In the fall of 2018, the School of Theology was awarded a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. to support mentoring groups for clergy. The Sewanee Ministry Collaborative (SMC) program will center on building mutual mentoring groups for clergy serving in contexts where mentorship is known to be especially important—in rural communities, Latino/Hispanic ministry, African American ministires, and clergy trained in non-traditional theological education programs, such as local formation or the School of Theology’s ACTS program (Alternative Clergy Training at Sewanee).
The first group of participants will be on campus in September 2019 for the inaugural SMC Ministry Summit, with subsequent groups being added annually through the first three years. Over the course of three years, participants will attend the annual summits and interact virtually throughout the year. The project aims to provide participants with a renewed sense of calling and purpose in ministry and ongoing support from one another and experienced ministry leaders.
A planning team composed of bishops, priests, and laypeople with significant experience in ministry and mentoring met on March 18, 2019, to design and plan this first phase of the SMC. In attendance at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta were the Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta; the Rt. Rev. Brian Cole, Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee; Samuel Borbón, Associate Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministry of the Episcopal Church; Glenna Huber, Rector of Church of The Epiphany, Washington, DC; the Very Rev. Canon Martini Shaw, rector of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas; Karen Meridith, Executive Director of Education for Ministry (EfM); David Gilliam, SMC network manager; and Dr. Andrew Thompson, director of SMC.
The objective of the meeting was to articulate a shared definition of flourishing in ministry that could guide the project and to identify particular skills or competencies essential to such flourishing. The group settled on an understanding of flourishing that combines a supportive community and a clear biblical and theological foundation to enable clergy to respond adaptively and innovatively to their contexts.
Much of the discussion focused on the importance of a clear foundation, or center, to one’s ministry. Participants noted that it is important for clergy to be guided by a strong sense of purpose, rooted in one’s ministry and the broader community. Such a sense of purpose can allow ministers to respond to challenges around them based on a clear vision of the future. Team members felt that practices of prayer and theological reflection were essential to sustaining such a sense of purpose. “Leadership and purpose in the service of Christ and His church, to my mind, are among the most urgent topics the faithful can be talking about," explained Wright.
Another key aspect of the work that emerged was the need to establish cohesive mentorship groups characterized by a high degree of trust. Relational community was a key factor in the group’s definition of flourishing, and it was seen as essential to the work of support and discernment that will be the goal of the SMC. Establishing this trust can be a challenge, especially if participants tend to approach the program with an attitude of suspicion or a model of scarcity. One planning team member indicated the need for a “sense of giving oneself to another” in group work.
Based on these discussions, it has been determined that the first phase of the SMC, beginning with the annual ministry summit in September, will be titled “Purpose and Prayer.” In small groups and plenary sessions, participants will work with a facilitator to discern a sense of purpose in ministry and to develop practices of personal prayer to support that sense of purpose. They will also devote significant time to small group processes in order to establish strong, mutually supportive mentorship groups. In this work, SMC’s process will be based on EfM’s decades-long experience creating and supporting such groups.