The Rev. Camille LeBron Powell is a pastor mentor for the Company of New Pastors and a Teaching Elder at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Tucker, Georgia, in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. Her co-pastor mentor, Byron Wade, is Teaching Elder of Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, a congregation in the Presbytery of New Hope.
The transition from seminary to ordained ministry can be rough. All the hypotheticals and case studies of the classroom become real when you are in a session meeting or at the hospital bedside with people you are learning to love. The goals set and achieved in a ten-week internship seem like a dream when you are serving a congregation long term. Ten weeks come and go and everything just keeps going. It can be a rough transition. Thank God we don’t have to make that transition alone!
I was honored about a year ago when Byron Wade asked me to be his co-pastor mentor for the Company of New Pastors (CNP) program. What a privilege to be invited to accompany new pastors on the journey! The Company of New Pastors is a pastoral formation program which has a dual purpose of deepening and sustaining the theological foundation of new pastors in our denomination for over 15 years. Many of the participants begin their participation in CNP in the last year of seminary, meeting with seminary professors for theological reflection in a cohort group. Upon graduation and receiving a call, they can continue their theological formation in what are called Covenant groups led by experienced pastors, called pastor mentors. The Company of New Pastors has over 400 current participants, 500 alumni and seven seminaries – Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian – who at present participate in the program.
Byron and I are the pastor mentors of the CNP Southeast Covenant Group, a group of nine new pastors who are serving in churches from Virginia to Georgia. We have the privilege of spending the next five years committed to the personal spiritual discipline of daily prayer and meeting approximately every eight months for daily prayer, fellowship, and ordered theological reflection. We both serve as models, counselors, accountability partners, teachers, and friends to those in our group.
In May we met for our first retreat at St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Johns Island, South Carolina. The retreat theme was developing a theology of ministry, with our worship and theological reflections drawing upon Paul’s experience as a pastor in 2 Corinthians 1:1-11. Subsequent gatherings will continue to explore ministry through the first five chapters of 2 Corinthians.
In preparation for our retreat everyone read Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery by Richard Lischer and wrote reflections papers to share with the group. I first read this book when I was between seminary and my first call. Reading it again with 13 years of ministry under my belt and now in a new congregation in a new role, I found it to be a rich story of loving a congregation and growing in your own pastoral identity.
Our participants, though most in quite different ministry contexts from Lischer, found much to draw on as they reflected on ministry. Together we shared experiences of coming to terms with the fact that the church we saw on a Ministry Information Form (MIF) and in the interviews isn’t necessarily the church we ended up in. As Lischer struggled to understand the people of tiny New Cana, Illinois, our group shared stories of getting to know the matriarchs and patriarchs in their congregations, of navigating the ins and outs of hospital visits, and of recovering from missteps made while learning the culture. Like Lischer, our group is discovering the meaning behind unlikely symbols in their congregations and the power of vulnerability.
As pastors, we get to witness theological divisions overcome by bread and cup. We get invited, at the request of a young child, to participate in rituals like pet funerals. We get to see the body of Christ at work in our polity, in committee meetings, while riding in a car being shown around town, at the ballpark, in text messages from youth, and in so many other ways. Ministry is an awesome and peculiar thing to be called into and to live into. But we are not called into it alone. It is a blessing to have peers walking similar paths to support, challenge, affirm, and console you. It is a blessing to have trusted mentors who’ve been on the same journey.
As Richard Lischer leaves his first call in that tiny church he reflects, “I do make sense of my life from that ministry.” I feel the same way. My personal life and my ministry are forever shaped by my first call, by my mentors and colleagues, and by the congregation I fell in love with and that loved me back fiercely. A pastor’s first call can make or break you. With the support of the Company of New Pastors I believe participants have a better shot at maintaining spiritual health while faithfully serving Christ’s church.
Our retreat ended with worship in the chapel with a view of the beach behind the chancel. Together we sang hymns, confessed our sin, received assurance, prayed for one another and the churches we serve, listened to the good news from Paul about a ministry of consolation, and we gathered at the Lord’s Table. With bread and cup we were united, fed, nourished, and refreshed for ministry. We were sent out with the affirmation and words of thanksgiving from Paul:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Company of New Pastors is a transition-into-ministry program which focuses on pastoral formation through spiritual disciplines and mentored peer groups. For more information on CNP, contact Karen Russell by email.