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What They Didn't Tell Me in Seminary

A Pastor's Reflection

There were a number of times after beginning my first call in parish ministry that I recall saying to myself, "I didn't sign up for this." In fact, I said it out loud one time and my mother-in-law (of all people) said, "Yes you did." Of course it was much more annoying and difficult to swallow because it was my mother-in-law who said it. But she was right. I did sign up for it.

A similar sort of neutralizing response is often at the ready for another common parish minister complaint: "They didn't tell me about this in seminary." Since it is the case that when I say something like this it is often more venting than legitimate complaint, the response it calls for is, "They didn't have to"—meaning it is fairly obvious and I shouldn't have had to have someone tell it to me. The major reality check I experienced in my first call out of seminary was of this sort. Seminary didn't prepare me for what I experienced. But they really shouldn't have needed to. Before I get to this, though, the truth is that seminary education—no matter the institution—is neither perfect nor comprehensive. And so it is the case that some things slip through the cracks at times that really shouldn't. This also happened to me, and this is what it was.

Most people had little to no interest in all the extremely important things I learned about theology and the Scriptures in seminary. And I don't "extremely important" in any way sarcastically. The things I learned (and continue to learn) about the Scriptures, the history of the Church, and what the Church believes are extremely important. But not many had an interest level quite approaching what I believe to be these things' level of importance. Many folks were more interested in a pastor who could bring in scores of younger people than they were in a pastor who had a real desire to search the Scriptures. And many were more concerned with numerology (in this case, the magic art of increasing membership) than theology.

It is not that seminary didn't tell me this. That is not the problem—as much as I might have wished it to be otherwise, I was realistic enough going in to find this generally unsurprising. What they did not tell me in seminary was what to do about it. In all the excitement, frustration, reflecting, and cramming of seminary I forgot to ask how to make these things come alive in the very real life of the parish. Having this question in mind surely would have nuanced my studies. If I could do my theological education all over again I wouldn't take away one bit of the rigor of learning methods, theory, and theology. I would, however, add to all this the burden of continually asking, "So what?"

I believe that seminary should have told me how to integrate the curriculum into real life church. But there is something else that seminary did not tell me, and I believe this is something it should not have had to. But it was something that I was wholly unprepared for, nonetheless. They did not tell me in seminary that I was not going to change when I became a pastor. It sounds silly. And if you asked me just before I started pastoral ministry if I thought that I would somehow be, act, think, and feel differently as a pastor than I did before I started ordained ministry, I'm sure I would have correctly said, "Of course not."

But the truth is that I did work under this very assumption—that I would be somehow different than I had been before. And so I was unprepared when I disliked administration and meetings just as much as an ordained pastor as I did before the Presbytery laid hands on me. Again, it sounds very silly. But I think I had romanticized what being a pastor might be like and so subtly and quietly convinced myself that things that bothered me in the pre-ordained world would really be different when I was a pastor. And I seemed to have thought that the things that stressed me out before I was ordained would somehow be suddenly manageable afterwards. This simply was not the case. Where I was scared before, I was just as scared after. Where I was cynical before, I was just as cynical after. Where I was needy or a people pleaser before, I was just as much so after. I liked the same things, was passionate about the same things, was frustrated by the same things, and had the same issues as I had always had after becoming a pastor that I did for my whole life before. In short, I was still me and seminary didn't tell me to count on still being me in the pastorate.

And so I was unprepared for being the same me. It is embarrassing, really. Who was I expecting, anyway? They didn't tell me this in seminary and in reality they shouldn't have needed to. Still, it would have helped.