Monday, June 15, 2015

Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Graduated Seminary

(This will be my only blog post this week--I am going on a much-needed week of vacation to attend a wedding and to see my parents.  I'll be back next week, on the 22nd, with new posts for you as well as the continuation of our current sermon series!  Be well. ~E.A.)

Congratulations, graduates of seminaries across the country.  You are simultaneously exiting God School and entering into job searches, processes of search and call, and all in the hopes of finding a first call that is meaningful and right for you, wherever you may be.

I know you have probably heard that first calls are especially tough--I definitely did while I was in seminary.  That shouldn't discourage you, and in the interests of making your first call just a tick easier, here are five things I wish I knew when I graduated from seminary four years ago:

1. Your education has prepared you to think like a minister, not how to do ministry.  

Here's a non-exhaustive list of things I received literally zero classroom time on:

Family, youth, or childrens' ministry (seriously)
Outreach or ministry via the internet, social media, or a church's website
Allowing gifts from credit cards or online processing
Staff oversight
Property, facilities, or building management

Now, maybe some of these aren't something you or I think pastor should spend a lot of time doing, but almost all of us solo pastors do.

On the other hand, here's a similarly by-no-means-exhaustive sampling of some of the things I did receive classroom time on in seminary:

Preaching the lectionary
Liturgical dance
The theology of a boatload of dead white guys
Guided meditation
Basket weaving (okay, not really)

None of this is meant as a knock on my alma mater in particular--anecdotally, based on what I know from my colleagues' own seminary educations, many divinity schools are stuck in this same rut: can you notice the nuts-and-bolts difference between these two lists?  All of the items on the first list I either had to learn from personal experience/internships, or on the job here in Longview, completely from scratch.  The second list may have helped produce the right mentality for tackling the first list, but omitting the first list still makes one's seminary education woefully incomplete.  We're still cranking out pastors on the basis of a 1950s model of ministry, 55 years after that particular decade ended, a model based on a pastor who mostly preached, taught, married, and buried people.

Oh, what I would give on especially stressful days to have that sort of job description...

2. You won't know what you're doing, get used to it

#1 feeds directly into #2.  I honestly don't recall very fondly my honeymoon phase here at FCC Longview--not because my new people weren't lovely (they were, and still are), but because I was secretly petrified.  I was petrified because I had no idea what I was doing or how I was supposed to do it.  I came to a church with a defined mission and vision statement, and I had my own vision for the church.  I had no idea how to do it.

Now, nearly four years later, I'm proud to say we have executed significant portions of that vision (new mission work in the community, establishing a children's church, creation of more home groups and home groups for young women in our women's fellowship, etc), but I still have no idea what I'm doing.  Even as I have gotten better at the leading, teaching, and preaching bit, I'm still wretchedly awful at the administration and building maintenance bit and I continue to learn on the job every step of the way on that count.

3. You will disappoint people, including yourself

I'm rapidly realizing that the nature of personality-focused ministry, which seems for better or for (more likely) worse to be the default in American Christianity right now, inherently lends itself to rapid buildups in stature followed by even more rapid falls from grace--see also: Ted Haggard, Doug Phillips, Mark Driscoll, and many more similarly larger-than-life personalities who climbed to the mountaintop only to find themselves hurtling downward, entirely as a result of their own hypocrisies.

But the vast majority of us, we don't get into this line of work to harm other people, much less disappoint them.  But we end up doing so, whether it is as a result of being placed atop a pedestal, or of unfair expectations, or even our own misperceptions of ourselves.  Regardless of the why, the question is one of "when," not "if" we end up disappointing someone.  Which is on the one hand demoralizing to admit, but it is also, in a sense, liberating because realizing that truth means we shouldn't fear it quite so much.

4. Doing ministry is way harder than studying for it

Seminary was so much easier than ministry, it's not even close.  I could ace my papers and exams on pastoral counseling, but being there when someone is dying and having the emotional intelligence to read the room and know when to speak (and what to speak) and then go straight from that to, say, a worship planning meeting, is an entirely different kettle of fish.  It flips mental and spiritual switches in ways that are not even remotely healthy.  The unstructured nature of seminary, where I didn't have to be anywhere at any time except for my classes and my internship, may have lent itself to unhealthy habits as well, but the work itself was far easier and more straightforward.

Put a different way: getting an A in preaching?  That was a walk in the park, a softball that I belted into the upper deck.  But crafting a sermon, coaxing it out of nothingness, weaving into a tapestry of words, stories, exhortations, and meaningfulness?  That's some acrobatic tap dancing there.  Some Sundays, I nail my tap dancing routine, but others?  I need that long, hooked cane to drag me off the stage before God starts throwing rotten vegetables at His devoted, but slightly deranged, servant.

5. ...But the rewards are also much, much greater

I had no idea when I graduated seminary just how amazing it would feel to hold a congregant's new baby as I dedicated that new soul to God, or how overwhelming it would be to embrace someone as I lower them into our baptismal and lift them up a new creation in Christ.  I learned what an honor it was to be entrusted with committing a departed soul to God and to be allowed in to counsel a husband and wife on their brand-spanking new marriage.

It is exhausting and demanding work, but it is soul-sized work.  Whatever obstacles you or I may face in our ministries, we are facing them because of our belief in doing the work of God.

It is easy to forget that.  Don't.


Congratulations, and go be love to a broken and hurting world.

Yours in Christ,

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