Learning to be a pastor can be overwhelming. At Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, pastoral ministry students have four years to soak up all the knowledge and wisdom they can before finding themselves with congregations that will look to them for leadership. The new Congregational Connections Student Immersion Program, created with funding from Siebert Lutheran Foundation, is designed to bolster students’ understanding of what it takes to run a church.
Participants in the Student Immersion Program are sent to host churches around the country for about four days at a time. The host church arranges opportunities for students to witness excellent examples of ministry in practice, both internally and at other nearby churches, and also to debrief with ministry leaders at each location. For example, St. John’s Church in Denver and its head pastor, Michael Eckelkamp, hosted a group in fall of 2014.
“The whole trip was formative,” said Kyle Jones, a Denver trip participant. “It just made me think about things in a way I hadn’t before.” Jones described a couple of ministry events he witnessed that looked different from the models of ministry he is used to discussing in class. “He [Eckelkamp] expanded my perception and my ability to ask questions.”
A.J. Espinosa, previous Seminary Student Immersion Program participant, with mentor pastor
Casey Kegley, a second-year student, went with a group to Jenison, Michigan, where his group was hosted by Holy Cross Lutheran Church. He picked up valuable insights on how church leadership can work in practice.
“I think the biggest lesson I took away from the trip…was the importance of investing in lay people who are already capable leaders within the congregation. What I saw largely were pastors who trusted lay people and provided them with the guidance and resources necessary to lead particular aspects of congregational ministry and operation,” said Kegley.
“They spend a lot of time on the administration of [church] ministry,” said Becky Pagel, manager of the Student Immersion Program, explaining that the program’s goal is to give students more tangible knowledge on the “how” of ministry, not just the “what.”
As this is a new program, Pagel emphasized that learning from the initial cohorts and utilizing that feedback has fostered improvement. Barrett Grebing, a fourth-year student who participated in the most recent Student Immersion trip hosted by Christ Church Lutheran in Phoenix, Arizona, said the trip exceeded his expectations.
“We were very impressed with who we got connected with,” said Grebing. He and five classmates visited four churches in three days, and learned very different lessons at each location, from volunteer management to governance to finance. He felt that each church was focused on giving the students the best possible takeaways because their time together was so condensed. “We got the main points faster. For me, it had impact because of that.”
The Student Immersion Program is only one of the ministry immersion opportunities available at Concordia Seminary; what distinguishes this program is the goal of sending new ministers to their first parishes with practical models of outstanding church administration. This goal becomes more fully accomplished with each cohort trip, as the program’s leaders intentionally learn from each immersion experience.
“The opportunity to witness and soak up how congregations do things is invaluable for seminary students,” said Kegley. “I would be thrilled to hear that the Seminary is planning to do more of this.”