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What to Expect in Seminary
Theological Education as Spiritual Formation
By Virginia Samuel Cetuk
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1998 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Tasks of Ministry
Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 1 Corinthians 9:16
When I was seven years old the bishop sent our church a new pastor. Almost immediately I transferred my intense loyalty from the outgoing pastor to the new pastor. It was not that I did not love the former pastor anymore; it was simply that Rev. Adams was so loving and friendly that this seven-year-old quickly found a new and good friend. He was tall and thin, had already lost most of his gray hair, and wore glasses that only served to magnify the perpetual twinkle in his eye. While moving through his busy schedule each week, and in the midst of a large and growing congregation, he always seemed to find time for the children around him. When I was with him I felt as if I were the most important person in the world, and under his leadership my own faith life was nurtured and deepened.
One Sunday when I was eleven years old I attended church with my family as was our custom. I can still recall watching Rev. Adams move about the front of the church that day during the worship service. At one point he walked across the altar area from his chair to the communion table. While he was walking I said to myself, "If I could be just like Rev. Adams, I would be a minister." Although I immediately chided myself for having such an impossible dream, a new idea had taken root in my soul—I could be a minister!
Two years later I was reading a book by James Bishop called The Day Christ Died and suddenly felt a Presence in the room with me. In a twinkling I felt the Presence wash over me in an indescribably beautiful way. In those moments, so different from the moments just before and just after, I knew with a deep, deep certainty that I was loved and that God wanted me to be an ordained minister.
When I shared the news of my call to ministry with my parents, they were supportive and enthusiastic. When I told Rev. Adams about my call and intention to pursue ordination, he was delighted! Rev. Adams and my father arranged for the bishop to meet me (not the other way around!) so that he could know one of his budding clergy. That the bishop counseled me to marry a minister instead of becoming one myself did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm and support of my pastor and my parents. (It did, however, dampen the enthusiasm and support my parents and pastor had for the bishop!)
As I look back across the years to that time in my life, I realize that Rev. Adams not only was a tremendous support to me as I matured in the faith, he remains to this day the first and the most influential model I had for ministry.
No doubt you also have models for ministry who have shaped your desire to enter seminary and pursue a life of service to others in the name of Jesus Christ. Our models come from the ranks of both clergy and laity to be sure. Some of our most precious and powerful memories of church are those we have of our Sunday school teachers, who helped us memorize Bible verses, gave us juice and cookies, and talked to us about what was important in our lives.
Who were the people who became your models for ministry? Perhaps it was your pastor who, like Rev. Adams, radiated a joy that seemed unending and showed how much fun it could be to serve others. Perhaps it was your grandmother who taught you to surround each day with prayer and had an intimacy with God that was both beautiful and contagious. Perhaps it was a layperson in your church, or a neighbor in your community who was always looking for the next person to help and the next social ill to ameliorate.
We know that our initial sources for learning about God are our parents. Through them we learn early on about trust and love and consistency; through them we learn powerful and lasting lessons about how friendly the world is and how easy (or hard) it is to survive. Through our parents we learn about creation and its Creator, as well as about ourselves and our value in the grand scheme of things.
If we are fortunate enough to have parents who take us to church when we are young, we may begin to know God in a special way through our pastor. I recently codirected an elementary church camp with my sister. One day during lunch I was told by a camper who had just finished third grade that for the longest time ("when I was little") he thought that his pastor was God. When he went to church and saw that the pastor was there he would say to his parents "God is in today." This camper was voicing a profound truth, for in a very real way, the pastor of the church is Christ's ordained representative on earth. And although it is equally true to say that all Christians are Christ's representatives in the world, there is a distinction to be made between laity and clergy.
By virtue of the education, training, supervision, and evaluation that precede ordination, clergy become the church's representative ministers in a special way. In a later chapter I will discuss the difference between being called to general ministry and to representative ministry. Suffice it to say here that from the birth of the church, those who are set apart for representative ministry have been viewed as people with especially close ties to God through Christ. Needless to say, that closeness does not make them better or more valuable human beings. It does, however, serve to potentially draw their congregants closer to God.
Think back over the years to pastors you have known. What did they teach you about the joys of spending a lifetime in service to others in the name of Jesus Christ? Were they outgoing and friendly or quiet and reserved? Were they good preachers who seemed to radiate the love of God with every word or did they convey more uncertainty and doubt than faith? What kind of a public stance did they take against injustice, and how did they inspire others to do the same? How important did you feel when you were with them? Were they happy and content, or were they restless and burdened by sorrows? What did they teach you about the day-to-day work of the ordained pastor and what it is like to be in ordained ministry? Is there anything in them that you want to emulate in your own life?
When a student told his dad that he was thinking seriously about becoming a pastor himself, his dad told him that if he could do anything else he should do it. The father did not mean to discourage the student or talk him out of his pursuit. Rather he was telling him that ministry is hard work across the years, full of joy but also full of sorrow. It is a tremendous responsibility to be concerned with the care of souls, and the daily work of leading others to "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with... God" (Micah 6:8) can be a heavy and lonely burden to bear.
