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Mastering the divine

Jenny McDevitt shares her faithful conversation about theological education with two recent graduates and current pastors with Sarah Speed and TJ Remaley.

I have long maintained that the degree required of Presbyterian clergy makes the most absurd and ironic claim to be found anywhere within the halls of higher education. Our Masters of Christian Education (M.A.C.E.) colleagues obviously are far more grounded in reality (and humility). All kidding aside, theological institutions of every sort, offering all manner of degrees, are challenged to continue evolving to meet the needs of an ever-changing world while also holding on to long-established foundational courses. Obviously, this has felt more urgent in recent years, but it is an ongoing reality. After all, to be a theologian is to wrestle with how we understand who God is and how God is at work in our lives and in the world.

I reflected upon theological education with two recent graduates and current pastors: TJ Remaley, pastor at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho, who graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2017 with both M.Div. and a M.A.C.E. degrees, and Sarah Are Speed, associate pastor for young adults and membership at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.

Jenny: Looking back, what’s one way seminary met your expectations?

TJ: Theological education provides a methodological and intentional means for present and future ministry leaders to faithfully explore, interpret and wrestle with our sacred texts in ways that congregational settings typically are not equipped to do. I expected the practice of biblical interpretation to make muddy the waters (in a good way!)
of my understanding of Scripture — and I wasn’t wrong!

Sarah: As a preacher’s kid, I knew all the answers to all the Sunday school questions growing up. Eighteen years of “we never miss a Sunday” will do that to you. But I expected seminary to be different. I expected to gain new understandings of Scripture. I expected the text to come alive in ways I had not yet known. I expected to fumble over Hebrew and Greek and struggle with theological concepts. I expected to have my faith strengthened or challenged or both. And fortunately, seminary met all those expectations. I have never learned more, faster, and I’m endlessly grateful for it.

Jenny: As someone who didn’t grow up in the church, and who rarely knew any of the answers in Sunday school even as an adult, I initially wanted seminary to provide clear answers about what a faithful Christian believes or thinks about any number of things. Every single professor, in every single class, refused to do that. It was not what I had expected (or hoped for) — though I grew to be immensely grateful for that. Almost nothing of our faith can be captured in neat, stagnant or rote answers. Thanks be to God! But it was an adjustment for me. In what ways did seminary surprise you or not meet your expectations?

Sarah: I naively thought that seminary would feel unlike the outside world — a small corner of the universe where students could blissfully study their faith in peace. Instead, I learned that seminary, like any institution, is complicated. There were broken relationships and broken dreams. There was a tension that existed between what the organization was and what it could be. There were more debates than there were rounds of “Kum Ba Yah,” and the outside world shaped every conversation we had inside campus. Fortunately, that reality taught me that seminary, like the world and the church, is complicated, but there is a lot to be gained in that.

TJ: I expected seminary to teach me “how to be a pastor.” I’m certainly not the first to note that the intensive requirements for Bible, theology, worship and polity put things like non-profit administration, supervision, stewardship and strategic planning in the back seat. I was surprised to discover the degree to which I’d be learning how to be a pastor after being ordained to pastoral ministry.

Jenny: With all this in mind, if you could create a new seminary class or continuing education opportunity, what would you call it and what would it address?

Sarah: I would love to create a class called “The Anatomy of Belonging.” Creating a culture of belonging at a church is often up to the social skills of the leaders. However, I don’t think something as important as belonging should hinge on leadership personality alone. Instead, I would love to have taken a class that taught practical wisdom related to how to invite (which is not always in our comfort zone), when to follow up, best practices for community growth, how to use small groups as belonging pockets, how to create a sense of belonging online as well as in person, and more. People are craving a sense of belonging, so let’s talk about it.

TJ: I’d create a course called “Mastering the Divine.” I share your feelings about the name of that degree, Jenny, and I sometimes joke that there’s no better example of institutional arrogance than the diploma on a pastor’s wall signifying a Master of Divinity. So I would design the course to cover a multitude of academic and practical subject areas, all with a common theme of bringing students to the humble realization that we don’t (and can’t) have all the answers.

Jenny: What would you like the church at large to know about pastoral ministry in our current world?

TJ: Just like elders, deacons and any other member in the pews, pastors and ministry leaders feel anxious about the decrease in financial stability, membership, and the church’s relevance in the world. But we’re also just as likely to be extremely hopeful for all God is doing in and for the world, in and through the church. Both things can be true
at the same time!

Sarah: One thing I would like the church to know is that some of the strongest pastors in my life are the ones who regularly engage with therapy, coaching, and/or spiritual direction. A few generations back, we would have been hard-pressed to find clergy working with coaches and therapists. It simply was not a widespread practice. However, I believe that trend is shifting, and for the better. Today, some of the most centered and grounded leaders I know are the ones who have surrounded themselves with support and resources that remind them of their call. We cannot do ministry alone. It takes a village. I hope that both those in the pews and those in the pulpit will continue to seek that care.

Jenny: It seems like I learn again and again and again that ministry cannot be done alone and was never actually meant to be done alone — both in the day to day but also in the wider scope of time, too. It makes the think of words from Frederick Buechner, in his memoir Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation:

“In the last analysis, I have always believed it is not so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves. In some box up in the attic, or up over the garage, I must still have notes on the lectures I heard given by Niebuhr, Tillich, and the rest of them. It would be possible to exhume them and summarize some of what struck me most. But though much of what these teachers said remains with me still and has become so much a part of my own way of thinking and speaking that often I sound like them without realizing it, it is they themselves who left the deeper mark.”

Who was one of those teachers for you?

TJ: “Whatever you do, take every course you can with Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon.” This was the advice my tour guide, then a student themself, gave me when I considered attending Union Presbyterian Seminary. This was sage advice. Her lectures, her stories, her theo-ethical brilliance –  even her words in the margins of our graded assignments – rocked my world and left an indelible mark on my ministry, not to mention my understanding of myself as a child of God.

Sarah: I will never forget my Scripture reading class with Anna Carter Florence. That class taught me the importance of studying, reading, and living with the text. There will always be a million distractions in life — papers, classes, parishioners, church events. You name it, it will pop up. But at the end of the day, if we as clergy walk into the pulpit and have not spent real time with the text, then we are not doing the word of God justice. One zero-credit class in seminary taught me that, and I will be forever grateful.


Sarah Speed serves as the associate pastor for young adults and membership at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. She also serves as a founding member and a team writer for A Sanctified Art. In her free time, she loves reading, writing poetry, and hunting down the best bagel in New York!

TJ Remaley is pastor and head of staff at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho. He serves on the Leadership Council of the Association of Partners in Christian Education and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

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