Vienna Baptist Church’s commitment not only to developing disciples of Jesus who join God in changing the world but also to its partnership with Duke Divinity School has not faltered in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has grown stronger—with the Northern Virginia congregation creating a special preaching series and inviting former summer interns to preach virtually while its minister was on paternity leave.
Participating in Duke Divinity’s field education program since 2016 has helped the church cultivate a culture of call and commissioning, according to the pastor, the Rev. Austin Almaguer. During a church worship planning meeting, the idea emerged to invite the church’s four former interns to preach for a month of his paternity leave starting in mid-September. The former interns in the newly created Summer Intern Preaching Series are Kadeisha Bonsu D’18 (summer 2016), Leigh Curl D’19 (summer 2017), Miriam Cho D’20 (summer 2018), and Leah Reed, currently a third-year M.Div. student (summer 2019).
Preaching is an element of all of the former interns’ vocational callings—whether in a church, a hospital chapel service, or at the Divinity School, says Almaguer, lead pastor of the 150-active-member church located in Vienna, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, D.C. “Due to the pandemic, opportunities for young preachers to share their gifts with congregations have been limited. The preaching series provided our former interns with an opportunity to use their gifts to lead worship in a supportive congregation. We benefit from a diverse group of gifted and talented preachers who are inviting us to consider how we can faithfully follow Jesus in this uncertain and difficult time, as well as celebrate the ways they have each uniquely grown in their calling since their summer at VBC.”
A Texas native with an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, Almaguer has always been passionate about mentoring young ministers and investing in their growth. His own field education experiences significantly shaped his vocational journey, and his experience in a pastoral residency program funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. modeled the importance of mentorship in ministry.
Investing in Formation
But he’s not the only one passionate about mentoring young seminarians—it’s a family affair.
The transformative field education experiences of his wife, the Rev. Alison Dunn-Almaguer D’13, while attending Duke Divinity School, as well as her formation through participation and leadership roles in the Baptist House of Studies, propelled the couple to tap into those relationships to find ways to support current students. Those relationships led Vienna Baptist to serve as a teaching congregation for a summer intern. After a successful first summer in 2016, the church has continued to mentor interns, with the congregation looking forward to welcoming new students each year.
Dunn-Almaguer, a senior community organizer for the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), a broad-based community organizing group in Washington D.C., knows firsthand how meaningful it is to have a supportive congregation invest in seminarians who are discerning their calling. She is proud of Vienna Baptist for its partnership with Duke Divinity.
“Now as a graduate and an ordained minister, I enjoy giving back by investing, even for just a short time, in the life of current students,” says Dunn-Almaguer. She was ordained at Antioch Baptist Church in Red Oak, Va., the same weekend she graduated from Duke Divinity, after completing a year-long field education placement at that church. “As a woman in a tradition that does not always create spaces for female leadership, I am especially proud that through the Baptist House we have been able to support women pursuing their calling in an affirming and supportive context.”
She credits Curtis Freeman, Ph.D., research professor of theology and Baptist studies at Duke Divinity and director of the Baptist House, and Callie Davis, staff assistant, for playing essential roles in her formation. Dunn-Almaguer, also a Texas native, credits Duke Divinity professors who helped her see racial justice work as inextricably tied to ministry and theological formation.
Dunn-Almaguer’s own field education experiences, including a placement in El Salvador and another through the Center for Reconciliation at Church of the Savior in the nation’s capital, allowed her to work alongside talented women clergy from a variety of theological backgrounds and traditions—affirming her own calling as an ordained minister. In addition, those experiences of nontraditional worship settings focused on community transformation helped her to connect her call to ministry specifically to racial justice and her current work of community organizing.
Since both Dunn-Almaguer and her husband believe the church is called to join God in changing the world, they also invited the student interns to experience Alison’s work at WIN, where she teaches and trains clergy and lay leaders—within churches, mosques, synagogues, and unions—the principles of community organizing to build people power and to create change on issues mattering most to everyday people.
To help the interns develop a vision for how churches can meaningfully engage with their local communities and learn practical ways they can make a difference, the summer interns attended community organizing trainings, small group listening sessions, and large public assemblies where faith communities were holding public officials accountable to take action on issues such as increasing affordable housing, investing in public schools, and dismantling systemic racism.
Due to Austin’s work with a sister affiliate of WIN in Northern Virginia, VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement), the interns also were given opportunities to attend special clergy meetings and training so they could learn more about how to integrate the principles of community organizing and thriving ministry.
Finding Holy Ground Online
One of the former interns, the Rev. Leigh Curl, now a second-year pastoral resident at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, says she was delighted for the opportunity to preach Sept. 13 at Vienna Baptist in the Summer Intern Preaching Series. “It’s a testament to the wonderful, welcoming community they are that they had all four of their former interns back to preach. I keep in touch with many members of VBC through Facebook and was so excited when I knew I would get to be with all of them again for a Sunday, even if it was virtually.”
