordination process does place an emphasis on demonstrating knowledge needed for ministry, which is appropriate and important, but it is also important that the church recognize that leadership in ministry also includes developing one’s emotional, social, and spiritual support systems—the things that will sustain you and encourage you when times are hard and allow you to share your joys and dreams.”
The program also helps ministry candidates and first-call pastors to embrace their tradition and live out their faith as Presbyterian Christians through spiritual practices and disciplines.
“I want to be as prepared as possible for ordained ministry,” says Kanaski. “I didn't grow up Presbyterian, so this is a chance to discover more about Presbyterianism. More importantly, it's a chance to explore the meaning of ministry in a prayerful setting. The discipline of Bible and Book of Daily Prayer readings—and the accountability—appealed as a way to remind myself of the importance of personal time with God as the foundation of my ministry.”
The Presbyterian connection is especially significant for the new cohort being organized at Vanderbilt, where in any given year there are 12-15 PC(USA) students enrolled in the Master of Divinity program.
“For some, choosing Vanderbilt over a PC(USA) seminary—whether for geographic or family or personal reasons—has meant a sense of disconnection from the broader denominational life and support structures,” says Smith. “The launch of a cohort at Vanderbilt signals a welcome inclusion for our students. We celebrate this opportunity to invest in the lives of students who are faithfully seeking to serve the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
Griffith—already experienced in the program and currently mentoring his second covenant group—did not hesitate to put substantial time and energy into organizing the new Vanderbilt group.
“Whatever we can do to help provide a way for our Presbyterian students to be connected to the local church is a real benefit,” says Griffith. “I can’t imagine having gone through seminary without the counterbalance of a local church both encouraging me and praying for me but also as a locus for discernment in my own sense of vocation.”
In his roughly seven years of working with the program, Griffith is sensitive to the challenges that today’s seminary graduates face relative to his own experiences a young pastor at a very different time.
“I’m at a place in my ministry where doing mentoring is a critical part of the work that we do,” he says. “The real challenge for me is working with folks with such a different job market now, being empathetic about that, and encouraging bivocational ministries when my own experience has been regular, robust, and in pretty good churches. I have to realize that the market forces are very different."
The Rev. Dr. P. John Burgess, the James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has been a mentor ever since the program began.
“The CNP program is so valuable because of the mentoring relationship with students,” says Burgess. “We think together about how to relate what we believe theologically to concrete pastoral problems. How does our theology help us think about how to prepare parents to bring their children for baptism? Or how to shape Sunday worship so that it focuses us on God while drawing us together as a community of faith? Or how to set priorities as a pastor so that disciplined prayer and study remain central? CNP allows me to relate to the students not so much as a teacher, but as a fellow believer who cares deeply about being true to our tradition’s deepest insights about God and humanity. We pray together, think together, and hold each other accountable to Christian living.”
Davidson says that even though he has already graduated, he is still trying to prepare for and pass his ordination exams, serving where he can in the church, being a good parent and husband, and trying to earn an income.
Facing an unknown future—although one that he knows is in God’s hands—he finds that the Company of New Pastors, “much like our course work in seminary,” is helping him to be a better steward of his call as a teaching elder.
“In 1 Peter 5:7, it says, ‘Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,’” says Davidson. “The gift that we are given from God in the form of the CNP is one such way we can answer Peter’s call.”
Adds Kanaski, “It's a space to be supported, to ask questions and figure out what ministry means. Pastors need those things, and churches need healthy, supported pastors.”