In 2001, Duke Divinity School invited churches from across the nation to enter a covenant to shape a new generation of pastors.
The Teaching Congregations program, funded through a portion of Lilly Endowment’s grant to support Duke’s initiative Forming a Learned Clergy, places a new student intern in each of these 14 churches every summer. While the pastor serves as mentor, a lay committee provides guidance for the intern through weekly meetings for prayer and discussion.
The interns, including 12 Divinity Fellows with full scholarships funded by the Forming a Learned Clergy grant and two others selected for outstanding leadership potential, live with families from the congregations during the summer after their first year at Duke Divinity School. They participate in various aspects of church life, from delivering sermons to leading Bible study groups to working in outreach programs. They receive a $9,000 stipend for their work.
Matching gifted students with outstanding pastors is just as important to the seminary experience as providing the best faculty in divinity school classrooms, said Bruce Stanley, director of field education.
“It is not simply the operational aspects of ministry—the ‘how to’— students learn in these great churches and from these great pastors. They are learning the scripturally based ‘why’ at the same time,” says Stanley.
And the students aren’t just learning: many have become valued teachers in their own right.
Alisa Lasater D’04, for example, is credited with helping Stanwich Congregational Church increase its focus on outreach to less affluent communities. Further, churches participate in two annual training sessions at Duke Divinity School and interact with faculty and staff in a joint inquiry into the challenges and opportunities of vital congregational ministry, including discussions about the kind of education and formation students and churches need from theological education.
As they meet and share ideas, pastors and laity from diverse denominations and regions form new contacts. “I’ve made some particularly good friendships,” said Jim Harnish, senior minister at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa,Fla., one of the 14 churches in the program. “This creates a different setting in which pastors and lay leaders of some of these congregations are sharing their ideas. We all can use all the help we can get.”
In its relatively short tenure, the Teaching Congregations program has had far-reaching results. The first graduate, Oscar Chambers D’03, has become a pastor at the church where he interned in the summer of 2001: Macedonia Baptist Church of Pittsburgh. A member of the church where Lasater served, Stanwich Congregational, has worked with Pastor Neely Towe to create a fund that will bring Lasater back periodically for the next decade so the congregation can keep up with her progress. During those visits—probably once per year—Lasater will preach and participate in other church activities. Another outcome is that both Harnish and Towe recently joined the divinity school’s board of visitors.
But as part of the divinity school’s continuum of efforts to sustain pastoral excellence, the program also faces challenges as it matures, says the Rev. Susan Pendleton Jones D’83, director of special programs.
Now midway through the five-year Lilly grant, she and other officials are seeking ways to continue the program. That will mean finding churches, individuals or other sources to help cover the costs of Divinity Fellowships, as well as the stipends the students earn during their summer internships.
The program should be preserved, Towe said, and not just because of the importance for the students. The Teaching Congregations, which commit to conversations about new forms of ministry for the local church and agree to encourage laity to attend Learning for Life programs at Duke, would miss the opportunities created for them as well.
“What we get is to become the learner again,” she says. “There’s a temptation for churches to think they’ve got it all figured out. We have the privilege of going back into that learning mode.”
As the program has matured, says Coordinator Nancy Rich, the benefits clearly are growing for the students, church leaders, congregations and the school.
“This is an opportunity to bring some of the best and brightest students to very positive situations in the mentoring churches which, in turn, increases the excellence of the church’s witness to the world.”