Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence

The History behind the Project2007-final-conference-100

The SUPE project originally ran from 2003-2007 and offered urban pastors across the nation an opportunity to sustain excellent ministry by strengthening practices of spiritual renewal, urban study and reflection, and peer community through (a) forming partnerships of four pastors each within their particular urban contexts; (b) defining and studying together a question, problem, or issue related to urban pastoral ministry; and (c) participating together in a six-month program of study, reflection, and spiritual renewal that including meeting for two hours every other week. Included within that six-month period was an eight-week period of compensated sabbatical leave from congregational duties. The project was designed both as a program of support to the pastors and as a research project, which sought answers to two primary questions: what constitutes pastoral excellence in the urban context, and what sustains it? Dr. Bryan Stone and Dr. Claire Wolfteich have together written a book summarizing the results of the project that will be out in October 2008 entitled Sabbath in the City: Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press).

sabbath-in-the-city96 pastors participated in the program over the five years, and the impact of the SUPE Project has been substantial. The program deeply touched participating pastors’ sense of vocation and enthusiasm for ministry, their vision for their congregations and their communities, their own personal physical and spiritual health, and the health of their primary relationships. In the intensity and structure with which it brought the urban pastorate and its professional, personal, and social concerns directly into the teaching, research, and learning of our faculty and students, the SUPE Project has also profoundly affected Boston University School of Theology. Issues related to pastoral spiritual formation, clergy self-care, sabbath practice, and urban ministry are constantly in the air and pervade our discussions and meetings. The faculty are also currently going through a thorough curriculum revision for the M.Div. and M.T.S. degrees.

The “Urban Teaching Sites” Initiative

With new funding from the Lilly Endowment in January 2008, we are now attempting to imbed key elements of the SUPE process in the M.Div. curriculum and into the way that curriculum is linked to local urban congregations and their pastors. The point of this is to cultivate in our ministerial students the practices that we have learned sustain urban pastoral excellence – practices of Sabbath keeping, study, spiritual renewal, and participation in authentic, safe, peer community and friendship. Though this new funding includes several initiatives, one of the most important of these is our plan to replicate the pastoral partnerships which were at the core of the previous SUPE project locally with twelve pastors and with their congregations with whom we would hope to develop close and enduring relationships. Our plan is to work closely with these pastors and congregations so that they might become official “teaching sites” integrated systematically into the School’s field education program and other required second-year MDiv courses such as preaching, worship, pastoral care, and theology.

Elements of the New Initiative

(1)    Identify twelve congregations in Greater Boston and pastors that have potential for developing and cultivating the kind of pastoral excellence we came to define through the SUPE program, and then work with them to develop them as “congregational teaching sites” in which our students will do field education and in which the required second-year courses will be contextualized. Currently, field education sites are chosen based on the needs of each student, a process that allows for maximum flexibility but constant turnover of sites, continual training of new field education supervisors, and poor quality control. What we seek to do is to build on our partnerships with pastoral leaders to create twelve high-quality sites that will covenant with us to explicitly nurture practices of pastoral excellence: the integration of study, peer community, Sabbath keeping, and spiritual renewal.
(2)    We believe that pastors cannot form others in habits they have not developed or been given the opportunity to develop themselves. Thus, we aim to offer pastors of these congregations a structured environment in which to cultivate these practices and thus to be able to more authentically and effectively model a life of pastoral excellence for seminary students. The pastors would form partnerships of four and would meet bi-weekly for sharing, prayer, study, and reflection. The common study question of these partnerships would, in fact, be the very question of how to effectively mentor and form theology students as excellent pastors in an urban context. The pastors would be granted an 8-week, funded sabbatical during the course of their first year in the program, unless they were recent participants in the previous SUPE project. We would make a covenant with the pastors’ congregations such that the congregation and/or denomination would assume responsibility for replicating the sabbatical opportunity during the next five-year period.
(3)    While in the SUPE program we focused exclusively on the pastor, we now will broaden our focus to congregations, exploring with pastors and lay leaders how to foster congregational ecologies that support practices of pastoral excellence. Project directors and staff will lead a workshop in each congregation inviting all – lay and ordained – to reflect on and cultivate practices of Sabbath keeping, community, spiritual renewal, and study. We think that these practices of pastoral excellence also are integral to a Christian way of life for persons of different vocations. Our focus, though, will be less on individual members’ growth and more on the culture and life of the congregation as congregation. Thus, we would bring our learning from the first grant period to these congregations and pastors with the aim of helping them to transform their own contexts as they teach our student-pastors how to minister with excellence. At the same time, faculty instructors would explore ways to contextualize their required second-year courses in the life of these teaching sites. Through this work with pastors, congregations, faculty, and students, we hope to create sustaining webs in which the next group of pastors will be formed.
(4)    Pastoral Participation—While the congregations themselves will serve as “teaching sites,” the role of pastors who participate in the program is critical. They will form four-person partnerships (as with the original SUPE program), meet regularly, mentor students in field education placements, and consult with faculty members who are attempting to contextualize second-year M.Div. courses in the lives of their congregations. A small stipend of $1,000 will be offered to each participating pastor in each of the first three years of his or her participation to defray costs of travel, meetings, supplies, and parking.