The suggested prompt for the blog this month was, “5 Things I wished I’d learned in seminary.” One way to explore this is to think about all of the demands and special skills that have been required of me in my ministry for which I have felt unprepared or clueless. More than a few things come to mind. For example, how do I cook a cheap and tasty meal for 25 students that is vegetarian and gluten-free? How do I make ashes spread neatly on peoples’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday so they don’t clump up and scratch someone? How do I tweet? How do I ask for and receive lots of money? I could go on.
But I’ve decided to put a positive spin on this idea and write about “3 things I’m glad I learned in seminary.”
1. Biblical interpretation
This might seem like a “duh” response. Of course you use the Bible in your ministry! However, I’ve been surprised by how many people seem to think that the youth and young adults with whom I minister are uninterested in biblical scholarship. Don’t they just need a safe community where they can hang out? It’s really the food that gets them to come. Make sure you play lots of fun games! I’ve heard well-meaning caring people say all these things. What I’d like to say is that it’s not that safe spaces, table fellowship and play are not important; they are absolutely vital parts of ministry. And the college students I know are eager to learn about what the Bible has to teach us today. In fact, they say the meaningful conversation is what brings them back week after week.
A group of students and I attended the College Conference at Montreat in early January. The last night we were there, we discussed the highlights and disappointments of the experience. We talked about keynotes, worship, sermons, music, workshops and discussion groups. Oh, and the talent show, of course. But it was clear what had the greatest impact: the alternative interpretations of Scripture that the students had never heard before. The favorite among our group was when keynoter, Adrian Byrd, talked about the Tower of Babel. He offered that this story reveals God’s plan and love for diversity among people. God scattered the people not as a punishment, but as a corrective to disordered living that builds walls to keep people who are the same apart from others who are different. God desires diversity.
Biblical interpretation matters because it shapes how we understand the world we are living in now. College students get this and they are seeking deeper understanding. As their pastor, I am called to help them navigate our beautiful, sometimes disturbing, and mysterious ancient texts. It’s a really good thing that I had to have so much practice with this in seminary!
2. A ministry of presence
The first time I heard of the concept of a ministry of presence in my intro to pastoral care class, I thought it sounded lovely. My professor emphasized that what people really need from their pastor is a “relatively non-anxious presence” which generally means listening a lot more than talking. I remember thinking, “that doesn’t sound so hard. I love being with people.” Then I started Clinical Pastoral Education in a trauma I hospital. Turns out maintaining a relatively non-anxious presence is a lot harder than I thought. And even more beautiful.
My experience has shown me that my professor was right when we said that people need a ministry of presence: attentive, intentional, compassionate presence. I understand much of my pastoral role in this way. As Thomas Merton says, “Theology really happens in relationship.” It is in relationship where God’s presence is made known. In college ministry, this looks different each day. This year “theology has happened” laughing around a campfire on retreat, crying in an apartment over the sudden death of a loved one, holding hands in an emergency room, singing by candlelight and praying over agendas in my office. When we are truly present for and with one another, we are standing on holy ground.
3. The centrality of worship
In seminary, I was taught that the life and ministry of a church should be grounded in meaningful worship. When we gather around the Word, Table and Font, we claim our identity in Christ and we are nurtured so that we may do God’s service in the world. We affirm that God is present among us and we attune our hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
One of the first things I did as campus minister was to introduce worship with communion as a part of our weekly program at Cooper House. After the first service, a senior thanked me with tears in her eyes and shared how much worship in this community meant to her. She had been longing for it.
We have continued to have worship and communion once a month over the last year and a half and now, much of it is student led. I believe this is why our ministry together is flourishing. We are a worshipping community, first and foremost. We have various programs and events and we recognize God among us in many different ways. But it is our communal worship that shapes us and gives life to all that we do.
So, take heart. There are many things pastors learn in seminary that have great relevance in the trenches of ministry. I’m grateful for the opportunity to call a few of them to mind to help make connections I don’t always easily see. How do you use what you’ve been taught in ways that you feel really matter?
Ginny Taylor-Troutman is the Presbyterian Campus Minister at Virginia Tech where she finds great joy journeying with college students. She lives in the beautiful mountains of Southwest Virginia in a tiny town called Dublin with her husband, Andrew (who is also a Presbyterian pastor), infant son, Samuel, and dog, Nikki Giovanni Bob Dylan. Ginny loves hiking, music, a good cup of coffee, festivals, and just about anything she can do outside with her family and friends.