UCC pastor: NGLI equips younger clergy for challenges ahead
Parish ministry is not for the faint of heart – and not because it inevitably involves the pastor plunging a toilet while in one’s church clothes as the prelude starts. Congregations, like any organization, have their own family systems, life cycles, and contextual challenges. There is a real reason the clergy collar is often referred to as a projection screen. For clergy in our thirties and forties, add to the standard challenges of pastoring the (largely unspoken) responsibility of helping congregations transition from one generation’s leadership to the next, honoring legacy while faithfully responding to today’s challenges with – gasp! – change.
Now, throw in a pandemic. To say that parish ministry is not for the faint of heart is a dramatic understatement.
As the Rev. Melissa Florer-Bixler explains, “Recent poll data collected by Barna Group, a California-based research firm that studies faith and culture, confirmed . . . about 38 percent of Protestant senior pastors surveyed have considered leaving ministry over the past year. Among pastors under age 45, that number rose to 46 percent.” Rev. Florer-Bixler notes that the reasons include church bullies, embedded sexism, lack of appreciation, and the exhaustion of learning how to livestream worship, provide tele-pastoral care, and offer online funerals.
Thankfully The Pension Boards United Church of Christ began equipping its younger clergy for these challenges through the Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI). How did it know what we need to prepare for? By teaching us not what to think, but how to think.
While technical solutions were certainly part of responding to the needs of our communities dealing with quarantine, isolation, and social distancing, the pandemic revealed the deep need for adaptive leadership willing to experiment, engage feedback, and pivot faithfully. NGLI’s visionary programming leading up to 2020 meant that its pastors were familiar these concepts, and in many cases, already putting them into practice.
We also had each other. At the time I started NGLI, I was the only UCC minister under forty and the only female UCC minister in Oklahoma serving a local church. Intergenerational clergy colleague relationships are vital, but NGLI introduced me to a clergy cohort my age, which has proven crucial to surviving and thriving in an era when the expectations of clergy seem increasingly broad – preacher, facilities manager, worship coordinator, office administrator, pastoral caregiver, and tech support to name a few. Shared language and experiences through NGLI have meant that we can support each other in the work of transformation informed by Gospel values, family systems theory, and conflict resolution.
What does the future hold? The lessons of the past two years have taught us that we won’t know until we get there, but NGLI has strengthened the wider church with leaders and congregations with the skills and mindset to face it faithfully.
The Rev. Lori Walke is Senior Minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, Okla.
NGLI applicants are UCC clergy under 35 who’ve served a church for five years or less and are committed to long term ministry in a UCC local church. Selected participants receive six years of advanced training and education, a cohort of colleagues to learn with and financial incentives.
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