Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The De Facto Associate: A Retrospect One Year Later

(Author's Note: Apologies for my one-week hiatus, and my thanks to all of you for indulging that brief vacation from the world of Christian blogging.  It was a great moment of time away from the everyday demands of ministry, and I am glad to be back. -E.A.)

The last two-thirds of 2011 was an absolute blur for me—I graduated from seminary, was ordained, saw my childhood congregation get ripped apart by a destructive (and likely unnecessary) schism, and I went from being a Bay Area graduate student intending to write a master’s thesis in Biblical Studies at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University to being a full-time solo pastor in semi-rural southern Washington.

But all of those massive life changes began with one other change, and if I was completely honest with myself, it was a change as formative as any of the above—exactly one year ago today, I formally stepped down from my work as the student associate minister at First Christian Church in Concord, California, following two years of ministry in that post.

And I will be honest—I truly doubt that if I began my full-time ministry somewhere as an associate pastor of a larger church (as opposed to my current calling as the solo pastor of a smaller church), that I would be enjoying ministry as much as I am after all of said life changes.

This is not ego talking—just a worry of the reality that a supermajority (between 60-80%, depending on who you ask) of newly-minted pastors leave ministry within five years, and my guess is that many of them are (or were) associates, departing the ministry after a singularly bad experience as an associate pastor.

I know that there are other denominations with a more centralized polity than the Disciples (whose congregations are fully autonomous, as opposed to, say, having a pastor assigned to them by a bishop) have what is called a “curate” associate pastorate in their parishes for newly ordained pastors. A curate pastorate is designed to be filled for only two years—presumably, in those two years you will learn so much that you will outgrow it and need to move elsewhere for your own professional and spiritual growth. For associates who feel called to a church only for a short time because they are being groomed for a future senior pastorate, it’s a pretty good model.

I feel extremely lucky in this regard, as I have come to view my two years of part-time student associate ministry at FCC Concord as a sort of in-seminary curate post. I was at a parish that took immense pride in being a teaching congregation—my senior pastor there, Russ Peterman, had been there for about five years when I was hired, and I was his third student associate—and that pride and identity showed, even in how they referred to me.

Some of my classmates at seminary were referred to as “Ministers-in-Training” by their parishes, which to me sounded extraordinarily patronizing and brought to mind images of a poor student having to go up to the pulpit to preach while wearing water wings over their robes.

My title at FCC, in contrast, was “Student Associate Minister.” It denoted my student status respectfully, without patronizing me, but it also labeled me an actual minister of the church, rather than just one who is training. I have to think that, at least unconsciously, it made me feel more like a full member of that community for the two joyous years I spent with them. At a bare minimum, I know that I carry a fierce loyalty to them that I am not apt to lose anytime soon.

Now, please don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying I just liked a place more because they gave me a better title. I’m only saying that, in my case (and my case only), that title was a reflection of the place in their fold that this community had given me.

But unlike other associates—student and ordained alike—I was not simply given the dregs of the job to do. My job description was not “everything that Russ does not want to do,” which was a far more tangible way of demonstrating this faith community's affirmation and acceptance of me. While I did do ministry that was meant to meet the needs of the parish—like starting a youth Sunday School and chaperoning a lock-in or two—I was also given a free rein to poke around in almost every aspect of the church’s life, from finance to mission, and I was never asked to stop using pop culture materials, even television shows like South Park or Family Guy, in my Sunday School classes.

Perhaps most importantly, I was being taught by a senior pastor whose talent was never eclipsed by his ego. I preached, on average, once every six weeks, and attendance would drop only negligibly, if at all, on my Sundays. I was included in long-term worship planning meetings. On the Sunday I was away in Kansas City, awaiting approval for ordination pending graduation by my region’s committee on ordination and standing, Russ began his sermon by talking about me, of all people. And most memorably, I went from being too fearful to even preach one Sunday in the first multi-week sermon series during my tenure (if memory serves, it was six weeks on the Sermon on the Mount) to, in a 90-minute, caffeine-fueled brainstorming session, hashing out the entire Lent 2011 sermon series with Russ, complete with texts, titles, and themes.

In This Odd and Wondrous Calling, the fantastic 2009 book that she co-authored with fellow pastor Rev. Martin Copenhaver, the Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote about her time as an associate minister early in her career, at the same age as me, saying, “The relationship among clergy at the same church is profoundly intimate. When it works, there can develop something close to telepathy.” In those sorts of vision-casting, sermon-planning sessions, there was a hint of a sort of shared vision, I think, between Russ and myself, owing in no small part to his own influence upon me. After all, we each simply saw sides of each other we would have never seen but for both of us serving on the church staff. And because of this, I would echo Rev. Daniel wholeheartedly in one other sentiment--that I firmly believe that associates should feel called based on who their senior pastor will be as much as any other factor, if not more so.

I still think a lot about my time at seminary, of what I learned and wished that I had learned. But I learned the most about how to actually do ministry not from any seminary class, but from my two years at Concord, because there, I had finally caught a glimpse of the minister I could become, and of the minister I am today.

Yours in Christ,

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