They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper. Psalm 1:3
Looking for more than a class, a book, or a retreat to sort through the challenges of ministry? Are you an experienced priest who is interested in learning from colleagues? Want a different experience of Continuing Education that extends over several conversations? Find us at www.thrivinginministry.church.
Thriving in Ministry at VTS is developing a new culture of learning. Right now, as we develop the process, we are focused on the stages and contexts of ministry for priests. Yet, we know there are deacons, lay leaders, congregations, and ministry leaders eager to learn.
The paragraphs that follow offers an indepth look at the aims of our current program. This description is a portion of a larger narrative report prepared for our funder, The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
“The key aim of Thriving in Ministry at Virginia Theological Seminary is to create among Episcopal priests a new culture of on-going clergy formation aimed towards priests thriving in ministry and leading vital congregations. This key aim has two components. The first component is shifting the continuing education culture from information delivery to integrating information with experiential learning. The second component is aiming the experiential learning toward six specific outcomes for thriving described in our Thriving Impact Map.
Our first component begins in the current familiar process of continuing education. Currently in most cases, the learning after seminary centers on honing traditional skills that are the foundation of parish ministry and that grow from a classical theological education: preaching, teaching and pastoral care. A priest’s continuing education is typically a class with inspirational new ideas and casting a vision for a new program that could be carried back to the parish as a teaching experience. This learning process is usually content delivered by an expert in the field either in a physical classroom or on -line to an individual student. In some cases of preaching and pastoral care feedback by the expert along with some practicum is provided. These traditional methods and skills are important. And, at the same time, the landscape of parish ministry is rapidly expanding. Clergy increasingly must be versatile in a variety of skills in order to care for the parish members, to care for the organizational life of the parish, and to care for themselves. This three-dimensional need for care means parish life becomes more complex and more isolating with the increased demands. Even as clergy report they find deep meaning in their work they also report that they feel increasingly isolated. Learning across multiple disciplines requires multiple points of view and experiences.
Our program’s new culture of on-going clergy formation is rooted in the participant’s experience in her or his context of ministry. All adults rely on their learning from past experience. Those knowledgeable in adult learning theory state that to ignore past experience is to ignore the adult learner. Applied to our program this means that the situation and context of ministry has already shaped the priest and provides the starting point for reflection. Over the last 18 months six peer learning communities have centered around these contexts: clergy couples, women expanding leadership, church planters, and school chaplains. All the priests in each peer learning community have a least five years of experience in ministry. The peer learning community creates an environment to discuss common experience, to explore individual perspectives, to reflect on possible alternative strategies, and practice new responses. Colleagues with similar experiences and appreciation of the questions offer a sounding board and support to explore especially when the complexity of a situation clouds the path to a way forward.
Our program’s new culture of on-going clergy formation also engages experiential learning of exemplars and expertise found in the mentors. The mentor can model thriving behaviors, challenge perception, introduce new resources at appropriate reflection points, and ask questions of impact and accountability. This process is designed to lead the peer community members to explore deeper levels of the situation. When necessary, mentors can also shift the conversation away from an unproductive track of complaining and open options to help the peer community see accountability for actions. Mentors can also create a safe space for members to experiment. Questions that encourage taking risks include, “What would you like to try?” How would you describe what you will do differently next time?” “What skill do you need to practice?” “What feedback do you need to guide that practice?’ The mentor then follows up with the peer member either in an individual one-on-one or in the next peer community to listen to what the individual learned. These deep questions along with case studies and ministry narratives prepared by a member of the peer community create an opportunity to reflect on experience together. Priests learning from the experience of their current ministry context also learn from peers and from mentors. This experiential learning is an important component of our program’s new culture of on-going clergy formation.
The second component is aiming the experiential learning toward six specific Impacts for Thriving. The six thriving impacts are:
- Connection with Colleagues
- Setting Learning Goals
- Conflict agility
- Connection to the wider community
- Collaborative and Lay Leadership Development
- New Spiritual Practices
While our program is invested in priests learning from the experiences of ministry, we seek to guide that learning deeper towards Thriving in Ministry. We believe these six impacts are essential for priests. Thriving priests develop capacity in each of these areas. They need awareness and agility with these impacts to continually bring them into their arenas of thinking and acting in daily ministry.
The Impact Map is woven into the mentor training, peer community member preparation, and evaluation process. For example, the initial exercise for each peer community member is to write his or her learning goals. Mentors discuss these goals in one-on-ones and in the peer community. Members hold one another accountability to her goals. Another example is that the evaluation is prepared according to these six impacts. At four months, after the face to face meeting, which is approximately 10 months, and at the conclusion of the peer community’s time together, both mentors and members complete a written evaluation based on these six thriving impacts.
The objective is that peer and mentored experiential learning is focused towards promoting collegial connections, shaping the discipline of setting individual learning goals for on-going skill development, building capacity in conflict agility, collaborative among clergy and lay leaders, encouraging connections beyond the congregation into the local community, and, inspiring new spiritual practices that support the new, emerging leadership capacity creates priests Thriving in Ministry.
Thriving in Ministry at VTS’s key aim is to create among Episcopal priests this new culture of on-going clergy formation through experiential learning and the impacts for thriving. When peer and mentored learning from ministry contexts come together with the six dimensions of the Thriving Impact Map, then priests develop the habits and behaviors for thriving. This multidimensional learning process encompasses the wholeness and the integrity of ministry rather than trying to isolate the component parts. Thriving in Ministry at VTS is dedicated to thriving leaders for the vitality of the congregations they serve.”