By Tracey Breashears Schultz, Bishop’s Associate for Leadership
When I was a parish pastor, I worked with an office manager who was new to her job, and she reflected aloud to me one day, “Nobody truly knows what happens in a church office or what a pastor’s life is like unless they work here and see it for themselves.” I think of that now as I reflect on my first year on synod staff. (My anniversary is March 11.) I thought I knew what being a Bishop’s Associate would be like. I was right about some of what I imagined, but much of the work you have to experience to understand. I’m so glad for a year of experience!
There are four main areas of ministry in my portfolio: Candidacy, Call Process, Education, and Leadership:
Candidacy is, like it sounds, for ministry candidates. Those who are preparing for leadership in the ELCA journey along two parallel paths. One is the academic, seminary work. The other is candidacy, for which I’m responsible along with our synod’s candidacy committee. There are three major milestones along the way: Entrance (the first), Endorsement (usually before internship), and Approval (just before first call). These are check-in points for which there is an essay due and an interview. At the very beginning of their journeys, we are asking candidates to articulate their sense of call and to tell us about their discernment. By the time of Endorsement, they have had some seminary courses, so we ask them to tell us how they are integrating what they’re learning with their daily experiences. By their last interview, we’re asking them to reflect theologically on all they’ve learned and to tell us what ministry they see themselves doing as they prepare to graduate.
For my part, you might imagine, there are many spreadsheets and deadlines. We have about thirty candidates journeying on different timelines, so communication is really important. Each of our candidates is assigned a relator, a member of the candidacy committee with whom to check in and to share concerns and joys. I do all of this work with Pastor Kathy Haueisen, who volunteers as chair of the candidacy committee. We meet regularly (often in coffee shops) to go through the list of candidates and to talk through student needs. This may sound like a lot of paperwork and planning, and it is, but the best part of candidacy is the people.
Our committee is made up of dedicated people – both lay and ordained – who walk alongside our students and who make time to read their essays and to reflect thoughtfully with them about what they’re learning and what God is doing in their lives.
When people are considering a call to ministry, one of the first phone calls they make is to me, so I get to meet with them (often at coffee shops) and have the privilege of hearing their call stories.
In December of each year, we meet together at the candidacy retreat, committee and candidates. This past December was the first of these retreats for me, and it gave me hope for the future of the church. Our candidates are incredibly gifted.
Call Process is for congregations in leadership transition. When a pastor leaves a call for another one or for retirement, it means a pastoral vacancy. Most people think about this work as “calling a new pastor,” and that is the goal, but it is also more than that. First, Bishop Mike and I do an Exit Interview with the outgoing pastor, and we meet with the congregation’s council about next steps. We work to secure an interim pastor for the congregation, so they have steady leadership for the in-between time. I work with the leadership to help them form a call committee, and then I meet with them in the early days of their ministry to give them an overview of the call process. This is an anxious time for call committees, councils, and congregations, because there are so many unknowns. It is also a time to be discerning and patient and to rely on God’s timing. I admire those who volunteer to serve on call committees because it is behind-the-scenes work, comes with its share of ups and downs, and only has a somewhat clear timeline. What a joy it is to gather with people who love their church so much that they will sign up for the unknowns because their faith compels them to do it.
The ELCA has a (secure and private) national database of paperwork for leaders who have made themselves available for call. My behind-the-scenes work is to be a matchmaker, seeking pastors, through the database, willing to consider and interview for calls in our synod. I look at what our churches name as gifts they hope their new pastor will have, and I look at what gifts pastors have listed on their paperwork. I’ve had to hone my sales and recruiting skills, but it’s another privilege, talking with people about how and to what and to where God may be calling them.
Once a call committee has named a primary candidate (and that pastor has accepted the nomination), then I work with a council in putting together a compensation package and congregational vote, with the prospective pastor in considering a timeline for their move, and with all the leadership in planning for an installation.
At present, there are fifteen (traditional) calls open in our synod. Nine are full-time. Three are at the point in the process where they are awaiting names for interviews.
Education has traditionally referred to First Call. This is the relationship-building I do with pastors and deacons serving in our synod who are in their first three years of ordained ministry. We check in with each other about surprises, struggles, and successes. They request resources or particular trainings they find they need or did not have in seminary, and the synod works to respond. Our first call leaders are in a wide variety of ministry settings, from mission development to music ministry to hospital chaplaincy to shared ministry to staff ministry. Even so, they learn from each other and rely on one another for support. They are imaginative and inspire one another to try new things. I meet with them three times each year—once in January, again in the Summer, and (jointly with the other two Texas-Louisiana synods) on retreat in the Fall. Recently, they’ve asked for small groups (or cohorts) so they can meet more regularly and online. Isn’t that wonderful?
I’ve also been working to offer education opportunities hosted by our synod to give leaders opportunities they might not have otherwise. In January, Dr. Lisa Cressman offered a preaching workshop, and in March, Dr. Barbara Rossing will spend an evening with us. (Registration is still open!)
Leadership basically refers to all of the above! There are other ways, too, I offer leadership, some of which have come as a surprise:
- I am often the first to represent the synod when a conflict arises in a congregation or between council and pastor. I listen and offer guidance. It requires being a non-anxious presence and loving people who sometimes aren’t at their best.
- I preach and/or preside at congregations in our synod on most Sundays. It lets me see the breadth and depth of our ministries and the many ways we are church.
- I get calls from pastors who need to talk to a pastor. Maybe they’ve had a health scare. Maybe they want to run an idea by someone who isn’t a church member. Maybe they want to ask for a raise and don’t know how to approach their council. Maybe they need a prayer. These conversations are always a privilege and leave me humbled and grateful.
I am surrounded by an incredible community. It is a joy to be on synod staff. Each Tuesday, I meet with Bishop Mike to talk about the areas of ministry in my portfolio. He supports me and challenges me and is both my boss and my colleague. We gather for staff meetings and devotions on Wednesdays, and they are my favorite days of the week. Like most things in our synod, we are stronger together. My call comes through the synod council, and I am grateful to them for the trust they’ve put in me and for the leadership they offer our church.
At an installation service I recently attended, someone said to me, “How sad that you trained to be a pastor, and you really don’t do that any more.” It must seem strange, that I would choose to be a pastor without a parish of my own, but this call brings with it challenges and responsibilities that match my gifts. I really love it…in a way I could not have described in the beginning and in a way I am still discovering. I’m looking forward to whatever the next year brings!