Local pastor licensing school goes online because of pandemic

By Jessica Brodie

This month, nearly 30 local pastors will gather by Zoom for the first-ever online version of pastoral licensing school.

The three-session course of study, led by the Rev. Mel Arant, will still be held in the same format: all day Monday through Saturday, April 27-May 2, then two weekend sessions May 8-9 and May 15-16. However, instead of being held at the South Carolina United Methodist Conference Center in Columbia, the class will be taught by video conference.

“In some ways, this is a great learning experience for those taking the licensing school—it’s a perfect example of having to adapt and to solve problems and figure out new ways of doing ministry,” said Arant, dean of the school for the past four years. “I’ve said to a couple individuals anxious about participating in school this way that this might be the best training you’ll ever get to lead a church, because every pastor, no matter what kind of church you are serving—a large downtown church with a lot of resources or a small church not known for many resources—is having to figure out how to do ministry electronically and at a distance. If you can’t adapt to this, you are probably not going to be able to adapt to ministry.”

The curriculum for the licensing school, called School of Pastoral Ministry, is prescribed by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Division on Ordained Ministry to teach the pastors everything they need to know as they prepare to pastor their first church. It is not intended to replace seminary, he said, and is considered a first “course of study” class.

The sessions cover basic Methodist history, theology, polity, basic fundamentals for church administration, worship, preaching fundamentals, spiritual formation, mission and outreach, Christian education, best practices in pastoral care and counseling, sexual ethics and safe sanctuaries training, continuing education. They spend significant time on racial and gender sensitivity, Arant said, plus get insight from guest pastors, who share their process, and meet with some unique ministries of the Annual Conference, such as congregational specialists.

In all, students get 80 contact hours.

Arant said instructors are getting “very creative.” One, who typically starts each year with an in-person getting-to-know-you icebreaker, has figured out how to do an online Jeopardy-style game as an icebreaker.

“My biggest fear is how do I create collegiality in a distance-learning setting, so we’ve poured a lot of energy into thinking about that,” Arant said.

They are going to try to do that as best as they can, utilizing small breakout groups throughout and other ways to foster relationships and community.

Arant said he’s optimistic this will be a good way to help students learn what they need, as he has been pleasantly surprised with the success of online outreach recently started at the church he pastors, Pendleton UMC, Pendleton. In the past, he has led Bible study in person, but for the last month he has been leading that study using Zoom with huge success and attendance.

“Now I have shut-ins participating in the Zoom Bible study who haven’t been able to participate in person in years,” Arant said. “Another member recently moved back to Mexico to care for ailing family, and she’s been able to call in and participate.”

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