The students are in small groups, discussing emotions for a particular Bible verse. There's nothing halfhearted about their participation. Throughout the morning, they leap (sometimes literally) into exercises that will prepare them for the pastorate: leading prayers, calming an imaginary youth group, dissecting scripture, creating a worship drama.
Welcome to Local Pastors School, where 24 students are gathered for a spring weekend at Buffalo Mountain Camp in Jonesborough, Tenn. The students are a mix of ages, genders, education, and backgrounds. But all sense a call to ministry and are giving up 80 hours and $435 for training that could lead to a pastoral appointment this June.
"Once they've completed Local Pastors School, they're eligible for an appointment as a local pastor," said the Rev. Tom Ballard. "But it's strictly up to the Cabinet whether they will be appointed or not."
Ballard, along with the Rev. Charlie Harrison, are deans of this year's Local Pastors School. The responsibility is included in their roles as co-chairpersons of the Board of Ordained Ministry's Division of Local Pastors and Associate Members.
Holston Conference provides the school each year under the denomination's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry guidelines. The 80 hours of training are arranged over three weekends from February to April, with several Holston clergy serving as instructors.
The students seem to delight in learning about the school's four areas of focus: pastoral care for self and congregation; worship and preaching; organization of the church for mission and outreach; and Christian education.
They also seem to delight in being with each other -- teasing and laughing as they learn, rooming with each other and sharing home-cooked meals at the Buffalo Mountain lodge.
"I've learned a lot from the instructors but also from the other people in the class," said Daniel Bradley, a member of Boyd's Chapel UMC in Tazewell District. "I've never used the lectionary to prepare my sermons -- that's not to say I will -- but this has opened the door to understanding how other preachers do it."
"I have learned that I am a lot like the others who are attending, that we all seem to have the same story about our calling," said Caroline Hawthorne, whose childhood church is Addilynn Memorial UMC in Abingdon District. "I thought I was the only one running from the Lord."
"They do bond together, just like a deacons class or elders class," said Ballard. "They have a real sense of joy in their calling and are hungry to be equipped. And each of these people have a fascinating story of how God is working in them and leading them into different areas."
Bradley, for example, works in a saw mill and has felt a strong calling to ministry for the last five years. "I've been waking up at 3 a.m. to jot down scripture, carrying a notebook in my vehicle so that I can write down sermons that come to me," he says. "I know this is where God is leading me."
Hawthorne is a mother who works at home as a bookkeeper, while serving as lay leader and children's minister at Weaver Union Church in Abingdon. "I know that the Lord has a plan for me," she says. "I need to let go of my life and let God happen."
Susan Arnold is a teacher in the Kingsport area. Jake Herron, from Athens, Tenn., is a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. Barbara Farmer is congregational care coordinator at Pleasant View UMC in Abingdon, and Catherine Sandefur of Abingdon will soon retire from 31 years of social work.
All, in their respective situations, recognized a call to ministry and were recommended for candidacy through their local churches. The aspiring pastors then worked with assigned mentors through a candidacy process that might take six months to a year, according to Harrison. A district Board of Ordained Ministry decided if they could be "certified" candidates, eligible for Local Pastors School.
A few students in this year's class, like Sandefur (Ebenezer UMC, Abingdon District) and Carl Mehaffy (Derby UMC, Big Stone Gap District) are already serving local churches in pastoral roles. Others, like Bradley, have been informed by the Cabinet of a projected appointment this June. Many students expect to be bi-vocational pastors, while some will become "second career" pastors.
Many of these students will not attend seminary, but if appointed, are required to continue their education with a "course of study," Ballard said. Most seminary students do not attend Local Pastors School but are prepared for the pastorate through their seminary educations. A few seminary students do attend Local Pastors School to prepare for serving churches before graduation. Also, some are credentialed and educated as pastors in other denominations but attend Local Pastors School to gain United Methodist credentials.
After they complete Local Pastors School, some will be licensed and receive appointments on the last day of the Holston Annual Conference, which this year is June 17.
"I'm really excited and nervous," says Bradley. "It's a big responsibility."
This year's Local Pastor School instructors include: Ray Amos, Lyle White, Kim Goddard, Kathie Wilson-Parker, Dale Gilbert, Nancy Hobbs, Richard Tallent, Jim Goddard, Laura Shearer, and Charles Maynard.
Ballard is senior pastor at St. Paul UMC, Wytheville District. Harrison is pastor at First Sevierville UMC, Maryville District.
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