Practical Ministry: Ministry sites connect students, congregations and theological education

sara-fisher-and-family

Sara Nave Fisher greets her husband, a military chaplain, with their children. Fisher is an M.Div. student working in a congregation in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

When Sara Nave Fisher gathers at the chancel with the children of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Hopkinsville, Ky., or when she explains a Bible story to a Sunday School class, sits down to a Sunday evening meal with youth, prays with a worried parent, or the hundreds of other ways she carries out her work as Family Minister, she is at once serving, studying, and putting her studies into practice.

A licensed minister by the Christian Church in Kentucky, Fisher is a Master of Divinity student at Lexington Theological Seminary, where all M.Div. students are required to work in a congregation at least 10 hours per week.

The requirement means that what students learn in their theological studies can be immediately applied to their work in the church.

“The classes are very applicable to daily ministry,” Fisher said. “For example, the pastoral care class has been very beneficial. When you go to the hospital to visit someone in your congregation, you can remember what you just learned in your pastoral care class, and that’s been very helpful.”

It has also helped her congregation, notes FCC Hopkinsville Senior Pastor Rev. Nathan C. Brown. “Sara has brought a renewed spirit, not only to the programs of which she is a part, but to the entire ministry of the congregation. Her questions cause us to think deeper about our practice of ministry. Her ideas challenge us to go beyond ‘the way we have always done things.’ Her energy inspires us to try something new. We are deeply grateful for Sara’s ministry at FCC and can honestly say it has a significant, positive impact on our church and community each and every day.”

sara-fisher-in-churchBeing in a congregational setting also provides students with a valuable support network.

“I’m getting to use my gifts as fully as I can, “Fisher said. “My ministry site is very open to letting me explore various areas of the church and gain experience. They view themselves as a teaching congregation and are supportive of my education both on a philosophical and practical level. They know that I come from a tradition that did not allow me to serve because of my gender, and they are incredibly gracious and affirming to me.”

“Being a student at LTS enhances the work in the student’s congregation basically in a traditional theory-to-practice model.  They apply what they learn in their courses to their role,” said Dr. Barbara Blodgett, Donald and Lillian Nunnelly Assistant Professor in Pastoral Leadership, who oversees the congregational work requirement for M.Div. students. “But because the congregations supply opportunities and problems for students to learn from, congregational practice sometimes leads, in turn, to new theories about ministry.”

At Loudon Ave. Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Roanoke, Va., the Rev. Dr. William L. Lee has nurtured this aspect of ministry education through students he has mentored as they served his congregation. 2016 M.Div. graduate Vernie Bolden works in the Loudon Ave. congregation.

“Ministers need the practical application. With LTS, you’re in ministry, constantly, while you’re taking the classes,” Lee said. “With Vernie, he could be taking a class, and then see it happen right before his eyes, because he can practice that which was just taught two days ago. You can’t do that in the old, traditional setting,” Lee said.

Bolden said he often would “immediately take what I learned back to my congregation. I could carry a lot of things from school to church, and that was wonderful. It allowed me to bring a new perspective, and I think that was helpful. I’m grateful for that opportunity.”

To M.Div. student Keslinn Kohfeld-Stout, the congregational requirement is a vital component of being prepared to be a pastor. “The nature of the LTS program requires the coupling of practical ministry experience with the more academic experience,” she said. “Apart from a committed ministry site, it would be impossible to gain that practical aspect of the training. (We must be able to) connect with the people to whom we are called to minister.”

Her congregation, First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Bakersfield, Calif., has been supportive and encouraging.

“I am part of a community that is sincerely invested in my ongoing process of discernment, and I feel extremely blessed,” Kohfeld-Stout said.

Having Kohfeld-Stout serving as a student minister has been valuable to the congregation, said Pastor David Stabenfeldt. “She has enriched our congregation by participating in a number of leadership and committee responsibilities over the past few years. She has been an integral part of the revitalized stewardship team. She has introduced a number of people to seminary-level theological engagement through courses which she has lead. Keslinn has offered pastoral care to a number of our members. Individuals have been cared for and hope restored through her listening and active engagement with these men, women and youth. On occasion, she has participated in worship by offering herself as liturgist, preacher, and
children’s moment leader. Keslinn is growing into herself as one who can offer
herself as a guide and sacred witness for a community in worship,” he said.

Foster Frimpong, pastor of Coheirs with Christ Missions in Lexington, Ky., found that being an M.Div. student at LTS not only transformed his ministry, but his congregation as well. The church recently became affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

“Initially I was challenged with articulating the vision of the church in our context, but I have been able to contextualize my teaching and preaching to meeting this generation, thereby helping the congregation to understand the call of our congregation,” Frimpong said. “LTS has provided me with the Biblical knowledge, Spiritual disposition, and the hands-on-practical skills for pastoral leadership, preaching and teaching of the word of God in our context, and missions and outreach to seeking the unreached children of God.”

This model is important because “it provides a place for the student to gain hands-on-practical experience by putting all the theories learned in the seminary into practice,” Frimpong said.
“It also helps students to examine and evaluate some of the outmoded church practices affecting the growth of the congregation.”

“I believe having a Lexington Theological Seminary student as a pastor has benefited our congregation in so many ways,” said Selina Mensah, a member

and church treasurer of Coheirs with Christ Missions. “He is a caring person and as a man of God, a true spiritual leader,” Frimpong has led the church to grow in discipleship, evangelism, stewardship, and has provided pastoral care that meets the spiritual needs of his congregation.

The combination of practical and academic aspects of preparing for effective ministry is the future of theological education as well as the church, Fisher believes.

“LTS is innovative. That’s what excites me about LTS. It’s not just that they have a flexible program. It’s that they saw where the future would be decades from now, and they wanted to prepare clergy to minister to that church,” Fisher said.

God, giver of gifts for the body of Christ,
we thank you for those in our generation
who hear and answer your call to prepare
for ministry in your Church.
We thank you for institutions of learning
that nurture their call and prepare them
for service.
Grant your Holy Spirit to this seminarian
that s/he may grow in faith,
be filled with courage,
and increase in wisdom.
Grant that we, too, may grow in faith
as we learn to support his/her
theological education
and become a partner in his/her formation.

– From the Liturgy of Commitment for congregations and LTS students