Equipping Pastors: First Call Theological Education

Date posted: Friday 08 November 2019

In April of 2016, John Schwehn was called to serve as the Associate Pastor of Christ the King in New Brighton, a large suburban church with a wide array of programs. As the second pastor on a staff of more than 20, John was less isolated in his first call than many of his peers who serve in smaller or more rural contexts. But the transition from seminary to public ministry was still a complex one. Because of this, John found himself deeply grateful for the synod’s First Call Theological Education (FCTE) program.


“[Nothing] could have fully prepared me for the dynamic, peculiar, disorienting questions that emerged as I faced my first congregation as their newest pastor. After going through FCTE, I can’t imagine attempting to continue in this calling without continually seeking out opportunities for further development or the ongoing support of a peer group.”


The Evangelical Church in America (ELCA) requires each synod to provide an FCTE program for new leaders. But apart from serving those in their first three years of call, there is freedom in how the program is structured. When Bishop Lull took office in 2014, she wanted learning to shape the culture of the synod. FCTE was identified as a part of the synod’s work where that value could be engaged fully. The program asks the new leader to covenant with the synod to develop habits of being connected, equipped and actively learning. The ministry site is also asked to support this commitment.


Mentor Groups Provide Connections

A key component of being connected is becoming part of a mentor group. On average, there are 20 new leaders in FCTE at a given time. Four mentors—all experienced pastors and deacons—meet with small groups of new leaders on a regular basis. The Rev. Cindy Bullock, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran in St. Paul, has been a mentor to first call pastors at various times since the early 2000s. She has been with her current mentor group since 2017. When asked what this role has meant to her, she praises her group’s deep trust of one another, admiring how willing they are to share their joys and fears, and how well they listen to and support one another.


Cindy said, “They teach me every time I am with them. I bring experience, but they bring fresh eyes and new ideas. I’ve learned to do more listening than talking because mentoring is about helping capable people figure things out for themselves.”


John immediately sensed why his mentor group was important to his formation in his first years of ordained ministry. “My mentor group connected me to my new colleagues in the synod. I loved the blended quality of the group: we were pastors and deacons, serving in congregational settings and as chaplains, in multi-staff settings and in solo calls. I found it a trustworthy space to process my own challenges, while also listening to the (usually very different) challenges of others. It was a place of prayer and support that I came to value.”


Ministry as a Collective Effort

This kind of collective and connective ministry is at the heart of what it means to “be synod.” No layperson, leader, congregation or organization is carrying out their work alone. John admits that he came to his first call thinking mostly about his own gifts and training. He says, “I was ready to dig in and lead according to all of the great insights I believed I alone possessed!” Now he sees his ministry as part of a collective effort. “We’re all in this together,” he said. “When my colleague’s ministry thrives, my ministry thrives. Guided by the Spirit, we learn from and lean on one another.”


Now that John is in his fourth year of public ministry, he is no longer in FCTE, but he sees how the program engendered habits of ongoing learning and formation. He meets with a new peer group, continues the practice of going on retreats with colleagues, and enjoys participating in continuing education. “There’s so much great stuff out there,” he notes. “However, in my experience, nothing is more useful to my ongoing growth as a pastor than continual immersion in scripture, worship, and prayer alongside God’s people.”


Cindy says that serving as a First Call mentor reminds her that the church is in good hands. “There is such energy and dedication among my mentees,” she said. “They are committed to serving and want to continue to learn. Even when they get frustrated with the daily stuff that happens in every congregation, they are willing to keep going and make things better. They constantly remind me of the heart of a good leader. Most of all, they love their people and they love Jesus.”



The commitments that undergird First Call Theological Education set the priorities for everything the synod does to equip and re-equip leaders through learning opportunities and cohort experiences. In the fall of 2018, the synod was among 78 of nearly 600 applicants (and the only stand-alone synod) to be awarded a Thriving in Ministry grant from the Lilly Endowment. Over the next five years, the grant will provide $375,000 to support cohort-based learning and mentoring. One of the cohorts intentionally picks up where FCTE leaves off, resourcing leaders for the new challenges in their fourth to tenth years of public ministry. Learn more.


This blog post is part of the 2019 edition of Stories of the Synod, which features a few of the life-changing stories that happen here in the Saint Paul Area Synod. View the complete Stories of the Synod booklet.