By Alexandria Lopez
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Beginning a career is a personally and professionally challenging time for nearly everyone. These challenges are magnified for young ministers who are learning to shepherd and meet the needs of their congregants while maintaining professional distance. Many experience a strong sense of isolation, which can easily lead to feelings of loneliness at a time when they need support most.
Those feelings, combined with common ministry stressors, including long work weeks, pressure to have the “perfect family” and a lack of personal confidants, contribute to the notably high rates of burnout and attrition among young ministers. The CBF Fellows program, which provides young Baptist ministers with practical ministry resources in the context of a supportive peer-based cohort, is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s response to this alarming trend.
Launched in 2012, the Fellows program is funded by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment. Terry Hamrick, who retired from CBF in 2012, served as director of the CBF Fellows program before transitioning into his current role where he helps Fellows establish their Minister Support Team. Hamrick recognized the need for ways to increase retention rates among first-time ministers.
“It’s a more difficult time to be in congregational ministry today than I think it ever has been,” Hamrick said. “The folks at the Lilly Endowment were also concerned about helping young ministers get started well. We felt like Cooperative Baptist ministers were cut off from traditional Baptist networks, and we knew we needed to build multiple layers of connection to increase retention rates, one of which is this cohort of peers.”
The Fellows program is open to ministers serving in their first full-time congregational ministry position. Candidates must be recent graduates of a CBF-related seminary or divinity school, or they must be serving in a CBF partner congregation. The candidate’s congregation must also enter into a covenant with the Fellowship, promising to grant their minister the time away from work needed to honor program commitments.
Fellows make a two-year commitment to support, learn from and encourage one another in a variety of ways and settings. The formal program consists of six cohort gatherings, which take place in conjunction with conferences and retreats including General Assembly, Churchworks and Dawnings as well as quarterly conference calls, 24 one-hour coaching sessions and involvement in peer learning groups.
Josh Speight, who serves as CBF’s missional congregations services manager, succeeds Hamrick in leading the CBF Fellows program, overseeing the 2014-2016 cohort. He emphasized the importance of the Fellows program in providing much-needed support to new ministers.
“CBF Fellows is an active way we as a movement support ministers in their first years of congregational service,” Speight said. “I served in my ‘first call’ ministry position less than 10 years ago and Fellows would have been a valuable community for me while navigating all the highs and lows of congregational ministry. Providing leadership to this cohort is a privilege and I look forward to sharing the journey with these ministerial colleagues over the next two years.”
The inaugural CBF Fellows cohort completed their tenure in June 2014, and in August, 25 new Fellows were selected for the second cohort, including ministers serving in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Since Fellows are dispersed across the country, members of the initial cohort quickly developed a plan to stay connected between gatherings.
“We have a very active Facebook group where we often post significant prayer requests, questions about curriculum, approaches to ministry and we share in each other’s lives,” said Courtney Allen, minister of community ministry and missions at First Baptist Church, Dalton, Ga.
“We established that group after the first meeting [in August 2012], and it was almost like we knew each other well by the time we got back together again in February,” added Joshua Breazeale, minister of education and children at Oakmont Baptist Church, Greenville, N.C.
To increase the program’s reach and effectiveness, congregations commit to providing a Minister Support Team for each Fellow that can provide the regular encouragement that the minister needs to sustain him or her between cohort gatherings.
“The team’s goal is to invest in the lifelong ministry of the individual,” Hamrick explained. “I visited all of the [Fellows’] churches to meet with and thank the support team and minister and reminded them of the difficulty of being in the role of ‘minister,’ as well as the difficulty in asking for support in that role, encouraging them to be proactive in their care.”
While Fellows benefit from their support teams, congregations benefit from the practical knowledge and skills that their ministers acquire from the program’s curriculum, taught by experienced faculty.
“We learned creative techniques during the classroom aspect of the program that we could then apply to our churches,” said Matthew Johnson, pastor of Ridgewood Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. “Recently, we had an asset mapping breakfast at Ridgewood, which helped the congregation harness the things they already do well to have life-changing ministry at our church. I knew how to do that successfully because of the Fellows program.”
In addition to classroom-based knowledge, many young ministers come to a deeper understanding of themselves and their congregations through the program’s individual coaching sessions.
“The coaches asked good questions to help me think about issues from a different perspective and find the answer within myself,” Breazeale said. “I’ve started asking coaching questions of the teens at my church now to help them make decisions that come from within them instead of just telling them what to do. This coaching wouldn’t be practical for young ministers to afford, so that was one of the big blessings of the program.”
Although the Fellows program offers participants several useful resources to draw on as young ministers, its greatest strength lies in the strong bonds which cohort members develop with one another.
“It far exceeded our expectations to see how close-knit the first cohort became,” Hamrick acknowledged.
“The cohort itself grew really close in ways I didn’t anticipate,” Johnson affirmed. “It’s really important to have people to talk to who know exactly what it’s like to be in ministry. You need people with whom you can be honest about your feelings.”
The peer support network that the Fellows program provides helps ministers to recover and move on from the challenges of both ministry and life. Allen credits the Fellows program for offering her support after her diagnosis with Lyme disease resulting from a tick bite she received while on a mission trip.
“Partnering with that group of colleagues, our faculty and my coach were vital parts of the healing process for me,” Allen said. “I am grateful that the ways in which I am able to negotiate life, ministry and illness are undergirded by the gifts, learning and support of my Fellows cohort.”
As young ministers continue to connect with each other, CBF and their state and regional organizations, the Fellowship is committed to sustaining the Fellows program, while also finding ways to support all ministers in a broader context.
“Our theological schools are graduating some fine young ministers,” Hamrick reflected. “It’s going to take a partnership of all of us supporting them for them to be successful and continue in ministry. We invest in the CBF Fellows program because we think they are worth it. We all need that kind of encouragement.”
“I’ve felt a lot of support and affirmation and care in the Fellows program,” Allen added. “I think that our group of Fellows will continue to draw strength from each other long after the program has ended. That has been the greatest gift of the entire experience.”