“Even during the first week, I saw God work in so many ways, and it has been such a blessing,” said Hector “Ricky” Melendez, who spent the fall 2013 semester as a 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 saw eight senior theology majors acting as associate pastors throughout the fall semester in seven churches across the country.
Responding to 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. “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 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 new semester-long program 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 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 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 follow all of them around to people’s houses.”
The religion professors discussed strategies to enable students to conduct Bible studies while gaining real-world experience, and decided on the new 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,” said Chavez Morris, a student pastor for Allon Chapel 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.”
Pilot program for NAD
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 inspired our program. I talked to a few people from Australia and adapted it to suit our needs.”
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 all the theology, Hebrew and Greek in the world, but it doesn’t matter until I see how it applies in someone’s life. That’s what this semester did. It 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 Pastor Morrison. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the students to have some exposure to what a real church looks like, but we also benefited extensively from the energy Ricky brought to the church. We are at a point where we need a youth or associate pastor, so having him around helped us catch a vision of what we might need.”
Loaded with potential
“Understandably, there were some kinks the first time,” said Melendez. “But I think they’ve hit the nail on the head.”
In fulfillment of requirements of Personal Witnessing I, Biblical Preaching II and Church Leadership II classes, practicum students and their 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.”
After being dispersed among churches in Lincoln, Minnesota and California, the majority of the students returned to Union’s campus for another semester of regular classes. “Five came back for more classes,” said Fetrick. “And four out of those five said they would rather just stay in their church.”
The program has plenty of potential for impassioning students for their forthcoming career, observed Fetrick. “It’s gone well; much better than we expected. All the students were involved in Bible studies, had preaching experience, interacted with church boards and did home and hospital visitations. It’s the real, full experience,” he concluded.
“I can’t imagine graduating in May without having gone through this program,” said Melendez. “That semester taught me more about being a pastor than I ever could learn in the classroom. I had four baptisms, which was incredible. To have salvation in your hands and see someone be reborn—that epitomizes my semester.”
Author Joellyn Sheehy graduates from Union College in May with a degree in International Rescue and Relief.