On the first day of my first full-time job out of journalism school, a newspaper editor assigned me to cover a street demonstration.
Only an hour or two passed between my arrival on the scene and deadline. Because this was well before cell phones, laptops or even fax machines, the only way to get the story from me to the paper was to call it in (usually on a pay phone) to a rewrite person.
But I discovered right on deadline that journalism school hadn’t taught me how to take scattered notes and quotes in my notebook, create a lead and dictate a well-crafted story in a matter of minutes. I managed to complete the task, but by then I was cursing my education for ignoring something so necessary and practical.
Over the years, I’ve watched new seminary graduates face something similar. Barely ordained and installed, they’ve had to figure out on the fly how to deal with a suicide in their flock, counsel someone who’s just discovering she’s gay, determine how much of their salary package should be designated for housing or decide how to alert a congregation that one of its members has just had to register as a sex offender.
Some of these newly minted pastors have been terrific at explaining various theories of atonement, at guiding congregants toward choosing this Bible translation over that one, at describing John Calvin’s contribution to the Protestant Reformation and at leading unscripted prayers.
The questions they’re more likely to face, however, will come in a finance committee meeting wrestling with what percentage of a church’s endowment should be in equities and what percentage in fixed income vehicles. Or in a social justice committee trying to figure out whether to focus its educational efforts on white privilege, pornography, immigration or environmental degradation.
I asked my congregation’s 20s-something associate pastor, Kristin Riegel, a 2013 McCormick graduate, about this. She responded: “The PC(USA) denomination’s requirements for pastors are good, in some ways. They are heavy on Scripture, theology, polity, etc., but there is almost no room available to take classes on anything outside the denomination’s and seminary’s requirements, such as nonprofit management.”
No new pastors, of course — even second-career people who’ve spent decades as electrical engineers or English teachers — can be an expert in every field. But in some ways they must be like general assignment reporters at newspapers who must know a little bit about a lot.
And in many ways it’s unfair to imagine that any seminary can turn out pastors who are both excellent theologians and well-educated about the practicalities of choosing a computer system for the church office or deciding the best way to pay for an upgrade to the building’s plumbing.
I liked Kristin’s thought about this: “Ideally, it makes sense for seminaries to focus more on theology, biblical studies, polity, pastoral care, etc., with a few basic classes on nonprofit management (more MBA-like) and then to have all pastors in their first five years be in a peer-pastor learning group and paired with a mentor/coach who can work with them in developing problem-solving skills once they’re in the thick of it.”
We congregants can help, too, by being available to teach new pastors wisdom and skills we’ve picked up so that, in the end, we can receive the kind of pastoral care that can come only from someone with an adequate understanding of the issues we all face, from divorce to loss of work, from bigotry to terminal illness.
Yes, we need pastors to help us unpack difficult biblical passages, but we also need them to help us know how to react to domestic abuse, gun violence and a diagnosis of cancer.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book Email him at email@example.com.