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Finding of the Four Thousand

Finding of the Four Thousand

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Published by Barbara Saunders

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Published by: Barbara Saunders on Aug 28, 2010
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08/27/2010

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Spring 2003 
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The Finding of the Four Thousand 
 A Primer on Executive Thinking at the Grassroots Level
By Barbara Saunders
Columbia Theological Seminary board member  John Aldridge provides a  powerful example of long- range, solution-oriented thinking as he addresses both the recruitment needs of his institution and denominational pastoral shortages. Boards, at their best, strive for solutions that link their mission to that of the larger community they serve. Are you thinking beyond your walls? 
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n early 2001, a big idea seized Atlanta lawyer John Aldridge, who’s a trustee of ColumbiaTheological Seminary in suburban Decatur,Georgia. The idea was this: The tools andtactics of the modern business world mighthelp the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)address its urgent shortage of professionalpastors. Forthright discussion of the vocationof parish ministry might lead the most tal-ented young church members to entertainimages of themselves as future ministers the way they now envision themselves as doc-tors, lawyers, and engineers. Seminaries andchurches might reach these young peopleusing the same information managementtechnology that may soon lead Aldridge’s Atlanta law firm to replace its plush, book-filled library with a virtual one. Aldridge sat down to lunch with theReverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the PresbyterianChurch (U.S.A.), his denomination’s chief executive officer, and introduced a concepthe had not yet committed to paper. Whenadult church people see teen-age and youngadult church members display initiative andservice in their churches, they could submitthe youths’ names (with their consent) to acentral database that would be accessible toseminaries, internship and scholarship pro-grams, and other churches. Moderated elec-tronic forums might connect the young peo-ple with peers who are also consideringfuture careers as church leaders. Aldridge moves fast. By the fall of 2002,not only the Presbyterians, but also theUnited Church of Christ, the UnitedMethodist Church, and the Episcopal Churchhad signed on for the Pastoral LeadershipSearch Effort (“PLSE,” pronounced “pulse”),a program funded by a $2.3 million grantfrom Lilly Endowment Inc. to the Fund forTheological Education. In November 2002, young Presbyterian seminarians andPresbyterian leaders from around the UnitedStates sat around a table in Atlanta talkingabout how God works in people’s lives anddesigning a program that the PCUSA willlaunch by September 2003.
J
ohn Aldridge is accustomed to leading,and to thinking in terms of long-term solu-tions to large-scale problems. A foundingpartner of McKenna Long & Aldridge, aninternational law firm whose clients includethe State of Georgia and large multinationalcorporations such as Coca-Cola Enterprises,Boeing, General Motors, and AT&T, he hasserved as an elder at Peachtree PresbyterianChurch, the largest Presbyterian congregationin the U.S. About working on PLSE, he said,“I’ve never felt more led by the Holy Spirit indoing something.”From the window of his fifty-third-flooroffice in downtown Atlanta, Aldridge gets anannual lesson in the efficiency of God’sprocess. In the spring, when falcons nest inthe building’s ledges, Aldridge watches theraptor mothers swoop down on unfortunatesmall prey and sees the falcon chicks waddle,molt, and make their first attempts at flight. As a seminary trustee, Aldridge began tomake connections between seminary recruit-ment data, the shortage of pastors, and lifein churches around the country. He attribut-es the speed of his response to a “businessapproach.” He explained: “In business, youhave to move fast before the facts change.”The current facts are clear. The medianage of students in PCUSA seminaries is 40.The length of the average career in parishministry is seventeen years, about half of thenorm for comparable professions like lawand medicine. Of serving Presbyterian pas-tors, only 7 percent are under 35 and 43percent are over 50. Reflecting on thesenumbers, Aldridge concluded that thechurch “must do a better job in helping young people to discern a call to ministry.”The young should be challenged to consider vocations in the church, he thought, as they begin to think about where they will go tocollege and what their life work will be.
Barbara Saunders is a free- lance writer based in Berkeley, California. Her last article for In Trust was “Theology for the Laity,” which explored the more rigorous teaching now available to laypeople.
 
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Lawyer John Aldridge, a trustee of Columbia Theological Seminary in suburban Decatur,Georgia, is shown here in his office overlooking downtown Atlanta. His experience in the world of business shaped his vision for how to address the  pastoral shortage in his church.
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“Once people become aware of the criti-cal shortage of pastoral leadership, they  want to know what they can do to help,” Aldridge said. “It took little or no money todevelop the concept, but it took an enor-mous amount of volunteer time and effortand in-kind contributions…We also had a lotof folks praying for us!”Support came from people in all cornersof the faith world and from Aldridge’s pro-fessional network. McKenna Long & Aldridge provided pro bono secretarial timeand supplies. Seminaries paid travel expens-es for their student representatives to theplanning task force. The FTE offered staff consulting time. The creative team whonamed and branded PLSE and the videoproduction company were Presbyterians, who donated their initial time with theexpectation of future paid work as theproject progresses.Several thousand dollars of unsolicitedcontributions went untouched until after theplanning phase was complete. The only money spent was on travel, and task forcemembers absorbed those costs themselves.“We just expected everyone to pay their own way, and thankfully, they did!” Aldridge said.He himself used frequent-flier miles for histravel and spent only “a couple of thousanddollars” on the project over one year.
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s a Duke undergraduate, Aldridgeplanned to be a pediatrician but “fell inlove with the law.” Reared in a family that was first Lutheran, then Methodist, heattended church routinely as a young adult. When he married, Aldridge adopted his wife’s Presbyterianism. Of his wife, theReverend Lucy Aldridge, he says, “besidesbeing the light of my life, she is responsiblefor the growth in my faith.” Lucy Aldridge worked in prison ministries for many yearsbefore her ordination. She enrolled in semi-nary after the three Aldridge childrenreached adulthood. She is currently minister-at-large in the Atlanta Presbytery. Aldridge does not deny that the life expe-rience and maturity of second-career pastorscan be invaluable to the church, but hehopes that more first-career pastors willresult from a program that encourageschurch members from high school to collegeto entertain the notion that they might growup to be ministers.
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or the youths targeted by the project, thepath to ministry may not be as clear asthe path to other careers. Mentoring fromseminarians and new ministers and contact with seminaries will educate them about what a pre-ministry major might be, whatthe course of graduate study is like, andhow ministers work day-to-day. Aldridge conceded that ministry does notoffer the financial rewards or status thatsome other professions do, but added:“God calls ministers to service in his owntime and for his purposes.” He envisionsPLSE as an ongoing, sustainable “part of theprocess of God’s call … creating an environ-ment in which gifted young people will bebetter able to hear a call if they receive itand, hopefully, to accept it.”The task force chose to capitalize on thestructure of the Presbyterian Church, which
   P   h  o   t  o  g  r  a  p   h   b  y   J  u   d  y   O  n   d  r  e  y
“Once people become aware of the critical shortage of pastoral leadership, they want to know what they can do to help.” 
 
