Seminary was a thrilling time for a nerd like me. I could learn all the things about subjects I was really interested in, and I could ask all the questions that had made my Sunday School teachers panic and deflect. Here are some of the topics I was immersed in:
- Writing a sermon with a clear focus and function.
- Understanding the culture wars and their impact on the modern church.
- Thinking lofty thoughts about the Trinity.
- Setting appropriate boundaries between pastor and parishioner and between work and personal time.
- Delving into the social, political, and theological contexts of scripture.
- Creating a list of community resources and preparing myself to refer out when I got in over my head with pastoral care.
- Tracing the history of the church through the centuries.
- Writing curriculum to help the faithful of all ages grow in their discipleship.
- Composing liturgy and designing worship services.
- Leading a business meeting.
It was a heady (and heart-y) time, and I’m sure most ministers could make a similar list about their takeaways from theological education.
And then I was called to the church and found out that much of a clergyperson’s day-to-day tasks don’t consist of applying – at least directly – the above gleanings. I started wishing I had learned:
- How to gaze upon a church member’s oozing surgical scar without dry heaving.
- What to do when you realize an entire wing of the church has a mold issue.
- How to lead a visioning process, particularly for a church that has no concept of one.
- How to deal with people who exude negativity if not downright toxicity.
- What to do when the former minister just won’t leave.
- How to argue with the city about a water issue that is causing the parking lot to break apart.
- How to sit with someone experiencing her fifth miscarriage.
- How to preach in the midst of the culture wars.
- How to navigate the sometimes exhilarating, often disheartening and confusing call process.
I’m willing to bet that many pastors can relate to this list and to the sentiment that “they surely didn’t teach me this in seminary.”
Of course, the breadth of ministry is much too broad to be covered completely in 80 credit hours. And in those gaps a peer learning group can prove invaluable. Chances are, one of your group members has gone through a like situation and can share some wisdom. Even if that is not the case, your colleagues can let you know that you are not alone in navigating the new experience. They can coach you through the difficulty or commit to figuring it out along with you. They can point you to people and books and podcasts that can help you figure out what to do. Most importantly, they can pray with and for you.
If you are a minister, finding a peer group that helps you bridge the gaps in your knowledge and experience can be a vocation-saver. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get connected to a group in your area.