During the last seven months of the pandemic, Curl has become no stranger to preaching online, but she continues to wrestle with the same difficult questions many ministers now face when preaching to an empty sanctuary or to a phone on a tripod: How do you bear witness to the risen Lord in the performance of the sermon when you’re preaching to your phone? Both preacher and congregation stand on holy ground with the risen Christ on Sunday mornings, but what does it mean when that ground disappears and we cannot gather in the same space?
What Curl found, with a little inspiration from the words of TV personality and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers who called the space between the television set and the child holy ground, was that “the ground the preacher and congregation stand on every Sunday morning never disappeared when COVID-19 stopped us from gathering in person; it just shifted a bit.”
As she learned to preach to a camera or her phone, Curl realized that the space is just as holy as when everyone is gathered in a sanctuary. “The Spirit still moves in and through a YouTube premiere or a livestream. The risen Jesus still shows up. So even though I was preaching to my phone in my office in Dallas, I still felt that I was there in Vienna, Va., with my dear friends at VBC. We were still church together that Sunday morning even though we were states apart.”
Curl credits her VBC summer internship, her first field education placement at Duke, with allowing her to fully live out the role of a minister for the first time since she was totally new to ministry. That internship is also as the reason she has her current position at Wilshire Baptist, where Austin had previously served as a pastoral resident.
“Were it not for Pastor Austin, Vienna Baptist, and the Baptist House at Duke I would not have the job I currently have and the incredible doors it has opened for me,” says Curl, who was ordained Oct. 4 after a six-month delay due to the pandemic.
“There are few things more important for the formation of young ministers than the opportunity to exercise their gifts under the supervision of an experienced minister in a healthy congregation,” says Freeman, director of the Baptist House. “I am very grateful to Austin and Alison, and the Vienna Baptist Church for their role in the growth and maturity of our students.”
Equipped and Affirmed
Another of the interns, Leah Reed, the third-year M.Div. student, says she was thrilled to be invited to virtually preach at Vienna Baptist on Sept. 20. Her internship was tremendously meaningful and formative in equipping her for ministry and in affirming her call. It allowed her to explore for the first time various areas of ministry—from preaching to leading Bible studies to learning about community organizing.
“They welcomed me with open arms last summer, and it was such a gift to be welcomed once again,” says Reed, who hopes to complete a Clinical Pastoral Education chaplain residency at a local hospital after graduation this spring. “Although I would’ve loved being there in person—to be back in the pulpit where I preached my first sermon and to be able to catch up with the congregation members face-to-face—it was still such a wonderful opportunity.”
In terms of her internship, Reed expressed gratitude to Pastor Austin for investing so much time and energy into mentoring, encouraging, and challenging her. “He and the rest of the staff and congregation at VBC were incredibly generous with me and just enthusiastic about helping me to grow as a minister. They never made me question or doubt my calling for ministry, and they pointed out and affirmed the particular gifts that they saw in me, which was particularly meaningful as a young Baptist woman in the beginning stages of preparing for ministry.”
While having preached before on a Zoom call, Reed says it was more difficult to connect to the congregation in a pre-recorded video she made in her Durham, N.C., apartment since she couldn’t see any familiar faces in the sanctuary or know who was watching. However, congregation members reached out to her after the sermon to share which parts of the sermon had resonated with them, let her know she was missed, and just to check on her. “As a preacher, you always appreciate that kind of specific feedback, but even more so when we are physically distanced.”
Transformative Power of Relationship
The Rev. Daniel Corpening, director of Field Education at Duke Divinity, says Pastor Austin, Alison, and Vienna Baptist have been excellent partners in theological field education, and he was excited that the church created the preaching series. “It is a true testimony to the power of becoming a teaching congregation that consistently cultivates a culture of call and commissioning,” he says, “because it demonstrates that at the core of our formation for leadership within the church is relationship.”
“These women have been excellent students in the life of the Divinity School and are exceptionally gifted for ministry,” says Corpening, adding that the Baptist House and the Office of Field Education felt confident they would receive both a joyful reception of their gifts and strong formation at Vienna Baptist.
“At its best, theological field education is not transactional. There is an ongoing mutual investment between the student, the supervisor-mentor, and the congregation. This preaching series demonstrates how God can still use this relationship for the building up of Christ's church.” —Rev. Daniel Corpening, director of Field Education at Duke Divinity School
Pastor Austin Almaguer agrees that the partnership has been a mutually rewarding one as the congregation intentionally creates space each summer for these future church leaders to share their gifts and experiences in ways that stretch the congregation, including liturgical dance shared in Sunday worship for the first time and new perspectives on the Bible.
“The authentic and vulnerable conversations that happen in the lay support team meetings have given church members unique insight into what it means to be a minister and pursue a calling in today’s world,” he says. “We are a healthier and more vibrant church because of the impact our interns have made on us.”
Watch video of the sermons at Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Va., by the former Duke Divinity School field education summer interns.