Community Ministry Program

 

(L-R) Michelle Thompson, Valerie Holly, Valerie Freseman, S. Faith Holman, Gary Alexander Byrd

2013-2014 Community Ministers
 

Background of the Community Ministry training program:

Soon after Donna Schaper was called as Judson Church’s Senior Minister in 2006, she proposed a new program to train a small group of seminarians in the kind of progressive, inclusive, world-serving ministry that both she and Judson Church had been doing for many years: a “Training Program on Public Ministry from a Parish Base”. Judson’s lay leaders agreed to try this idea and created a pilot program for the 2006-07 academic year, with five students, financed by spending down a donor-designated fund from the church’s small reserves.

That pilot program, which is familiarly called the “Community Ministry” program, proved successful and Judson was eager to continue it, but could not, without significant outside funding. The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation came to the rescue with a generous grant that completely underwrote the 2007-08 academic year, and 10 students were trained that year. In subsequent years, the Community Ministry program has tried varying formats and class sizes – all with continuing essential funding from the Carpenter Foundation, plus gradually increasing funds from additional sources – for all of which Judson is immensely grateful.

The Basic Model:

The program's underlying theory comes from these theological and experience-based understandings:
(a) that “public ministry”–serving the world’s needs – is the proper work of the Church and
(b) that successful public ministry requires leaders who can motivate church members to become involved in such ‘external’ work, and
(c) that such motivation will require the leader to be able to nurture the members adequately so they are able to look beyond their own needs.

Thus, to be successful, “public ministers” must have two sets of skills – in parish work and in social change work – and know how to integrate them in practice. Standard theological seminary training does not provide this type of training, nor is it currently being provided in this form by any other training program in the United States of which we are aware.

The Judson program assigns the students to work at least 15 hours a week, including attending Judson worship on Sundays and participating in a weekly three-hour seminar led by Judson’s two clergy and two lay leaders, at which a combination of formal instruction and mutual discussion helps students solidify their learnings from their experiences of the prior week. The rest of their time is spent on their assigned tasks, both standard pastoral tasks (which can include aspects of worship leadership, education, pastoral care, and administration) and also external ministry tasks. Students are paid a small monthly stipend for the academic year. They receive regular individual supervision from the clergy, and each student is also provided with a lay mentor from the congregation.

Current Year’s Activities:

In the 2011-12 academic year, the Training Program has a class of nine students. As in prior years, the class is diverse on several measures – not only men and women, black and white, from three different seminaries and several denominations, but also this year fully half the class identifies as gay, lesbian, or gender-queer.

This year unexpectedly provided a new opportunity for practicing public ministry. .In mid-fall 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted in lower Manhattan, a few miles from Judson Church. Led by Judson minister Rev. Michael Ellick (himself a graduate of the 2007-08 Training Program), the interns got involved in the related efforts of a new group of faith leaders, under the name “Occupy Faith,” which lifted up the moral implications of OWS and sought to encourage faith-based involvements toward creating a more compassionate and equitable society.

Several of the Judson Community Ministry students (along with others they helped recruit from their seminaries) are, at this writing, still serving as “protest chaplains” to the Occupy movement. They regularly spend evenings or overnight shifts, originally at the Zuccotti Park encampment and currently at the church-basement shelters where some “occupiers” have found temporary housing. The chaplains give spiritual and practical counseling to the many protestors who are eager to engage with them; many have never talked honestly with a minister before and find the experience unexpectedly helpful. After the first few weeks of the Occupy movement, one of the Judson interns accepted the assignment of organizing weekly interfaith services on Sunday afternoons at Zuccotti Park. Then when New York City closed down the encampment, Occupy Faith organized churches and synagogues to offer temporary housing to protestors who would otherwise be homeless; Judson’s interns staffed the temporary Judson shelter. (See samples of recent coverage of Judson’s involvement at www.judson.org/OWS-occupy-wall-st.)

In addition to working with the Occupy movement, two of the interns are assisting in the ongoing Accompaniment Project of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC. This project recruits, trains, and schedules citizens from many congregations, including Judson, to accompany immigrants who are under deportation orders from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), when the immigrants must go to their required periodic “check-ins” with ICE. At any of these check-ins, the immigrant could be detained for immediate deportation. At such stressful times, it is both a pastoral service to stand with them, and also a practical witness to ICE that this person has community support and must be treated with dignity and respect, whatever their legal status may be. And if the immigrant should be detained, the accompaniers can contact family members to tell them what happened and where to contact their loved one – the detainees themselves cannot make phone calls for 24 hours! Accompaniers are asked to recruit additional participants – thus necessarily learning skills in organizing and training from the program’s leaders.

Additional projects in which individual trainees are active include working with a group of mostly GLBTQ youth of color; follow-up research on a project aimed at training prison chaplains on GLBTQ issues; and coordination and staffing of Judson’s ongoing “Bailout Theater” program that provides a free meal and a free evening’s entertainment to a growing mix of economically-challenged neighbors, congregants, and devotees of the “emerging” arts often featured in these programs.

