Integrating The Wisdom Year

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The Rev. Emily Wachner

Director of Integrative Programs

When I first learned how to drive a manual transmission car 15 years ago, my instructor began by teaching me to envision the inside of the car—the “theory,” if you will, of what made the car go. Before I ever turned the key, I learned how the gears worked together, what the clutch did, how the stick moved, and what it controlled. Then, I began the arduous and rewarding process of putting theory into practice.

Integrative Programming at The General Theological Seminary endeavors to marry theory and practice, reflection and action, in order to progressively prepare students for ministry. General Seminary, situated in the most theologically and liturgically diverse city in the country, is an ideal place to put classroom knowledge into practice, and to bring what is learned in the field back into the classroom.

This process begins in a student’s first year, by considering models of pastoral identity, and by exploring various parishes in the metropolitan area. The process of integration continues in a student’s second year through a “traditional” parish internship, which focuses on observation and reflection. The integrative process culminates in The Wisdom Year, which is a time of practice and reflection through intense, on-the-ground ministry.

WHAT IS THE WISDOM YEAR?

One thing we’ve heard from alumni and local clergy is that they’ve heard about The Wisdom Year, but still aren’t completely sure about what it is or how it works. So, here are the basics: The Wisdom Year is a parish-based residency paired with concurrent course work, which is designed to teach seminarians to successfully engage in independent parish ministry. It is intended for students in the third year of an ordination-track M.Div. degree program, and is also open to students completing an M.A. or S.T.M. The Wisdom Year is different from the traditional middler-year parish internship. While most middlers spend six hours, usually on Sundays, in a parish context and are not compensated, Wisdom Year residents serve for 20 hours per week and are compensated for their work.

Wisdom Year residents are compensated because they are expected to be primarily responsible for significant parish ministry—preaching, teaching, program-building—depending on a student’s skill set. In return, residents are paid $20,000 for a nine-month program, or $25,000 for a twelve-month program. As a result of The Wisdom Year, we believe that students will graduate from General Seminary better prepared to lead in a parish context, and also that they are more able to follow calls into smaller churches.

HOW IS IT GOING SO FAR?

During the 2014-2015 academic year, two seniors piloted The Wisdom Year—one at Grace Church in New York City, and another at a ministerial partnership in Newark, New Jersey. In the 2015-2016 academic year, six students are serving as Wisdom Year residents in five different contexts, spread between four dioceses: St. Barnabas in Greenwich, Connecticut; Newark Shared Ministries, where two residents alternate between House of Prayer in Newark and Christ Church in Short Hills; St. Mark’s in Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Calvary-St. George’s in New York City; and Grace Church, also in New York City.

Each of our students works with a mentor-supervisor as an important part of their experience in The Wisdom Year. We are very fortunate to have five excellent mentors who meet with students on a weekly basis in their contexts, mirroring the interaction of a rector and a curate. In most cases, residents also attend staff and vestry meetings, and some meet with a lay committee to receive feedback on their work.

Some of my colleagues have expressed surprise that a third-year seminarian would have time to work 20 hours each week, and still be able to fulfill the M.Div. curriculum without becoming exhausted. Among the many reasons for originating The Wisdom Year is that the third year of an M.Div. program has historically been academically light—students regularly complete most of their core work in their middler year. Many seniors have found themselves seeking more substantial parish-based employment, and The Wisdom Year is helping to give a useful shape to that experience. So far, students have not had to drop desired courses, and none have had trouble completing core coursework.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CLASSROOM?

In her article elsewhere on GTS News, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers reflects on how Wisdom Year residents are supported in processing their experiences in a weekly classroom context, modeled along the lines of a clergy peer support group experience, and also what kind of practical skills they are being taught in once-monthly intensive seminars.

WHAT DO WE EXPECT FOR NEXT YEAR?

One of the initial questions about The Wisdom Year was how to ensure that students were able to serve in contexts where they are urgently needed, and could therefore bear a significant level of responsibility. To that end, we are actively working to develop partnerships between parishes along the Newark Shared Ministries model. While some students can benefit, and have benefitted, from spending 20 hours per week in a larger Manhattan parish, many others hope to gain a broader perspective on the realities of other ministry settings. Next year, 12 to 15 students will participate in The Wisdom Year; so far, we have handshake commitments for two-thirds of the necessary sites and two other sites are applying for funding.

In the classroom, we hope to expand the range of “guest experts” invited to share best practices around parish ministry; and in doing so, to further expand the didactic dialogue around parish administration. In conversations with field education directors at seminaries throughout the country, I am learning that each school has a unique solution to the challenge of preparing students for the practical realities of parish ministry, and I am learning best practices from these colleagues.

HOW CAN YOU PARTICIPATE?

If you are within commuting distance of General Seminary, and are interested in hiring and mentoring a Wisdom Year resident, please contact me immediately at wachner@gts.edu. Even if you are not able to hire a Wisdom Year resident, but have questions or input, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I am glad to spread the word about The Wisdom Year program, and how it will serve the needs of General Seminary students and, thus, of the wider church.

To read all articles on GTS News about The Way of Wisdom, go to www.gts.edu/wisdom.