New seminary graduates serving their first calls often exclaim, “Seminary didn’t prepare me for this!” When I first entered ministry, my things-I-wasn’t-prepared-for list was long. How do I restack Civil War-era Communion plates while my hands shake from nerves? Do I raise my right hand, my left or both for the benediction? How do I fasten my clerical collar when my husband isn’t around to help? What do I do when the baby starts screaming during my sermon? How do I coordinate worship music with an elderly organist who is hard-of-hearing and suffering from short-term memory loss?
Today’s seminary graduates have added to their list: How do I run a congregational meeting by Zoom? How do I upload worship videos to YouTube? How do I care for the congregation during political firestorms and a global pandemic?
No matter whether we are a pastor or a church officer or disciple seeking to be faithful in daily life, ministry throws us into situations we never imagined. Christ constantly calls us outside of our comfort zones, requiring us to be flexible, adapt, grow and change. I didn’t realize ministry was such a refining fire until much later in my career. But I’ve come to appreciate the growth that comes through navigating change and challenging circumstances.
I liken seminary to my intense training running track in college, except my theological education trained the muscle of my brain to think deeply about issues of ultimate concern. As a pastor, preaching every Sunday was a draining, pressure-filled slog, but I got better and better at articulating my thoughts in both writing and speech. Working with and ministering beside all kinds of people and personalities helped me develop interpersonal skills. A theological tradition that embraces the Spirit’s constant and continual work, a tradition that affirms we are Reformed and always reforming, encourages me with the good news that I, my faith and my church are not finished products, but constantly on the path of change, on the way to being and becoming the people our Creator originally imagined.
When I stop to consider all the change we have had to navigate this past year, I feel overwhelmed and weary. Change is never easy, especially when it emerges out of crisis. And we certainly need to care for ourselves in the midst of it, ever mindful of God’s command to sabbath rest. But I have grown in some surprising ways because of this past season, and I’m sure the same is true for you. I’ve adapted to new technology and embraced new digital skills. I’ve prioritized the health of myself, my family and my community more. I recognize more than ever how connected we are, how we are bound one to each other, how what oppresses one segment of society or one nation of the world oppresses us all. For those of us who are privileged to lead fairly comfortable lives, it can take something like a global pandemic or the sudden loss of comforts we have come to expect to recognize the truth of our interconnectedness.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. referenced Socrates’ method of creating tension in the mind so individuals could grow in critical thinking and analysis. King’s strategy to create change that would benefit the civil rights movement included surfacing necessary tension and discomfort. White Americans would not see the need for change until they were forced to watch television coverage of police officers beating, hosing and setting dogs on Black Americans who were peacefully protesting — women and children included. Politicians and presidents wouldn’t work for change without nonviolent agitators like King and other civil rights leaders pestering, publicly protesting and creating tense conditions that would force reluctant leaders into action.
So yes, change is uncomfortable and exhausting and disorienting and at times just plain awful. But the tension and discomfort that come with change can also serve as a catalyst for growth and valuable transformation. Friends, we are in this tense and tragic moment together. Let us love and support each other in the midst of it. And let us not avoid the good and necessary change that can emerge from it.