Almost 40 years ago, a small group of Local Pastors and Area Ministers recognized the need for a way for people in the pews to prepare for ministry. That seed idea became the ABCVNH Institute for Learning (IFL). Today, with the dramatic changes in the spiritual climate facing the congregations in our region, non-traditional ministry preparation is more important than ever. It may be a critical key to a vital and vibrant future for our region.
The American Baptist Churches of Vermont and New Hampshire face a crisis of leadership. The average age of our clergy is around 70 years old, indicating a coming wave of open pulpits. Moreover, at a time when more and more congregations need creative leaders to help them toward renewal, they are also cutting back on salaries, compensation and hours. Seminary graduates, the traditional source of new pastors, find themselves increasingly saddled with student debt and cannot afford the lower pay and half-time opportunities being offered.
Of course, in New England, there has always been a long tradition of “growing our own.” Ministers don’t drop from heaven fully formed. God has always called them from among the very congregations he means them to serve. Nevertheless, effective ministry requires development of unique skills, a depth of spiritual wisdom, and cultivation of strong character. IFL aims to prepare those God calls for the full scope of his ministry.
That’s why IFL is going through an extensive overhaul from stem to stern. More than just a new paint job, this overhaul will refit the educational framework and administrative structure so that IFL can better tend our congregations as they weather the stormy future. The mission hasn’t changed, but the shape and construction will be new and strong and ready to serve well into the 21st century.
The first significant change has already taken place. IFL has called Rev. Dr. Ron Bouthilette to serve as the Executive Director of IFL. His combination of experience, qualifications, and personal connections across the region makes him well-suited for the task.
Ron served as pastor of the Bridge Community Church in Milford for 13 years. He continues to serve as Adjunct Professor for Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, teaching a course in Church Revitalization for the last 5 years. He has also been deeply involved for some time in recruiting and mentoring new pastors for the Region.
Ron commented on what motivated him to accept the position. “As I move from being a local church pastor into semi-retirement, I was praying about where God would want me. I was reminded of my passion -- mentoring and discipleship. Our school of Ministry fits that passion perfectly.”
Ron sees his work with the IFL as a continuation of his wider ministry over recent years. “I will continue to assist our region and placing new pastors in our churches from Gordon Conwell. I am also excited about training pastors from our region to take the pulpits in our churches. There is no better way to Serve the kingdom of God as I move from being a local church pastor. I thank God for the opportunity.”
There are other changes planned which have not yet been formally approved by the Governing Board. These changes will streamline the decision-making process, improve the ability to respond to changing circumstances, and increase funding and resources so that IFL can help more students more effectively.
In terms of the academic program, IFL will be adopting a two-channel approach. They will take advantage of live remote courses offered locally through Gordon Conwell – piggybacking on their newly developed Certificate in Christian Ministry. Students can also access approved online courses taught by highly qualified seminary teachers from top seminaries. These courses will be proctored by the Executive Director to ensure quality of learning outcomes. The combination will reduce the challenge posed by winter travel in New England.
IFL will also match new students with a qualified Spiritual Advisor. This will ensure that students will themselves receive pastoral care and guidance as they explore their call. The idea is to strengthen their own faith as they prepare to strengthen the faith of others.
Mandatory quarterly gatherings will provide opportunities for live workshops in relevant subjects, and allow students to form a network of ministry friends from around the region. Studies show that 70% of pastors do not have close friends, and this contributes to the fact that something like half of new ministers leave ministry within 5 years. The development of ministry friendships is critical to long term effectiveness in ministry.
Dale Edwards, Regional Minister of the ABCVNH, thinks that IFL is a critical component of the future of the Region. “The future IFL is key to once again creating a Baptist movement to serve the historic New England church in faithful, creative, and competent ways. God does raise those called and gifted to serve Christ from the pews, and not just from seminary classrooms.”
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