Clergy in 2014 cannot assume a lot. Their congregants might not know creeds, liturgical calendars, the Book of Common Prayer, or where to find Romans in the Bible. Leaders have little choice but to experiment and see what works to develop spiritual giants in their respective settings.
Soon, however, a group of 12 Episcopal clergy will have companionship for the journey of running tests and reflecting on results. The Missional Leadership Cohort for Episcopal Clergy will bring them together, frequently online and four times in person, in an 18-month stretch that’s designed to invigorate their ministries for many years to come.
“Forming Christian community today is something churches need to be very intentional about, rather than assuming Christian community already exists,” said program director Dwight Zscheile, an Episcopal priest and professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“There are simply no easy answers about how to do that,” he added. “There are a lot of practices and wisdom … but it does involve a lot of learning and small experiments.”
When the cohort begins meeting later this year, it will be a learning community, Zscheile said. Participants will test assumptions and gather “artifacts” of their experiences, which could include anything from sermons to journal entries, congregational surveys, videos or website redesigns.
The cohort experience will have attributes of an online course, Zscheile said, as participants regularly share in cyberspace what they are reading and learning. They will be encouraged to engage both ancient Christian insights and recent findings from social science as they forge paths to more effective ministerial practice.
This new cohort community will meet several pressing needs, according to Zscheile. One is for clergy, especially those with 15 or more years remaining in their careers, to learn how to keep up active learning as they navigate cultural challenges. Another is for collegiality among fellow sojourners, who might feel a common calling and might share some common burdens, too.
“A lot of clergy are isolated and struggling, quite honestly, so it’s very empowering for them to walk together through a deeper exploration of these questions,” Zscheile said. “I’m not sure what we’re going to learn. This is an experiment itself.”
Those accepted to the cohort will need to be working full-time in ministry and bring at least three years of post-seminary ministry experience. They must also be willing to take risks and innovate.
Once the group is formed, members will dedicate as many as four hours per week to cohort-related activities, including study, experimentation, and connecting with peers online. They will also attend four retreats, each lasting three or four days.
Supporting the program is a two-year grant for $60,000 from the Hamilton H. and Mildred Haley Kellogg Trust. That funding will cover most of the costs, such as food and lodging during retreats. Participants need to pay only their travel expenses.
Trustees hope the Missional Leadership Cohort will help clergy build on what they’ve learned in their early years of ministry.
“A few years in a parish gives a whole new perspective and maturity to the challenges priests face,” trustee Gary Johnson said. “So the trustees looked at how we might assist in bringing together a group of outstanding, but lightly seasoned Episcopal clergy to broaden their skills and better equip them in their ministries.”
Applications are due June 1. To find more information and application forms, visit the cohort’s webpage.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Image: Bockman Hall, Luther Seminary, via Wikimedia Commons