By Dr. Eileen R. Campbell-Reed
One of the most joyous experiences of my teaching is to walk the pathway of learning in real time with students as they step into the world of internships. Amazing things happen when the right combination of learning goals, student readiness, and ministry sites come together.
When third-year Central student Amber Simpson stepped onto the path of congregational ministry, she was a new mother, new to the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), and recently relocated to her home state of Alabama. These and other life challenges made the internship both the “most difficult… and the most rewarding” term of seminary thus far for Amber.
She approached the experience with two ministry learning goals: 1) to practice effective preparation and presentation of sermons and 2) to provide intentional pastoral care.
One of the aims of the WLI is to make space for women to try out their gifts for ministry early and often. Internship is a primary opportunity that provides just enough structure through learning goals and supervised site placement for each student. Within that structure WLI students get a chance to test their skills, to receive feedback and support, and to try on the identity of pastor.
Amber and her spouse Scotti Simpson led youth ministry several years ago at First Baptist Church of Williams, Alabama, a congregation affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. After moving to Georgia for a year to teach, while also attending seminary classes at Central, the Simpsons decided to move home just as they welcomed their first child.
The return to FBC as members was a natural choice. This time, however, Amber was not a youth minister’s wife. She was a pastoral intern, and in that role she encountered her first opportunity to preach and some surprising learning about pastoral care.
Learning to Preach
When it came to sermon preparation, Amber says she felt “competent in the exegetical process” thanks to her courses at Central. She worried more about her competence when it came to stepping into the pulpit for the first time: “It was scary and thrilling!”
Amber recalls, “I can count on my hands the number of times I have seen a woman in the pulpit, and I can only use one hand to count the number of churches I have attended where a woman is the lead pastor. So of course my preconceived notion was that I am inadequate in the pulpit because I am in a culture that tells me I am inadequate.”
When that first sermon was complete, Amber says, “I was surprised that I did not die or make anyone mad. I was surprised that the world did not come to an end. I preached and it was exhilarating!”
Although Amber felt proud to make use of her seminary education and creativity to craft the sermon, her most profound moment came when she sat down. “In the moment after I finished preaching was the moment I knew I was called to be a pastor. As I sat in the pew, I felt peace and a fire.”
Amber not only survived her first sermon, she went on to preach several more times in her community.
Learning to Care
At the start of their third year WLI students at Central encounter their first internship and simultaneously a course on caring ministries of the church.
“I often feel like a fish out of water when it comes to pastoral care. I am an introvert who can be socially awkward from time to time, which can prove to hinder moments of pastoral care,” says Amber.
Early in the experience, Amber made a few home and hospital visits. The learning was slower than she wanted it to be, and she found herself discouraged and ready to throw in the towel. This became a turning point in her internship.
When Amber revisited her learning goals, she decided it was time “to readjust my mindset… and to take ownership of my learning.” She chose to invest herself more fully by interviewing congregation members about their experiences and expectations of pastoral care.
The choice to interview church folks led to one of the “the most unexpected moments” of her internship. Amber reached outside her comfort zone and interviewed people in all areas of the church.
What she found was this: “Many of my interviewees said that they believe both the pastor and congregation are equally responsible for caring for the world. However, they believed the kinds of pastoral care provided are different for each role.”
This finding brought Amber up short because she went into the exercise believing “my interviewees would think pastoral care is solely the pastor’s responsibility.” She plans to take her new learning about shared ministry into her future ministry settings. “I hope I can bridge the gap of understanding about pastoral care between pastor and congregants.”
Through the arts of preaching and pastoral care, Amber experienced profound moments of growth. She longs to expand what it means “to become a pastoral presence in the lives of others.” She concluded her final paper for the internship course with these words:
For the preservation of sanity after these 14 weeks,
For the immense growing pains,
I give thanks.
For the word “Woman,”
And the word “Pastor,”
And the ability to use them together.
I give thanks.