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Courage to Serve

Next fall, 24 United Methodist pastors from rural churches across North Carolina will travel to a scenic retreat center for Courage to Serve, a program offered by the Center for Continuing Education at Duke Divinity School.

Unlike a generation ago, when continuing education for pastors perhaps meant brushing up on preaching techniques or taking a refresher course in Scripture, these pastors will have different work ahead of them. They will dig deep into their own beings, plumb the depths of their souls, and explore questions of meaning, purpose and calling.

This program illustrates the changing nature of continuing education for pastors, says Janice Virtue, associate dean for continuing education and strategic planning. Rather than being about the development of certain skills, Courage to Serve is a program of spiritual and personal formation that helps pastors tap into their own deep well of passion for ministry.

Under the program, the pastors will take part in a series of quarterly retreats over 15 months. Based on the groundbreaking work of Parker J. Palmer, who pioneered the use of a retreat-based, small group model of formation with teachers, Courage to Serve is rooted in the belief that effective service, leadership and ministry flow from the identity and integrity of the individual.

“It’s about creating a safe learning environment where clergy can get quiet enough to hear the stirring of their own souls and where they can hear God speak,” says Virtue.

Underwritten with a grant from The Duke Endowment, Courage to Serve follows a successful pilot program conducted by the divinity school over the past two years. It joins a growing list of “lifelong learning” options offered by the divinity school, including the Reynolds Program in Church Leadership, weeklong study leaves, and sustained learning seminars, which bring together pastors and laity with divinity faculty for in-depth study over the course of a year.

The new direction of theological education reflects the changing nature of both the church and seminaries, says Virtue. “The world isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago. The church isn’t the same and neither are clergy. And that means the theological education we deliver, and how it is delivered, must be different.”

Seminary can no longer be just about earning a degree, but must also include learning for a lifetime.

“No pastor can serve well without ongoing engagement in his or her own development and formation,” says Virtue. “When our graduates get their diplomas, they are not certified for all time as excellent. That is only the start.”

— Bob Wells

Formal theological education needs to be coupled with a greater use of apprenticeships, patterned after the model of medical education. “Seminaries can help form certain habits of mind and heart and the initial experience of theological imagination,” says Jones. “But that, in turn, has to be transformed into pastoral imagination, which is best learned and lived in the company of the people of God.”

At the same time, on this new pilgrimage, the seminary’s educational role is not limited to the three or four years of an M.Div. degree. To sustain pastors throughout the course of their ministries, seminaries need to develop deep and ongoing connections with congregations, denominational offices, pastors and others. They also have a role to play in encouraging young people to enter ministry.

“According to this model, seminaries will be institutions of lifelong learning, becoming involved with people at younger ages, with laity in other vocations and with pastors throughout their ministries in a way that will be deeper and richer than the common contemporary model of continuing education,” Jones and Armstrong write.

Duke Divinity School offers one of the best examples of this evolving model of theological education. Building on its historic strengths in the classical disciplines of theological education, the school has added a variety of new programs in recent years that are creating a network of relationships with those outside the academy.

Among them are:
  • The Duke Youth Academy, now in its sixth year, brings high school students to the campus for two weeks every summer to study with divinity faculty and live in an intentional Christian community.


  • The Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life, the Duke Center for Reconciliation, Caring Communities, and the Program on Theology and Medicine are efforts to engage the seminary with the broader world.


  • Courage to Serve, the Reynolds Program in Church Leadership, clergy study leaves, Laity Weekend and other new programs are transforming what had been a traditional continuing education effort into a program of “lifelong learning” for both clergy and laity.

Carder applauds efforts to link the academy more closely with the parish and the world. It is essential, he says, that excellence in ministry be embodied in concrete ways.

If it doesn’t then it risks lapsing into what he calls a kind of “ecclesial Gnosticism”—a lot of specialized knowledge about ministry disembodied from the actual world of ministry.

At the same time, he hopes that this new emphasis on excellence does not become yet one more burden laid on already overworked pastors. It’s very easy for such talk about excellence to be misinterpreted to mean that pastors just need to work a little harder and a little better. Excellence, he says, is not ours to achieve—certainly not alone.

“If excellence is truly about God, then it doesn’t all depend upon us,” he says. “I am convinced that excellence is God’s call, but it is also God’s gift. Excellence isn’t an achievement, it is a gift of grace that we receive as we participate in who God is and what God is doing in the world.”

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