What I wish I had learned in seminary

This week, we asked our bloggers to name a few things that they wish they had learned in seminary.  Visit the Outlook Outpost blog each day this week for a new perspective on the question and join the discussion.

“What do you wish seminary had taught you?”  I’ve been asked me this question many times, and in the past, I really haven’t had much of an answer.  I think pastors are sometimes too hard on their seminaries, especially in the first few years of ordained conscious incompetence.  My hunch is that the pastoral learning curve is always steep, no matter how well one’s seminary taught administration, pastoral counseling or conflict management.

Only after four years of becoming increasingly more competent at the every day tasks of ministry (like preaching and pastoral care) have I landed on a subject I really do wish I had learned – or had more opportunity to explore – in seminary.  It may be that my seminary did indeed offer courses on this subject and I simply did not have time to take them.  (As an aside, I went to a non-Presbyterian institution and was required to use my elective courses to take Presbyterian theology, polity and worship.) 

Discipleship is what I wish I had learned.  What, exactly, is it?  Of course, I know a disciple is a follower of Jesus, but what does that mean?  How does one follow Jesus throughout one’s life?  How is discipleship intertwined with one’s development as a person?  How do you know you’re growing in spiritual maturity, being spiritually formed?

I have at least two theories about why I did not learn this in seminary (other than the fact that I just took the wrong classes and was never required to read Dallas Willard):

  1. The question seems tooSurely, as disciples ourselves, we should know what discipleship is!  Isn’t the work of preaching, teaching, pastoral care and organizing outreach projects what shapes people as disciples?
  2. We disagree on both the definition and the implementation ofIs it Christian education?  Missional engagement?  Leadership development?  Is it an interior journey of prayer?  Is it an outwardly focused commitment to justice?  Is it believing what Jesus said or doing what Jesus did?  Is it the work of becoming an emotionally healthy person with a Christian twist?  Is it ethics?  Is it different than spiritual formation?

I wish I had left seminary armed with a more robust definition and understanding of discipleship.  Without it, I have spent most of my time as the associate pastor of spiritual formation for a large Presbyterian congregation maintaining programs that are supposed to disciple people but may not be doing so.  Willow Creek’s Reveal study made clear that participation in a program does not necessarily make a disciple.  What about our pew sitters who are content to participate in worship once or twice a month but don’t have the time or interest in our programs?  What about their spiritual formation? 

How to nurture discipleship in my congregation is the prime question with which I wrestle.  And I wish I had started my pastoral work with a stronger foundation upon which to engage this question.

Rachel Young


Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas.  She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Pres. as the Director of Contemporary Worship and Media.  She blogs weekly at