Pastors Thrive Together
The Thriving Together program, funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc., came at just the right time for Christian Reformed Church pastors who are discussing challenges that can enter in with a second call to ministry.
While many pastors have been sorting through the myriad challenges facing them in their second call, a significant topic in some of the mentoring groups that are part of this program has been how best to navigate the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We went into this Thriving Together process with some reluctance. We had no previous relationship with one another,” said Rev. Marc Nelesen, pastor of Georgetown Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich., and facilitator of one of the second-call groups.
Initially, he said, they went on a one-day retreat, during which they built trust, and then they began a series of Zoom meetings to begin a formal learning plan. But their formal planning was quickly set aside when COVID-19 hit.
“We’ve become an essential support for one another,” said Nelesen. “In a world with COVID-19 and conflicting opinions, pastors tend to stand at the intersection of those conflicts. Many of us anticipate theological differences [and questions], but what we weren’t expecting or prepared for was conflict around when to reopen church buildings for worship or how to manage the differences around social distancing and mask wearing.”
Rev. Chris Cassis, pastor of the Source Church in Miramar, Fla., and facilitator of another second-call group, agreed that meeting together as a group has been beneficial during this period.
“Pastors have been asking how to do live-streaming, how to continue to do outreach in their neighborhoods, and, of course, [how to anticipate] what our churches are going to look like going forward,” said Cassis.
“‘How do we adapt and bring our church culture through this [time of pandemic]?’ is an important question we have been asking as we meet together once a month on Zoom.”
Thriving Together Program
In late 2018 the CRC received a $998,990 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to help establish the Thriving Together program as part of Lilly’s Thriving in Ministry initiative.
The initiative supports a variety of religious organizations across the United States as they create or strengthen programs to help pastors build relationships with experienced clergy who can serve as mentors and guide them through key leadership challenges in congregational ministry.
Thriving in pastoral ministry, according to the CRC Thriving Together Program’s webpage, “requires relationships in which one can explore a developing sense of pastoral vocation.” While tough transitions can happen at any time in a career in ministry, they can particularly arise during “certain seminal transitional moments in which an integrated sense of vocation is challenged or disrupted.”
“These are times when a pastor’s sense of call is particularly near the surface,” said Rev. Al Postma, director of the Thriving Together program. “These are especially times when someone asks, ‘Who am I as a pastor? What does it mean to be serving a new charge?’” — or to be considering taking a new position?
Margie Brenner, administrative coordinator of Thriving Together, says the program offers mentoring groups, gatherings, individual mentoring relationships, and the Birkman Assessment tool for pastors in each of these transitions: Exploring Call, Second Call, and Later Career.
“With pastors who have accepted their second call, their new congregations may have the expectation that the transition will be seamless and that their new pastor will know how to handle each situation. Due to differences in context from one church to another, the transition isn’t always easy for a pastor,” she said.
The second-call mentoring groups are up and running, while the type of group for pastors later in their career are just starting up. “These are for pastors who are 55 and over and may be trying to decide if there is one more call” they should take, or if they should stay where they are till they retire, said Brenner.
Whether it is a second call, challenges late in ministry, or issues related to exploring a transition, said Postma, “working things out in a community is hugely important.”
Right now, there are five second-call groups: Persevering Saints facilitated by Cassis; the SIM Group facilitated by Nelesen; Second Chances facilitated by Rev. Andrew Beunk, pastor of New Westminster CRC in Burnaby, B.C.; Second Call Six Pastors facilitated by Rev. Ron Chu, a pastor at TtoKamsa Mission Church in Monterey Park, Calif.; and the Baconators facilitated by Rev. Richard Bodini, a pastor at Heritage Fellowship CRC in Brampton, Ont.
Between the time he agreed to run the group and when it launched, Bodini took a third call to his current church. With the experience of two churches behind him and a new one with which he was just becoming familiar, he has had some solid experience in helping the other pastors in his group make their way through some, as it turns out, surprising, unexpected challenges.
“I’ve been able to get the pastors together to dialogue, to share their concerns, and to reflect on how to navigate from your first to your second call,” he said.
A two-day retreat early in the process really bonded the pastors, he explained.
“The pastors have opened up. For one of them, a first call didn’t end very well,” said Bodini. “There was a breakdown between the pastor and the council.”
From his own experience, Bodini said, he faced challenges in the churches he served, and he talks about these in the group’s Zoom meetings. He talks especially about how difficulties could affect not only his call as a pastor but also his family.
“The process can be a lot more messy than you are given to think,” he said. “It can be awkward and sometimes depressing.”
Rev. Rita Klein-Geltink, a member of Bodini’s group, recalled a card that she received from someone when she arrived at her first church. It was a beautiful card, she said, but the person also said that she probably wouldn’t stay because pastors never stayed long at that church.
That card came to mind, said Klein-Geltink, when she took a call to her current church, Ancaster (Ont.) CRC. “I was not looking for a second call, but pastors do it all the time. They leave one church for another,” she said.
When she arrived in Ancaster, she poured herself into her work, Klein-Geltink said, but wasn’t able to allow herself time to grieve leaving the one church for the other. Now she realizes that the group can help her to do that. “When it comes right down to it, it’s good to give yourself a little more humility and draw a few more people into the process,” she said.
Andrew Beunk faced challenges in his first church, he said, but he learned from the experience, and that has helped him to prosper for the past 10 years at his church in Burnaby. Having worked in business as an engineer before he went to seminary, he finds he can serve as a listening ear and a seasoned voice for the pastors in his group.
“The question is, ‘How do we discern toward a second call becoming a long-term and healthy call?’” he added.
A key element of the second-call groups are relationships that are fostered and built on trust — especially as, in this time of COVID-19 surprises, pastors must be nimble and creative and able to help lead their churches into an uncertain future, said Nelesen. “The clergy are building the bridge that we are walking across,” he said. “In our groups, we have become friends. The group has become a vital support in a very difficult time.”