This month, we asked our bloggers to name a few things that they wish they had learned in seminary. Visit the Outlook Outpost blog for other perspectives on the question and join the discussion.
I am a proud graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. I had some amazing professors, took some phenomenal classes and engaged in some life-changing academic discourse. That being said, I do not feel I was adequately prepared for ministry, and to be fair, not a single graduate I have spoken to from any seminary in the country has said differently. Seminary helped me think theologically, expanded the way I look at and read the Bible and made me somewhat aware of my pastoral identity, but was I ready to run a church after receiving my diploma? No. Way.
So here is my list of things I wish I’d learned in seminary. Some are practical and some are less so.
1) How to say “I don’t know”
The dangerous thing about the academic bubble is the assumption there is a right answer or even a good answer to every question. The task of the student is to find it. Now flash forward to a church setting where existence is not philosophical to the person who just lost their young child, or where predestination is not an interesting theological idea to the woman who just married an atheist. In the church, pastors want to solve problems and often times that means forcing answers. I wish my seminary experience taught me when and how to say “I don’t know” to those questions to which there truly are no answers.
2) How to not say anything at all
We like to hear ourselves talk. I really hope I am not offending any pastors out there who find this revelation surprising, but it is true. We LOVE the sound of our voices. And here’s the thing: our churches do too… for the most part. So many times, our parishioners will leave the airwaves open for us to fill, but it doesn’t mean we should. A good pastor asks more questions than gives answers. A good pastor is okay with making room for other people to share, to opine and to be authoritative.
Now how could seminary have taught me this lesson? I think by doing a better job at training me to be a facilitator of dialogue rather than just a preacher. We preach 15-20 minutes a week, yet we spend hours engaging others in conversation. Our default role shouldn’t be that of teacher and preacher, but pastor and servant.
3) How to run a meeting… well
This is so closely connected to number 2. If we knew how to wrap it up, keep it simple and get to the point, it would give others the opportunity to do the same. As a Presbyterian, we run our session meetings by the strict guidelines of Robert’s Rules of Order, but that doesn’t guarantee a productive meeting.
Underlying both my #2 and #3 is the wish that seminary had taught us how to ask good questions in order to move discussions forward rather than just moving in circles. If you were to poll seminary graduates and ask them if they could write a thoughtful sermon, a vast majority would say “yes.” If you were to ask those same graduates if they could lead a dynamic discussion, I think the vast majority would say “no.” Discussions are not as sexy as sermons, but in a culture where religion and spirituality is much more of a conversation, pastors need to become more adept at this skill.
4) How to run a business
Churches have to pay bills? Churches have to budget their finances? Pastors have to deal with money?
In theory, I knew all of these things in seminary; I just didn’t know how to take care of them. Forget managing my own personal expenses, but to manage the investments and tithes of an entire congregation? Nothing seemed more daunting to me.
Seminaries, if you are listening, PLEASE offer mandatory classes (multiple) on church administration and finance… even to your PhD hopefuls. We should all know how to be responsible stewards of the church’s resources.
5) How to take time off
I recall a few seminars on sexual misconduct that emphasized the importance of individual wellbeing, but that’s about it. It was never mentioned in any of my classes on biblical exegesis, systematic theology or even pastoral care. Is it surprising that the attrition rate of pastors is so high?
After all, how does a pastor truly take time off? How does a pastor turn off their phone even though they are the emergency contact in situations of life and death for an entire congregation? How does someone who thrives off of being needed learn to make themselves unavailable every once in a while?
I think the hard lesson is that it isn’t a matter of how exactly you take time off, but why you should. In that regard, I believe it is the responsibility of seminaries to prepare us for the hardships and challenges of ministry and how to avoid making the big mistakes that come when you lead an unhealthy life. Those in seminary are just waiting to be taught by those who have real experience in the church. Those who know it is more important to be a good spouse, friend, parent, and child before being a good pastor.
All in all, seminary was a priceless time in my life where I developed the relationships that will help me survive and thrive in ministry. Knowing what I know now, I would love to do seminary over again and focus more on becoming a good pastor and less on becoming a good scholar.
Charlene Han Powell is the associate pastor for Christian education at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. She oversees adult education, young adult ministries, and family ministries at this historic Manhattan church.