“Let’s get this straight,” a friend asked me recently. “You went to seminary for four years, spent another year doing a chaplain residency, and it’s still going to be a few years before you can get a church job?” she asked.
“Well, technically… yes,” I responded.
“What are you seeking to become,” she replied, “a Presbyterian pope?”
In August, I finished my one-year Clinical Pastoral Education residency program by serving as a hospital chaplain through Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. Despite the difficulty of doing a CPE residency, I felt affirmed and transformed from the experience that I decided to do after graduating from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2013.
However, now with my residency and seminary education complete, I still haven’t finished the ordination process through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to become an ordained minister. This process, which I started at the end of my seminary career, can be a lengthy process and like many others, can be one of difficulty – not just because of the lack of ministry opportunities for those who are not yet ordained. But after spending five years preparing to do ministry, I am struggling to learn how to be prepared not to do ministry — at least right now.
The first struggle is wondering how I can use the skills I obtained while at San Francisco Theological Seminary in a secular career. While I need to earn a living to begin making payments on the student debt I acquired while in seminary, I’m finding that most of the experience I gained in the classroom and during my internship in a church doesn’t translate into secular job experience.
The second struggle I have come across as I began my transitional process in between seminary and ordained ministry is finding opportunities to be involved in ministry. While those who are “in-betweeners” like myself should be involved in a church, my home church is in California while I am in staying with family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I don’t have connection with any local church – something that I am trying hard to do.
While finding a secular job and a church where I can gain additional ministry experience are things I will be able to do over time, I believe the PC(USA) and its seminaries need to find ways to keep connected with their alumni and, as a denomination, continue to mentor those in the ordination process after graduation. I have seen too many former classmates from SFTS and other PC(USA) seminaries drop off the map and become lost in the ordination system if they weren’t ready for a first call upon seminary graduation.
First, I propose seminaries to find ways to keeping seminary graduates connected with continuing education opportunities. From offering continuing classroom educational courses to providing tutoring for seminary graduates in preparation of ordination exams, seminary graduates shouldn’t feel forgotten by their seminaries after they graduate and stop paying tuition.
Second, I ask that we help seminary graduates become better connected with churches and ministry opportunities that would allow them to gain additional experience in preaching, church leadership and biblical teaching outside the context of seminary internships. While many churches are not able to offer a salary for seminary graduates to do residencies, providing free mentoring from experienced pastors, placing candidates in smaller congregations without pastors and offering experiences in non-traditional ministry will help produce stronger pastors and churches.
But the final consideration I raise is for the denomination itself to offer better support for seminary graduates who are either in the ordination process or looking for their first call. There are too many who get discouraged by the difficultly of being in the ordination process after seminary. They feel disconnected not only from their seminary, but also from the denomination and the church. Connecting other candidates for ministry with each other would help them remain encouraged — even during setbacks in their ordination process.
Yes, there are many changes I believe need to be made to the ordination process in the PC(USA). But if the PC(USA) and its seminaries can help candidates for ministry by providing better educational, networking and church leadership experiences, then we can create stronger and better ministers in the church. And, we can also can create stronger and better churches in the PC(USA).
Christopher Schilling is a 2013 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Northern California. Christopher is also a freelance journalist, creative writer and has a passion for the outdoors, running, radio broadcasting and cars.