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lends itself to denomination-wide initiatives.Regional presbyteries supervise individualcongregations and report to a central admin-istrative office in Louisville, Kentucky. Thatstructure makes it possible to convey a con-sistent message even to the remotest, mostrural congregations.Denominational officials granted Aldridgean unusual level of access and endorsement.He was given a place on the agenda at anumber of important church meetings acrossthe U.S. in 2002, and at the General Assembly meeting in Denver in May 2003.PCUSA officials in Louisville arranged forbriefings with the Committee for TheologicalEducation, which consists of seminary presi-dents. Materials mailed to the 173 presby-teries included personal cover letters fromthe desks of Kirkpatrick, the slated clerk,and John J. Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council. TheReverend Victor D. Pentz agreed to letPeachtree Presbyterian serve as national hostchurch for Presbyterian PLSE.Detterick says he was impressed that the volunteer efforts of one “very dedicated, very committed layman working with other lay people” had generated such an on-target,thought-through solution. “The church at itsbest is church folks using their creativity andingenuity…using the gifts God gave them toget the church to go where it needs to go, where God is calling it to go,” he said.
T
he first phase of the Presbyterians’ three- year project entailed gathering statisticsfrom seminaries and presbyteries, speaking with seminarians in their 20s, conductingfocus groups at churches, and looking forpossible sources of money. Rank-and-filechurch members in the focus groups werestunned by the extent of the pastor shortage, Aldridge said. Seminarians often told himthey had had no one to talk to about theirhopes and concerns and said that finding amentor had been critically important tothem. When Aldridge contacted Lilly Endow-ment to see if it would finance the effort,Endowment staffers suggested he consultthe Fund for Theological Education, specifi-cally Melissa Wiginton, director of the Fund’sMinistry Programs and Partnership forExcellence. In Wiginton, Aldridge found astrong partner. The FTE allowed her to allo-cate a substantial portion of her time to thePLSE project. A former attorney, Wiginton says she is anadvocate at heart, and that her vocation is“the vocation of young people.” She seespastoral ministry as “the kind of work thatcan hold all of your deepest values, yourintellect, your energies, and all of you” and isexcited at the prospect of “issuing the invita-tion, keeping [the possibility of a pastoralcareer] before them, in their imagination.”In her view, the pastor shortage problemis primarily a crisis of relationship. What thePLSE database can do is give those commu-nities a method and a tool to help them cul-tivate relationships between adult and youthmembers, and between congregations, semi-naries, and denominational administrators. After Aldridge and Wiginton met inIndianapolis with Lilly Endowment represen-tatives, the Endowment suggested that they investigate ways to create synergisms with work the Fund already does across denomi-nations, with seminaries and universities,and with individuals pursuing pastoral lead-ership roles. In March 2002, Aldridge pre-sented his ideas in multidenominationalmeetings called by the FTE. The proposalLilly funded calls for the FTE to act as thehub for the denominational PLSE programs.The central database the FTE is to host will hold information about young leaders inchurches around the country who haveagreed to participate in PLSE. Aldridge writes, “If each PCUSA church would identi-fy only one gifted, young leader to partici-pate in the PLSE initiative, we would have apool of over 10,000 young leaders to informand to nurture as they consider their careerchoices over the coming years!”The UCC, United Methodists, andEpiscopalians have also committed money and personnel but have just begun programdesigns. In some ways, Presbyterian PLSE isa prototype, but Wiginton emphasizes, “Alldenominations feel the need to attend to thesame reality, but the way they approach thatneed is different because they are differentcultures.”Steve Johnson, minister of higher and the-ological education for the United Church of Christ, noted that the UCC’s final configura-tion of PLSE may be “a little different fromthe original vision.”The plan is for each denomination’s datato be accessible only to that denomination.However, it is hoped that the participatingdenominations will share their successes andthat synergisms created by PLSE will benefitall participating denominations.Thomas Daniel, 28, is the director of  Atlanta’s North Avenue PresbyterianChurch’s college ministry and a student atColumbia Theological Seminary. Chosen by  Aldridge to chair the program design com-mittee, Daniel calls Aldridge’s idea—and hispassion for it—“contagious.” He accepted
The efforts of one “very dedicated,very committed layman” working with other lay  people generated an on-target, thought- through solution.

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