How Maine’s Institute for Ministry Is Creatively Training and Calling Pastors to Serve Smaller Churches

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How Maine’s Institute for Ministry Is Creatively Training and Calling Pastors to Serve Smaller Churches

This story, authored by the American Baptist Churches of Maine Regional Executive Minister, is part of a series focusing on how churches are creatively approaching seven priorities of American Baptist Churches USA. “Innovative Models of Pastoral Ministry” is the focus for this piece.

By Al Fletcher

I have found that my best thinking rarely is the solution in God’s Kingdom.  While I believe God appreciates my efforts, I know that “His thoughts and His ways” are not mine.  I’m learning. At least I am willing to learn.

Small churches are the “bread and butter” of the American Baptist Churches of Maine.  In fact, if I listened to those who claim to know how to grow churches, the churches of Maine shouldn’t exist at all.  Smaller churches are an anomaly, God’s anomaly.  In spite of what many experts say, small churches exist in vital, dynamic ministries. I trust that God who so often confounds the proud is at it again.

As Executive Minister, I have struggled with local church size.  In my mind, who wouldn’t want to belong to the household of faith?  Those who advocate church growth believe that small churches should grow. Bigger is better.  While often not stated, it is implied that churches that are growing are blessed by God.  If your church isn’t growing, there are reasons for it.  Numerous books, articles, programs, the list goes on and on, address the reasons why small churches shouldn’t stay small.  Not much is written as to why small churches should remain small.  Small doesn’t fit the American dream. Small does seem to fit God’s agenda.  I am reminded that God’s people are found faithful in little places.

Why should small churches remain small?  Here is one reason: small churches, if they do anything, do relationships well.  The ties that bind are long and deep and have sustained small churches through times of trials, shortages, and struggles. Many small churches in Maine have been historically small. The exception has been churches that have grown since the 1950’s and are now in decline. Why are small churches still in existence?  It is because their members know, love and care for each other and are willing to belong to each other.  They prioritize commitment.  Friendship matters, but covenant commitment is the priority.

Finding pastors in Maine is a challenge.  Seminaries have dwindled while the cost of a seminary education has grown.  Small churches, many with limited financial resources, can’t settle on a seminary graduate unless the spouse’s employment provides the largess in the family income.  Health insurance, retirement, and livable wages are challenges that many small churches routinely face.

Baptists believe in the priesthood of all believers.  The difference between laity and clergy is significant but small.  In the small church, every hand is needed, and the opportunities for ministry abound.  Many of our small churches have folks willing to fill the pulpit in time of need, serve communion to shut-ins, visit the sick, care for the needy and dying.  Pastors are important to their ministry.  Pastors provide insight into God’s word and advice to the congregation.  While pastors are important, small churches can and have functioned without one.

Small churches enjoy the care of a pastor.  When a small church is without a pastor, the congregation feels the absence.  Many pastors in Maine serve their churches for many years. Commitment is important. Finding a pastor is labor intensive and a process.  Prayerfully working through “Calling an American Baptist Pastor” is at the heart of the pastoral search process in our region.  It is one way in which local churches find pastors.  There are other ways as well.

Because of the size and resource challenges of small churches, creativity is needed in calling a pastor.  The American Baptist Churches of Maine (ABCOM) addressed the challenges of finding pastors through the creation of its own Institute for Ministry, which offers basic courses in theology, church history, Old and New Testament studies, preaching, pastoral care, etc.  Each of these courses is designed to help women and men who feel a call to ministry deepen their understanding of call and of ministry.  When it is hard to find trained, quality pastors, ABCOM chooses to grow them.  Historically, as American Baptists, our best pastors have come out of the pews.

The American Baptist Churches of Maine Institute for Ministry (AIM) is a highly relational educational experience.  Class sizes are small and interaction with the presented material, the instructor and students is easily afforded.  Pastors with a seminary education teach these courses and develop a mentoring role in AIM students’ ministry formation and life.  Relationships begun in the AIM with mentor pastors continue into lifelong ministry after the course loads are completed.

AIM graduatesConcerned about the alarming rate in which pastors leave ministry, the American Baptist Churches of Maine began an intern program in conjunction with AIM.  Students in the AIM program can choose to become a part of a local church’s ministry through an internship program.  The internship program is a three-year learning experience.

The first year, an intern is given the privilege of exploring with a pastor the ministry of a local church.  Interns are encouraged to ask, explore, and serve in every aspect of a local church ministry.  They are expected to serve 10-15 hours per week.  Interns learn how to serve boards and committees, to care for the needs of a congregation, to prepare a sermon and sermon series based upon the perceived needs of a local church.  Pastors who have interns provide a safe space for interns to explore and learn.  A selected group of leaders from the local church provide review and evaluation.  Interns are asked to provide a critique of the ministry of the local church as well as an evaluation of the ministry of the local church.

In year two, interns are asked to examine their gifts and abilities and design a ministry that will use their gifts and abilities to further the mission of the local church.  Interns are encouraged to teach, resource, and encourage folks who are involved in a ministry which they designed.  Again, review and evaluation is built into the internship program.

In the third year, the AIM curriculum will have been completed.  An intern feeling God’s call to pastoral ministry will begin to prepare for God’s leading, becoming open to the call of a local church.  The American Baptist Churches of Maine’s Committee on Ministry will help folks seeking a call prepare for commissioning or ordination.

The results of this experiment in internships has produced pastors who understand American Baptist history and polity, who understand the nature of covenant and importance of relationships, who build confidence in their ability to work with and serve a local church, and who can serve a small church in Maine while continuing to work in their original calling and setting.  Some folks talk about this as bi-vocational ministry.  We understand it as a gift that God provides through churches to the benefit of churches.

Internships are just one of the creative solutions our local churches are using to find quality pastoral leadership.

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