More than practice: pastoring practicum builds real-world connections

“Even in the first week, I’ve seen God work in so many ways this semester, and it has been such a blessing,” said Hector Melendez, student pastor for Maplewood Academy and the Hutchinson church in Minnesota. “We had a spiritual retreat with the academy, and God poured Himself out. For five hours these students just studied the Bible. We gave them the opportunity to leave, but they wanted to stay, and we were all just bombarded with Jesus. That’s the kind of event that has had a year-long effect on these kids.”

The first of its kind among Adventist colleges in North America, Union’s new student pastoring practicum has seen eight senior theology majors acting as associate pastors throughout the fall semester in seven churches across the country.

Responding to the needs articulated by new pastors and conference administrators, the Division of Religion sought to better prepare graduates for their future roles—and found there is no better preparation than real-world practice. “You graduate, a conference hires you, and suddenly you have 50 sermons to do, prayer meetings to host, and pathfinders to lead: it’s overwhelming,” explained Robert Fetrick, chair of the Division of Religion and associate professor of religion. “There was an obvious need to prepare students to be more comfortable and know what to expect.”

“We haven’t had a good mentorship process,” said Wayne Morrison, senior pastor for the Hutchinson Seventh-day Adventist Church and mentoring pastor. “Graduates are often dropped in a two-to-four church district on their own without any experience or really knowing how to cope.”

The program for the new semester developed gradually, the confluence of three forces: the church’s needs, the graduates’ needs and a generous donor’s contribution. “The conference presidents always ask for practical, real-life experience from new graduates,” said Fetrick. “In the past, we’ve had practical sessions through the Biblical Preaching and Church Leadership classes, where students would be paired with a church. They’d preach a few times and attend board meetings etc., but they didn’t get actual experience.”

Reacting to high expectations placed on new pastors, recent alumni consistently encouraged greater hands-on preparation for undergraduates.

The creation of the new practical semester was catalyzed by an alumnus’ donation. “The division received some money for theology students to give Bible studies, but we really didn’t have an effective way to facilitate that,” said Fetrick. “In a class with eight students, I can’t just follow them to people’s houses and keep an eye on them.”

The religion professors discussed strategies to enable students to conduct Bible studies while gaining real-world experience, deciding on the new semester-long practicum. Conference presidents place students in compatible churches, where they take on roles preaching sermons, conducting prayer groups, and giving Bible studies under the mentorship of the presiding pastor.

“I preached four times a week for a whole month during an evangelistic series in October,” shared Chavez Morris, student pastor for Allon Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Lincoln. “My theme was ‘Jesus is calling,’ and we started planning for it a year in advance. Some of the topics were on core Adventist doctrines so I used other sources, but for the most part I wrote all the sermons myself.”

While practical sessions are common among Adventist institutions in other countries, Union’s student pastoring semester is the first of its kind in North America. “In Australia, they assign students to a church for six months, where they do essentially the same thing as our students,” said Fetrick. “That kind of inspired our program. I talked to a few people from Australia and adapted it to suit our needs.”

An indispensable learning experience, students have done everything from visiting sick church members to reviving vespers programs and empowering new leadership. “I don’t think sitting in classes can paint ministry as a whole,” said Melendez. “I can learn at all the theology, Hebrew and Greek in the world, but it doesn’t matter until see how it applies in someone’s life. That’s what this semester has done. It’s taught me about what ministry really is: asking yourself ‘how am I going to build a relationship with a hurting church member, and help bring them to Jesus?’”

Still in its early stages, the program’s core concept has been lauded by all of its participants. “It’s been awesome for us,” said Morrison. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the students to have some exposure to what a real church looks like, but we’ve also benefited extensively from the energy Ricky has brought to the church. We are at a point where we need a youth or associate pastor, so having him around has helped us catch a vision of what we might need.”

“Obviously there are some kinks in the first semester,” said Melendez. “But I think they’ve hit it the nail on the head.”

Functioning as the Personal Witnessing I, Biblical Preaching II and Church Leadership II classes, students and mentoring pastors write reports of their progress and activities to be reviewed by Fetrick. “It’s very rewarding to see how students develop and grow,” he said. “After they’ve preached in church several times, there’s a difference about them, and by sermon six they’re usually pretty good. I think they’ve also all learned a bit more about time management.”

Dispersed between Lincoln, Minnesota and California, the majority of the students will return to Union’s campus for another semester of regular classes. “Five will come back for more classes next semester,” said Fetrick. “And four out of those five have all said that they would rather just stay in their church.”

Impassioning students for their forthcoming career, the program has lots of potential. “It’s gone super, super well; much better than we expected,” said Fetrick. “All the students have been involved in Bible studies, had preaching experience, interacted with church boards and done home and hospital visitations. It’s the real, full experience.”

“I can’t imagine graduating in May without going through this program,” said Melendez. “This semester has taught me more about being a pastor than I ever could learn as a student. I’ve had four baptisms in this semester, which has been incredible. To have salvation in your hands and see someone be reborn; that epitomizes my semester.”