Five things that I wish I’d learned in seminary

In seminary, I had terrific classes.  Old and New Testament, Church History, Theology, Pastoral Care, Hebrew, Greek and some handy German. Oh, I’ll see your Heilsgeschicte and raise you a Sitz im Leben.  In my current context, many of those power words might sound like what would land you on the prayer chain.  “Did you hear about Susan?  She had a midrash on her pericope.”  “Oh dear.” 


Not all of what I learned translates to the congregational setting.  More than anything, the theology we studied, the history we covered, the friendships we made and the Bible we studied with a furious intensity and plenty of nuance seem to carry me over the cultural waves that are pounding the church I have only recently come to serve.  Seminary was foundational.  I am not hoping that it morphs to focus only on the technical.  But, here are a few things I wish I had learned.


1 – How to manage a successful non-profit

Our church has a budget of nearly $800,000 and a staff of nine.  There are relatively huge financial decisions over which pastors hold considerable sway.  I cannot count on two hands the number of times I have heard someone say, “You know what the church needs?  Better marketing!”  I frequently find myself leaning on the business background I gained before entering seminary – profit and loss statements, project plans, human resources information.  In seminary, we never had a class on how to craft a defining vision for the church nor how to have tough conversations with staff or congregational volunteers when things fall through.  And while there has been a lot of conversation about whether pastors should be leaders or followers – in the discipleship sense – the church is an organization, and it can act on the values it professes or actively contradict itself.  Studying great non-profits that live into their values would have served me well.  I can’t speak highly enough of what I have learned from business and non-profit leaders in my church and from community organizing through Metro-IAF.


2 – How to be a Reverend Mother

Work/Life balance is hard.  Period.  It is hard for male pastors and female pastors, those with children and those without.  But how to mother and minister is a challenge for which I was hardly prepared.  I remember being newly pregnant with terrible morning sickness, scratching my head about how to tell my co-workers about a Palm Sunday due date, let alone the congregation, but also cringing at the idea that they’d think I was just frightfully hung-over.  To be a pregnant minister draws stares and bizarre comments.  “So,” a visitor said in the receiving line after staring at my belly, “they let y’all do that these days?”  Granted, no seminary class could stand up to all the challenges that a Reverend Mother faces.  I don’t want to imagine a precept that dealt with pumping.  But taking the conversation about self-care and setting healthy boundaries to the next level so that we talked to professional women who also raised healthy children, that would have been gold.  Pastor as Parent, a class where we learned how to choose between evening meetings, how to raise a PK, and how to let go of the guilt and take hold of amazing grace when the sermon was a B- but we held a child through their stomach bug, now that would have been downright heilsgeschichte, the story of people experiencing salvation, over and over again.  


3 – How to lead the church outside of the building

This is not new, but so much of church happens outside the building.  I now find out about the real pastoral struggles of a person’s life by reading their Facebook status updates.  I can share ideas that would never make it into a sermon by posting articles on my Facebook page.  By driving the green church van down to the local 7-11 where many Spanish-speaking day laborers stood, and inviting them to lunch, we have launched, over the last 7 years, a congregation of 200 people, worshipping in Spanish and English, every Wednesday in our Fellowship Hall.  That church that is now in our building never would have come to our building on its own.  And, the pastoral conversations that happen on a plane, in a coffee shop or in the parking lot of my children’s school are some of the most rich and enlivening.  They are where I launch into the choppy waters of post-Christendom Christianity.  I bet there could have been some incredible role-plays of these kinds of conversations in seminary classrooms.   We could have used the puppets from the “non violent communication” class in new and exciting ways!  I think all of us are in the midst of some sort of new church development, even if our churches are centuries old.


4 – How to be successfully re-potted 

“Every pastor needs to be re-potted.”  My husband’s grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and I owe him for this true-to-life image.  We all know the church where Pastor So-and-So stayed for 35 years, and well, “he sort of … retired in place for those last 10 years.”  We know pastors who are so busy that they might consider a new call, but the challenge of putting together a PIF moves to the bottom of the to-do list.  Some pastors do make a move, and it takes two years or more to find another call. It’s easy to balk at any church that is seeking a pastor, “That church is too resistant to change,” “Jim was there too long,” “John left too soon, and things are a mess,” or “I could never follow a super-star like Jack.”  We start to sound like Goldilocks.  Churches can do the same.  “We can’t have another man on staff.”  “We already had a female pastor.”  “We don’t want someone too old because we want to attract young families.”  “Probably best if we had someone who isn’t too green.”  The bottom line is we all crave constancy and the tenure to make a difference, but we all need change.  It is hard to know when and how to make such a move.  For this reason, I am so grateful for clergy colleagues, spiritual directors and the existence of Presbyterian CREDO, a week-long conference that asks pastors the tough questions of discernment, though I have not yet attended it myself.  I wish we had talked this through during seminary so that such vital decisions might not be dealt with in such isolation or secrecy. 


5 – How to live it out

No doubt I needed more old school spiritual formation before entering the world of ordained ministry.  I learned the hard way how to find a clergy colleague group, how to make time to read and study the Bible (which is not the same as sermon preparation), and how to be mindful, how to pray rather than simply writing and saying prayers.  Would that spiritual formation in seminary have looked like classes on meditation, prayer, discernment, spiritual disciplines? Perhaps.  But even more than that, I wonder what it would have been like had we worked together cleaning the dishes in the cafeteria of the seminary, alongside the Guatemalan cooks, before taking a class on cultural hermeneutics.  I wonder what we might have learned if we held a class on the dinky train from Princeton University to Princeton Junction, blurring the boundaries of academia and church, seeking the sacred in the world around us.  I wonder what it might have meant to have been accountable to my classmates and professors about my own spiritual health during those seminary years, even as I was accountable to have done the reading (cough) and written the papers.


But, perhaps seen this way, all of life is seminary, studying how to follow the one called Jesus.  No turning back, no turning back. 


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Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.  She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers.  Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.