Rev. Austin Rivera reflects on some of what he learned in serving two years as a Transition into Ministry (TiM) Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Emporia, Kansas from 2012-2014. He is currently in his first year as a Ph.D. student in the Ancient Christianity program of Yale’s Religious Studies Department.
When I applied for the Transition into Ministry program I had a very limited idea of what I would gain from serving for two years under a mentoring senior pastor in a teaching congregation. Coming out of seminary, I had in mind that this arrangement would effectively provide me with those practical “tools of the trade” which the splendidly impractical disciplines of theology, exegesis, and history could not. In part, I was right. In the TiM program I have had the opportunity to experience the great variety of a minister’s work, from managing a committee to preaching on Christmas Eve, from pre-marital counseling to praying with someone on their deathbed, from the mundane to the sublime. In all these experiences the guidance of my senior pastor and the patience of the congregation created space for me to develop practical confidence in a preacher’s work.
Nonetheless, the TiM experience has been much more that an acquisition of practical knowledge. It has been, above all, a program of spiritual growth anchored in the fellowship among the TiM Associates. Through monthly meetings together and our constant prayers for each other, the friendship shared among the TiM Associates has been a powerful means of grace in my life. It has been a shield against the sense of loneliness and dislocation which accompanies the transition from seminary to the parish. It has been a community for serious reflection, upheld by unshakable trust. It has been a place to learn how to live in a true fellowship of love with those of differing opinions (not that we have any need of such places in United Methodism today). The practices of honesty, forgiveness, generosity, compassion, joy, and comfort which are so essential to the life of a Christian and the pastor’s work have been continually honed in this group.
Within the fellowship of the TiM Associates, the guidance of my senior pastor, and the life of my congregation I learned that, although I certainly lacked in some practical knowledge coming out of seminary, it was above all in spiritual knowledge that I had needed to grow. Far more important than substituting for the history of dogma the latest pieties regarding leadership and organization was learning to love the people to whom God had given me. This is a harder lesson, all the harder because it is so much more essential, and it cannot be learned from books or seminars or blogs. You can only learn it from God. You can only receive it from the Holy Spirit. You can only ask for it in prayer. Entering ministry as I had hoping to simply develop new skill sets and new competencies, it took some time for the Spirit’s continual labor to bear away that dim and limited vision of the pastor’s work, and I often resisted (and still do, sinner that I am). For, with the freedom and exulting power of realizing that your work is nothing less than ministering God’s grace to his children, there comes also the terror that, if you do become an instrument fit for divine grace, you will undoubtedly see the glory of God revealed in your people. And without holiness, who can see the Lord?
Without the structures of the TiM program, would God’s grace have brought my minister’s soul to such a place? Without the cooperation of so many wills desirous for my growth in true knowledge, would God’s will have been so done in my heart? I cannot think so. And so, if you are considering the TiM program, do so knowing that, yes, there will be a great deal of practical knowledge to be gained about the work of ministry. But do so knowing also that through this program you will be personally challenged to take up the full surrender of yourself to God’s working out of his salvation in the world. Do so knowing that the true transition into excellence in ministry is a transition of the heart and not the mind. It concerns most of all not tricks of the trade but practices of the soul. And among them the greatest is this: to open yourself to receive the Holy Spirit, who alone gives the gifts of ministry.