Disciple: Reimagining Curacies Completes its Pilot Cohort
Lessons learned from reimagining along the way*
By Christine McTaggart and the Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick
It seems like only yesterday the Diocese of North Carolina shared the news that it was selected to receive a nearly $1 million Lilly Endowment grant to help establish Reimagining Curacies, a program designed to form newly ordained clergy into community-conscious leaders dedicated to the values of Becoming Beloved Community.
It’s hard to believe that announcement was shared in fall 2018; what feels like a far shorter time finds us five years later, and the development, planning and implementation of the first three-year cohort of Reimagining Curacies has been completed.
[Image: The Reimagining Curacies transition celebration took place at St. John’s, Wake Forest, on June 8, 2021, during a time when everyone hoped life would return fully to its pre-pandemic normal. Photo by the Rev. Mary Cat Young]
The grant was part of the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc.’s initiative entitled “Thriving in Ministry,” which provided $70 million in grants to organizations and institutions working to support and sustain clergy across a lifetime in ministry. The goal was to create or strengthen programs to help pastors build relationships with experienced clergy who could serve as mentors and guide them through key leadership challenges in congregational ministry. Informed by research conducted by Dr. Matt Bloom at the University of Notre Dame, each grant award was intended to help clergy flourish in their vocations.
The need for such a program was evident. Surveys of clergy repeatedly found that, while most are deeply fulfilled in and through their work, the pressures of ministry take a significant toll physically, emotionally and spiritually. Researchers have spent years studying why clergy experience higher rates of burnout and early departure from ministry than peers in other professions.
When the opportunity was announced, the Diocese of North Carolina gathered a team from across the diocese to dream of what a different way of supporting new clergy could look like. Clergy reflected on their own experiences, conversations were had about the needs of today’s church and the challenges faced by those called to serve it, and an idea began to take shape.
The imagination behind the diocese’s proposal was to work with clergy in the first years of ministry, that pivotal time when new clerics are finding their identity as priests while also translating the lessons of their theological education into the day-to-day practice of ministry. The vision was for these new clergy to be part of a cohort, a mutually supportive colleague group that would learn together what it means to be in ministry today.
At the same time, the hope was to offer these new clergy the opportunity to immerse themselves in the breadth and nuance of congregational ministry as found in the diocese. It was expected that the curates’ learning, growth and development would be enriched if they were to serve in congregations that differed in size, liturgical preference, racial and ethnic composition, community context and missional focus. One of the gifts of the Diocese of North Carolina is a diversity of congregations in close geographic proximity to one another.
When the diocese’s proposal was accepted and the grant awarded, a discernment process was created for churches that wanted to explore serving as one of the three host churches. Many churches expressed interest, and the three selected for the pilot round were St. Titus’, Durham; St. John’s, Wake Forest; and Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill.
Once the host churches were in place, only the finding of the curates remained. In addition to the expected attributes one might think needed for a program such as this, the curates would also need a sense of adventure—a willingness to try an approach not tried before. The diocese found those adventurous souls in the Rev. Mawethu Ncaca, the Rev. Philip Zoutendam and the Rev. Amanda Bourne.
They were to begin their work amongst the congregants in June 2020—only before they ever got started, they were asked to start reimagining as the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its hold on the country.
Though the curates expected to be immersed in church life and surrounded by those who made it possible, the pandemic cut them off from in-person interactions as it changed the way we all lived and worked.
They didn’t miss a step.
One of the concerns for the curates was the fact the pandemic prevented them from getting to know their congregations in person. It was difficult enough for established relationships to adapt to the changes and demands of the pandemic, and there was concern the inability to interact personally with one another would affect the curates’ ability to develop relationships with their congregations.
When asked about it at the time, Ncaca shared that he discovered an online world can create connections as real as any in-person encounter. “I was never taught to preach in an empty church, but I [found] myself in front of a camera, preaching alone,” he said. “It’s the new virtual reality, but people are there. They’re engaging with you. It’s been a new learning, but I’ve managed to connect with people in a real way, in a true sense.”
Zoutendam also noted in those early days how the pandemic created a different way of thinking. “When I find myself thinking about how things may take shape,” he said then, “I can think in the short term or in a more generational time frame. How do we want the church to take shape in the next 10 or 20 years? The things we’re learning [now] and the way the world is changing will affect and call us to be in a new shape in 20 years.”
The pandemic continued to pose challenges throughout the curates’ first two years. Hopes that vaccines and falling case counts would allow an in-person second year were dashed with the surge of the Delta variant. One of the curates was seriously injured at home and spent a significant portion of the first part of the second year on medical leave. Another curate discerned vocation elsewhere and left the program late in 2021. One of the mentoring clerics announced her retirement for early 2022.
And yet with every challenge came the opportunity to reimagine and wonder if the Reimagining Curacies program was itself being called to embody a vital feature of the church’s needs in this time and into the future. The pandemic required navigating disruption on an unimagined scale, and it has been a joy to see life return to some sense of normalcy.
But it will never be the same, and Reimagining Curacies provided a chance to envision being able to answer the call of a future church that may require of us an agility and nimbleness, a responsive dynamism that can see and sense in disruptions the call of God, and an invitation to trust the Spirit’s presence and power.
The original vision of Reimagining Curacies pictured in-person gatherings, conversations and experiences as relationships were built and colleague groups of support took shape. It envisioned new clergy members having experiences in a variety of settings, learning to recognize both the unique and the common in every gift and challenge their respective assignments offered. The achieving of those goals came to pass in ways it was impossible to anticipate when first envisioned, but perhaps the fact it was possible was the greatest lesson learned from the pilot program.
The future of the Reimagining Curacies program is being discerned by program leaders to determine lessons learned and possibilities for the future. But one thing is certain now: It took the dedication of the three churches willing to put themselves forth as hosts; the wisdom, adaptability and gifts of the mentoring clerics; and the pioneering spirit and deep faith of the curates to bring the imagined vision to life. They, above all, demonstrated resilience and creativity in ways that could never have been imagined when the idea was first explored.
* Portions of this article previously appeared in updates shared throughout the Reimagining Curacies program.
Christine McTaggart is the communications director for the Diocese of North Carolina. In addition to his leadership role in Reimagining Curacies, the Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick is the associate rector at Advocate, Chapel Hill, and a principal consultant at Saison Consulting.