Written by Connie Larkman
A transformational leadership program administered by The Pension Boards United Church of Christ, which uses gifts from our forbearers to bring together young clergy dedicated to parish ministry and train them to lead the church of the future, is seeing an explosion of interest in 2014.
The Next Generation Leadership Initiative, which was created to address the issues of decline in the life of the UCC by the United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance (UCBMA) has received 59 applications this year for the class of 2024. That is double the amount of applications taken in 2013. Each year since 2011, just over a dozen seminary graduates embracing their first call are chosen for the training program — a 10-year commitment on their part, but one that the Rev. Danielle Neff, associate pastor of Mt. Zion United Church of Christ in York, Pa., didn't hesitate to embrace.
"I believe that God desires for us to be life-long learners and that we are called to be in constant pursuit of knowledge and experiences that can help us to better serve and be in relationship with others. NGLI, without question, provides that opportunity," said Neff, who joined the program four years ago as one of 11 accepted to the inaugural class of 2021. "There were a lot of unknowns at that time about what the program would become—but it felt clear to me that I would benefit tremendously from being in relationship with other colleagues who understood the unique challenges faced by clergy and young clergy in particular."
One of the program's lead architects, the Rev. Gayle Engel, a former UCC conference minister who served four different conferences, sees NGLI as a way to support young clergy to lead the denomination's shift away from shrinking membership. "What if the UCBMA, with gifts from our forbearers, was able to bring together young clergy who are dedicated to parish ministry and who have a readiness to be engaged in training, critical thinking, and transformation leadership experiences? Wouldn't that help local churches move from survival to embrace God's gift of a future? Our dream was to help the local church, through transformational leadership, to make this shift," said Engel. "It makes a difference if your focus is on the 'future of the church' OR 'the church of the future.'" Engel, who retired in 2005 as Conference Minister in Missouri Mid-South after serving 34 years in conference ministry says the initiative provides personal growth for each participant, and for the churches they serve.
"NGLI brings together seminary graduates in their early years of ministry in the local church for an intense journey of four years of core curriculum in Family Systems Theory, Adaptive Leadership, Teamwork, Communications Styles, Natural Church Development, Personal Assessments and an annual 360 Assessment with their church leaders, said Engel. "In addition, during the first four years they participate in two General Synods, two Leadership Institutes in transformational parishes, Facebook network support, and related team building."
The classes meet twice a year during those first four years for study and field experience. That time together as a team was a huge selling point for one of NGLI's newest participants. "The financial support and continuing education opportunities were certainly draws, but the most attractive aspect of the program was the potential for building relationships with people like me: young clergy who've heard the call of Christ and Christ's church, who've answered that call and because of it find themselves in far-flung places," said Jonathan M. Chapman, pastor of the Westfield Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Danielson, Conn. Chapman just started NGLI in January, one of 17 members of the class of 2024.
"Despite being in my first year, I can already see the benefits of the program. The support system it's created has been fundamental to my continued success in the parish. The continuing education element has provided a solid foundation, even in my first months, on which to build my pastoral ministry. Just this week, I actively called upon lessons and topics learned through NGLI to deal with a parishioner's crisis. Not to mention the affirmation of my call to ministry the program provides."
The last six years of the program, though more self-directed, still provides funds to the participating clergy to pursue the objectives they have identified for growth as they continue to serve in local congregations of the United Church of Christ.
"NGLI has a laser focus on providing a rich experience for those young clergy who have a readiness to engage in parish ministry and who are eager to learn and grow through self-reflection and leadership development for the local church setting," said Engel.
Another participant says the program will help him with one of his objectives — to mentor the young people in his congregation. "Serving as a local church pastor for the first time I thought it would be helpful to be part of an intentional program to focus on leadership," the Rev. Marvin Silver, pastor Jubilee United Church of Christ in Lanham, Md.
"The first year in NGLI was a sign of affirmation of leadership training I received as high school and college student. Young people can be taught leadership. That's a key part of my ministry now," said Silver, one of the 16 members of the 2023 class. "NGLI strengthens the church, to prepare the youth and young adults to be future leaders in the church and in ministry. A lot of the young people don't pick up the concept of how important they are, and they pick it up later in life. We see immediately though, there is a change in young people to their approach to their education; their grades go up, their self-esteem improves, they begin to discern their purpose in life."
"One of the biggest benefits isn't just mine, it's my congregation's," said Chapman. "A decade ago, my church, founded in 1715, was on the brink of disaster. From trying to scrape by to merger to even closure, their future was, at best, uncertain. Through a series of intentional interims, the church found its way back from the edge, and finally called me to a 3/4-time position. They knew this was their shot, and they took a gamble on a young clergyman looking for his first call. This program affirmed that they were on the right track, that they had made good decisions. Simply put, we're going to make it. NGLI is denominational affirmation that my leadership is a valuable asset to this congregation. It helps me and it helps them. I suppose the way to say that would be: It helps us."
"It is a powerful thing to feel that your denomination (vis-a-vis The Pension Boards) has invested in you as a minister," Neff said. "I also feel that, though it can sometimes feel awkward to say, the financial incentive that NGLI offers towards our retirement savings is really critical, particularly as congregations face continuing stressors on their budgets."
"In return for a 10-year commitment to local church ministry in the United Church of Christ and faithful participation in the NGLI program, a $10,000 contribution is seeded in the participant's Annuity Plan account," said the Rev. Krista Betz, director of Ministerial Assistance, The Pension Boards and NGLI administrator. That contribution "should have a value of approximately $75,000 at the end of a 35-year career."
"Out of all the many enterprises I have had the opportunity to engage in within the UCC family as a longtime Conference Minister, NGLI ranks at the top of my involvements in the wider church because of the very special opportunity to provide for the enhancement of young leaders to lead "the church of the future." Engel said. "Our UCC family is enriched because of these talented and insightful young leaders."
"I would say NGLI is an opportunity to become a better minister for Christ. It's that plain and simple," said Silver. "If young pastors want an opportunity, this is the program to do that."
For more information – ngli2030.pbucc.org.