All the Community Ministry interns are also assigned to learn the many necessary skills of congregational leadership. They may serve as liturgists or occasional preachers in Sunday morning worship. This year in the spring term the group was assigned to plan, lead, and preach at the church’s midweek services. After intensive discussion in the regular Friday seminars led by Dr. Schaper, the interns developed a design for a new adult education series. One intern has been assigned to coordinate it and all the interns are rotating as teachers. All the interns also are given pastoral care and counseling assignments appropriate to their skill and experience levels. And the interns are invited to sit in on selected meetings of the Judson Board and committees, and to spend time in the church office, to get an idea of the scope of governance and administrative tasks and to help out where possible.

This year's Community Ministers this year (2011-12 academic year):

Micah Bucey - 2nd year, Union Theological Seminary
Roz Gnatt – 2nd year, Union Theological Seminary
Eric Jackson – 2nd year, Drew University Theological School
Meredith Kadet –2nd year, Union Theological Seminary
Nathaniel Mahlberg – 2nd year, Union Theological Seminary
Shonda Nicholas – 3rd year, Union Theological Seminary
Annie Reilly – 3rd year, New Brunswick School of Theology
C.B. Stewart – 2nd year, Union Theological Seminary
Jami Yandle – 3rd year, Union Theological Seminary

Recent Results of the Community Ministry Program

By the end of the 2011-12 academic year, the program will have some 41 graduates. Of that number, about one-third are now employed in full-time pastoral work (sole pastors, associate pastors, chaplains, etc.) in parishes from Minnesota to Massachusetts as well as in the Metropolitan New York City area. Ten percent are employed by issue-oriented not-for-profit organizations, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which deals with immigrant restaurant workers). A fifth of the program’s graduates are still in seminary; another fifth have graduated and are looking for suitable pastoral work. The alumni/ae of the program remain in touch with each other through email “list-serves” and personal contacts, providing professional collegial consultation and essential networking.

Through the years, a total of some 37% of the trainees have self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or gender-queer (there have been trainees in each of these categories). For many of the trainees - of whatever gender-identification - their trainee year at Judson is the first time they have experienced a congregation in which gender-nonconforming people are affirmed as simply part of the normal fabric of congregational life and leadership. This experience is crucial to giving them both a hope and a vision of what their future congregations can be – recognizing that in most cases, it will take all the skills they are learning, plus their own personal grit, to create such congregations.

The kind of impact that this program is making on its participants is reflected in the following evaluative statements from some current and former Community Ministers:

When I compare my experience in Judson's Community Ministry program with that of my colleagues at seminary interning at other churches, I feel so grateful for the strength of the training I am receiving in how to do a ministry that balances the inner life of a congregation with energetic, effective and creative community involvement. The Community Ministry program should not be so unique, but it is. We are being trained in a vital way of Christianity, ministry and church that is integral to the survival of those enterprises.

In my Judson internship, I have immense freedom to learn, to fail, and to be myself, all while having the support and love of two amazing supervisors and the beautiful community of Judson Memorial Church. I have felt respected and trusted since the first day, which is a rare feeling for a lesbian in her late 20's, especially in a church context. This experience has had a profound impact on my thinking and public ministry, the fruits of which I know that I've only begun to see.

Something remarkable is going on at Judson and in this program. It’s about power. I am empowered here. I am a minister learning, not a seminarian, not an intern. There is a difference. I am discovering my skills and strengths for myself through work and risk, not passively being taught or shown the way. At the same time, I feel tremendously supported and encouraged and challenged by my supervisors, my peers, and this congregation.

Field work at Judson is real ministry, in real time, and with a vast variety of ministerial challenges both confronting, and encouraging growth. An analogy is of being tossed into the pool of public and congregational ministry, coming up for air, and finding that a host of loving and eminently skilled people are right there to help me stay in the water, and to pick me up when I'm in too far over my head.

I am so grateful for the Community Ministry program. It has been many times more instructive to me than anything I've learned in seminary (although I do really like seminary!).

In March of 2006, while a student at Union Theological Seminary, I began a ministry with a group of restaurant workers in New York City who were running a justice campaign against their corrupt restaurant company. They asked me to organize prayer vigils with them outside of their workplace. I struggled to find a framework for this kind of ministry and a mentor in ministry who could offer me guidance and critical reflection. Then I found the Community Ministry program at Judson Memorial Church. With the support of the congregation, Rev. Donna Schaper, and my peers, I went from being a seminary student running prayer vigils to Judson's Chaplain to NYC Restaurant Workers. I went from being sought out by restaurant workers to doing my own outreach into the restaurant community. I went from running prayer vigils on my own to organizing other students and clergy to participate. I went from being confused about my calling to being theologically articulate and firm about my commitments. I continued in this public, organizing ministry full-time for five years after my seminary graduation, working with thousands of restaurant workers from around the country. Now I have accepted a call to be an associate pastor in a progressive parish in New England. In my parish ministry, I continue to apply the lessons learned in the Judson program - community involvement, outreach, faith and leadership development of my congregation. Without the Judson program, I fear I would not have found the training or the voice to do the kind of bold work for justice that I have been called to do.
 

 
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