The 21st Century has brought the United Church of Christ challenges, discussion and discernment regarding authorized ministry. Since about 2013, The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) team of the United Church of Christ has been working on revising the Manual on Ministry and has designated a denomination wide group, the Habakkuk Group, to clarify issues of authorized ministry in the UCC. Currently, discussion guides are available, drafts of documents can be read, and AM21 events have been held across the denomination to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
As one who works with authorized ministers as Dean of the Penn West Academy for Ministry (formerly called the Penn West Conference Licensed Ministry School), I am often asked how MESA’s revision to the Manual on Ministry and the Habakkuk Group’s understandings of ministry will impact Regional Theological Educational Programs. For some the question is asked with curiosity about the future. Others express a great deal of concern and worry. Some are enthusiastic.
I see Regional Theological Educational Programs as key to identifying and nurturing the gifts of ministry which our congregations need from their pastoral leaders. Looking at the Penn West Conference‘s own history, I think we can see that Regional Theological Educational Programs may have a stabilizing effect on ministry and can continue to source UCC congregations well into the future.
The Penn West Academy was founded in 1965 and graduated its first class in 1969, making it one of the oldest programs of its type in the United Church of Christ. (Click image below). In the diagram, in addition to years and the number of graduates per year, I have added what statisticians call a line of best fit or trend line. The line of best fit tells us what the experience (or trend) has been for the Penn West Academy over its 48 year history. As you can see, the number of graduates has remained remarkably consistent. When I shared this finding with several leaders in the Penn West Conference, we agreed that the Penn West Academy, and its graduates, have been a stabilizing factor for the ministries of our conference.
- Many Academy graduates have had long service in their congregations, providing consistent ministry and mission over a number of years. With their roots in Penn West and their education in Penn West, they continued to live out their calling within the conference over a long period of time–at the local level, at the Association level, and with the Conference. (Pastoral leadership changes, even for positive reasons, can be disruptive to congregations.)
- Since many Academy graduates worked full time in a secular job while serving the church, they had unique insights into congregations that were full of blue collar workers and farm workers.
- Smaller, financially troubled congregations were able to turn to the Academy for leadership. As many of our graduates were already employed full time, they were looking to serve in part time calls. Consequently, congregations did not go outside the denomination just to find someone to ‘fill the pulpit.’ We estimated that perhaps 1/3 of Penn West Conference congregations throughout the years called pastors from the Academy which kept them covenantally connected to the United Church of Christ.
- The Academy helped to resource leaders in a unique way. Yearly refresher courses were offered to Licensed and Commissioned Ministers in the Conference, which enriched graduates with further skills in ministry and fostered greater fellowship across the Penn West Conference, strengthening the covenantal connections.
I believe that whatever the results of the UCC’s discernment and the revision of the Manual on Ministry turn out to be, the Penn West Academy, and its equivalent program in other Conferences, will continue to play a positive role. Many of the Academy’s charisms, or gifts, have contributed to the stability seen in the diagram above. And many of the Academy’s graduates have served, and continue to serve, faithfully and enthusiastically, making their calling “a ministry of best fit” benefiting their congregations, their communities and the United Church of Christ.
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.