Community Ministry Program


(L-R) back row: Sara Wolcott, Melissa Virgin, William Stell, Michelle Thompson
front row: Valerie Holly, William Cerf, Patti Drews, Karlene Griffiths Sekou, Kendrick Kemp
not pictured: Valerie Ross

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 Class:

In the 2014-15 academic year, the Training Program has a class of nine, from diverse backgrounds and seminaries, and some with special assignments at Judson.

Patti Drews is a 2nd year student at Union Theological Seminary (UTS).

Valerie Holly
is a graduate of NY Theological Seminary now in its DMin program, in her second year as a Community Minister, with a concentration on immigration issues.

Kendrick Kemp
is a 2nd year student at UTS, specializing in disability issues.

Valerie Ross
is a graduate of UTS, having received the M.Div in May 2014. She is currently an STM (Master’s of Sacred Theology) Candidate in her 4th year at UTS.

Karlene Griffiths
Sekou is a graduate of Vanderbilt Theological School, now studying at Harvard Divinity School.

William Stell
is a 2nd year student at Princeton Theological School (PTS).

Michelle Thompson
is a graduate of PTS, in her third year as a Community Minister, assigned to assist with Judson’s Arts Wednesdays program.

Melissa Virgin
is on leave from UTS to be Director of Children and Family Ministries at NYC’s Grace Episcopal Church; at Judson she is a Special Community Minister for Reproductive Justice.

Sara Wolcot
t is a 2nd year student at UTS.

Also meeting with the Community Ministers this year is William Cerf, a PhD student on a non-ministerial track whose Judson assignment is as a research intern.


In the fall term, the Community Ministers participated in a 3-day special course taught by the Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper at UTS, under the title “Between the Nitty and the Gritty” – tips on the practical aspects of pastoring a congregation. Guest leaders at the regular Friday seminars at Judson have included Jane Lucas, MDiv,, PhD, teaching Change Theory as applicable in public ministry, and Rev. Dr. James Fraser on the educational theories of Paolo Friere as applicable in public ministry. The Community Ministers also planned and led an interfaith Thanksgiving-eve service focused on climate change/climate justice, and a series of Advent worship services. Since immigration is a continuing issue for the nation and NYC, working with projects of the NYC New Sanctuary Coalition is a continuing emphasis. All the interns also carry some pastoral care responsibilities appropriate to their skill level, and are learning the arts of welcoming newcomers, “working the crowd” at Sunday coffee-hours, and dealing with the unexpected crises and interruptions endemic to a busy urban parish in a high-traffic location.

Achievements of the Program to date:

By summer of 2015, the Community Ministry program will have 59 graduates. Aside from the 20% still in school, 42% are currently employed as pastors, assistant or associate pastors, chaplains or religious organizations’ staff from Massachusetts to Oregon, and another 10% are employed by no-profit issue-based organizations. The rest are currently between jobs or working in secular careers.

Through the years, a total of some 33% 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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