DIVINITY Online Edition
Surprised by Grace
Teaching Congregations and Interns Share Gifts

By Jonathan Goldstein

Even as a child, Alisa Lasater, now a third-year divinity school student, was interested in the plight of the homeless, the poor, the disenfranchised.

Alisa Lasater D'04
Photo By: Les Todd

 Alisa Lasater D'04

At a young age she became involved in informal outreach to low income communities “by the grace of God,” she says. After college, she worked as a youth minister in her hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., at Central United Methodist Church. Later, she worked full time with the poor through Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church near Washington, D.C.

So Lasater was taken aback last spring when she learned that her pastoral internship through the summer Teaching Congregations program would take place in Stanwich Congregational Church of Greenwich, Conn., one of the nation’s wealthiest communities. She had never considered ministry with parishioners who live in multi-million-dollar mansions. Accustomed to the poor’s openness to the gospel, she did not expect to find the same spirit in a community of such great means.

How would she make the transition, she wondered, from preaching to people who live on the streets to preaching to people with heated bathroom floors and vaulted ceilings in their huge houses?

“One of my first thoughts was the passage from Matthew: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,’” Lasater says.

What followed was a transforming experience, one that challenged her view of the world and showed Lasater that she had much to learn about all kinds of people, their needs, and the ubiquitous presence of the Holy Spirit.

According to Nancy Rich, who coordinates the Lilly Endowment-funded Teaching Congregations program, sending students into settings outside their comfort zone is intentional. The idea is to take 14 of the school’s finest students each summer and place them in churches with excellent pastors and lay people to guide them. Often the experience moves students in unexpected directions that prove more valuable than the students could have imagined.

“It’s a chance to challenge students’ notions of what church is all about and help them find their calling,” Rich says.

In well-heeled Greenwich, Lasater encountered people struggling with loneliness, questions about their self worth, and difficult family situations. And contrary to her expectations, she found a devoted congregation of openhearted and deeply caring people who shared their pain.

“I learned about God and God’s kingdom and a lot about my call to the practice of ministry,” says Lasater, 27. “You go where God sends you, but you make sure you’re always formed by God, not the place. And God taught me through the problems and pain and hope of the people in Greenwich.”

Donna Coletrane D'04
Photo By: Reed Criswell

 Donna Coletrane D'04

For 24-year-old Donna Coletrane, a second-year divinity student, her internship at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla., gave her the opportunity to work toward racial reconciliation within the church—a long-time interest. The issue seemed natural, considering Coletrane is black and Hyde Park is a predominantly white congregation.

Coletrane spoke frequently with members about divisions separating black and white communities. She talked about hip-hop culture, especially music, and explained that it can be positive as well as negative. She almost always found people willing to listen and trying to come together. Scripture served as a bridge of understanding when shared experiences did not.

“I left Hyde Park with a hope of racial reconciliation among white and black churches, although that still has a long way to go,” she says. “They gave me hope because they were a community that embraced me. I could make a comment without judgment, and we could have a good discussion and pray about it.”

Before the summer, Coltrane, who grew up in the Missionary Baptist tradition, believed she would not become a pastor in her church. But during her internship, she began to consider doing exactly that.

“It did make me more open to the possibility of pastoring, which is not something I necessarily was open to doing,” she says. “They helped me develop some undiscovered gifts. God very well may call me into the pastoral role.”

For Lasater, the internship—which involved preaching, leading Bible study, youth ministry, and various outreach efforts—solidified her calling to become a pastor.

“I finally came to understand my identity as a pastor,” says Lasater, who credits Pastor Neely Towe for both challenging and encouraging her. “This wealthy church showed me what I am. They reflected back my strengths and encouraged me [to confront] my weaknesses. I grew with them, and they grew with me.”

The congregation’s desire to bring Lasater back periodically over the next decade came as a surprising tribute from a congregation that had much to teach her. “We want to continue to nurture that growth,” she says. “It humbled me how gracious God is. The Spirit knows no boundaries.”

Read essays from other divinity students who participated in the Teaching Congregations program last summer.

Witnessing to the World: Teaching Congregations Strive for Excellence

Duke Divinity School Learned Clergy Initiative FlyerIn 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.”


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