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Company of New Pastors program expands to more seminaries

Presbyterian connections play a vital role in formation, identity

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

CNP seminary group at Iliff, from left to right: John Anderson, Mark Hutton, Erica MacCreigh, Denise Shannon, Blair Buckley and Kira Anderson. Not pictured: Olivia Smith, Laura Littman, Jacqueline Decker Vanderpol, Jason Whitehead. (Photo provided)

CNP seminary group at Iliff, from left to right: John Anderson, Mark Hutton, Erica MacCreigh, Denise Shannon, Blair Buckley and Kira Anderson. Not pictured: Olivia Smith, Laura Littman, Jacqueline Decker Vanderpol, Jason Whitehead. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to raise—to prod, poke, pray for, teach, encourage and support—a pastor.

With more than 400 current participants and upwards of 500 alumni/ae, the Company of New Pastors represents just such a community of care and challenge—a community committed to deepening and sustaining the theological foundation of pastoral leaders.

The Company of New Pastors (CNP), a transition-into-ministry program focused on forming pastors for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), offers communal support through mentored peer groups, which help to establish and nurture habits of theological reflection and spiritual formation starting in seminary and continuing into the first years of ministry.

Seminary groups, which begin in the last—often stressful—year of a seminarian’s education, help future pastors foster the habits of personal faith development that will help sustain a lifetime of ministry. CNP covenant groups—designed for first-call pastors—engage the practices of daily prayer and scripture reading, and facilitate sustained theological reflection with colleagues.

Denise Shannon, a senior at the Iliff School of Theology—a seminary in Denver, Colorado, related to the United Methodist Church—looks at being a part of the Company of New Pastors program “not as another commitment, but a necessity,” even with everything that is already on her very full plate.

“There are times when you can feel very alone, and it was important for me to find other fellow Presbyterians at Iliff, which helped put things back into context for me,” Shannon said. “While it is awesome that I am surrounded by such diversity as I have been at Iliff, I needed a group that I could bounce things off of that has some of the same understandings as I do.”

It is because of students like Shannon that CNP decided to expand beyond the original six seminaries which served as the initial locus for the mentored peer groups on which the program is based. Now, those six seminaries—Austin, Columbia, Union, Princeton, Pittsburgh, Dubuque, and Fuller—are joined by groups meeting at Vanderbilt and Iliff.

“Presbyterian students at non-Presbyterian seminaries often have a more difficult time staying connected to the larger Presbyterian world,” said the Rev. Karen Russell, who provides oversight for the Company of New Pastors in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Theology, Formation, and Evangelism ministry area. “CNP can offer those students a larger community as they finish seminary and move into their first calls.”

The Rev. Thomas Sheffield, presbytery pastor for Denver Presbytery, where Shannon is an inquirer, said that the program offers numerous benefits for Iliff students, inquirers and candidates, as well as newly-ordained persons in the presbytery.

“Having a chance simply to form a support system that could last for years of ministry is an enormous gift,” said Sheffield. “Deepening one’s spiritual life can also offer a critical foundation for one’s whole life, particularly when ministry brings challenges to one’s sense of purpose. I respect and am grateful for the education at Iliff School of Theology, but giving a real chance for our students there to engage in a Presbyterian gathering and to experience leadership in the Presbyterian Church are essential gifts to their learning and formation as ministers of the church.”

The CNP group at Iliff consists of five current students or recent Iliff graduates. As part of its experimental nature, the group was broadened to include two persons serving in positions in Plains and Peaks Presbytery and another recent graduate new to the presbytery.

“One of the things the group has remarked upon is the diversity of experiences and vocational stations of our group members,” said the Rev. Jason C. Whitehead, Ph.D., Iliff’s director of Consultation and Formation. Whitehead serves as the group’s co-facilitator with the Rev. Jacqueline Decker Vanderpol, associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver.

“They are connected to Denver and Plains and Peaks Presbyteries as inquirers, candidates, designated pastors, educators and those in or seeking their first calls,” said Whitehead. “Our goal was to cast a wide net in creating this group. In time, we look forward to reaching out to any PC(USA) students from Denver Seminary and others in our midst who could use the support and opportunity to form in a distinctly PC(USA) group around their call and ministry in the future. With the support of Karen Russell and [program mentor/regional director] Jim Kitchens, we have been able to create an experimental space that serves as an open space for learning and formation. While this is a group formed out of my association with Iliff, it has transformed into a group of inquirers, candidates and ministers, who are interested in a sustainable and accountable approach to ministry.”

As Shannon awaits the next step in her journey toward ordination—moving from inquirer to candidacy status—and eventual service as a teaching elder, she is hopeful about the impact that the Company of New Pastors will have not just on her life and future call, but on the whole church.

“I think the PC(USA) should continue to offer, expand and support the Company of New Pastors because I believe it will have enormous effect on the success of all new pastors,” she said. “When pastors feel supported and have an opportunity to learn and glean information from colleagues, their lives and ministries will be richer—their congregations will be enriched as a result. There will be less burnout and a feeling of belonging rather than isolation.”

It is well documented that for pastoral leaders, peer groups can make the challenges of ministry easier to face. CNP groups provide collegial relationships, along with accountability for nurturing personal faith and continued reflection on the things of the faith.

“This potent combination of support, accountability and companionship can make a better pastor,” said Russell. “And we believe that better pastors make better congregations.”

Although the group in its early stages, Sheffield said that “the initial enthusiasm, sense of commitment and eagerness to participate” is already evident.”

“I think the greatest benefit of the program,” added Whitehead, “is the tangible feeling that you are not alone in ministry—knowing that there are people, at varying stages of their careers, who are willing to be present and create community where we can laugh, wonder and challenge each other into the calling of ministry.”

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