Such work requires intense and thorough preparation. It requires intimate knowledge of God and oneself, along with openness to others and willingness to be proved wrong and to change. It requires a flexibility and humility of spirit, an intellectual curiosity about the world, and a healthy sense of humor all at the same time. And it requires a love of God and God's creation that is as wide as the sky and as deep as the ocean.
A very wise rabbi told me shortly before I was due to give birth to our first child that when the baby was born and forever after I would know the highest highs and the lowest lows it is possible to know. Such was the landscape of parenthood. In the thirteen years since my friend made that prediction I have found the truth of his words over and over again. I have found similar highs and lows in ministry as well.
It is a great privilege to serve others in Christ's name and to have such ready access to people. Clergy are called upon at times of great celebration and great sadness, of great joy and great sorrow, of decision making and reconciliation. They are present by invitation and expectation at all of the great crossroads of life. They are looked to for leadership in facing society's ills head-on with courage and grace and for inspiration for others to do the same. No other professional is as welcomed and expected to drop by unannounced for a visit at home or in the hospital. No other professional is expected to be willing to face and wrestle with life's biggest questions and challenges with courage and wisdom and to walk fearlessly with others to the edges of this life while helping them to make their peace with God.
THE TASKS OF MINISTRY
Clergy are concerned about the health and well-being of their congregation as a living, breathing, effective witness for Jesus Christ in the world. The multiple roles of the ordained pastoral leader require a vision that is clear and realistic yet flexible.
Ordained leaders are called to be pastors, priests, prophets, and administrators. Often these roles complement each other; sometimes they are in conflict. They are present in the expectations of the church and the parishioners; they are always called for in response to a broken and needy world.
In the classic text Preface to Pastoral Theology, Seward Hiltner looks at three different aspects of the pastoral office: healing, sustaining, and guiding. Hiltner writes:
"Healing" in this connection means binding up wounds in the precise sense of the good-Samaritan story. "Sustaining" means "comforting" in the original sense of "with courage," upholding or standing with one who suffers even if the situation cannot be altered except perhaps by change in the person's attitude. "Guiding" within the perspective of shepherding means helping to find the paths when that help has been sought.
Communicating the gospel both to those within the faith and those not in the faith community is a vitally important part of the pastoral office.
As interrelated aspects of the function of communicating the gospel, therefore, we can accept: (1) learning, understanding, or instructing; (2) realizing, deepening, or edifying; and (3) celebrating, reminding, or commemorating.
Organizing the fellowship of the church includes:
(1) nourishing, feeding, or aiding its development; (2) protecting or purifying from threats within or without it; (3) relating it, positively or negatively, to other bodies such as institutions, cultures, or states. All of these aim at the organic wholeness, integrity, and welfare of the fellowship; but each is dominantly relevant in a different kind of situation.
In these perspectives Hiltner shows the range of skills and sensibilities necessary in one who is ordained. To focus on one aspect of ministry, such as preaching, to the neglect of other aspects means that the church will be weakened. A pastor who puts the majority of time into preparation for preaching and who fails to visit members will risk preaching irrelevant sermons because he will be out of touch with people's concerns, joys, and sorrows. Such a pastor will become a threat to the organization as people feel increasingly neglected.
Likewise, the pastor who concentrates on pastoral care and counseling to the neglect of her own personal study and devotional time and disregards the administrative structure of the church may be beloved by the congregants but will run the risk of not offering informed leadership that results in the moving along of the vision of the church. Without careful and ongoing attention to the infrastructure of the church, it will become vulnerable.
Another way to view the pastoral office is to look at the different aspects of work the pastor does routinely. This work can be divided into the following four areas:
1. Communication and Education
2. Caring and Reconciliation
3. Administration and Organization
4. Theology and Ethics
The Communication and Education aspects of ministry include the many ways that pastors teach the body of material that forms the corpus of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Their teaching and preaching of scripture, doctrine, and theology of the church is accomplished in many ways, some more obvious than others. On Sunday morning, for example, it is clear when the pastor is leading worship and teaching a class that the communicative and educative aspects of ministry are in the ascendancy. It is also the case, however, that when the pastor begins each meeting with a prayer, or gives leadership to the building of an affordable housing complex in town, that he or she is likewise teaching a lifestyle that is consistent with the gospel and being prophetic about the Christian's responsibility to others who may be less materially fortunate. Teaching, preaching, and prophecy, then, are included in the communication and education aspects of ordained ministry.
When the pastor is visiting in homes or hospitals, counseling troubled families or individuals, or helping couples think about marriage within the Christian context, the caring and reconciliation aspects of ministry are predominant. These situations are, of course, obvious ones in relationship to this aspect of ministry. Making sure that meetings have agendas and therefore are not meandering exercises of endurance is also an expression of care.
In my many years at Drew I have heard very few students say that they looked forward to the administration that is so much a part of the pastoral office. In response I have tried to help students see that behind every piece of paper there is a person.
When I was seriously ill some years ago a woman in my church wrote to tell me that members of the church wanted to help my family in any way they could. They offered to cook meals, do laundry, help with child care, and clean the house. The writer of the note asked me to please let them help us in these ways and to allow her to "organize the love." I have never heard a better definition for administration than the one Mrs. Lorraine Giffin gave me in that note. The administrative and organizational aspects of ministry do just that. They are the myriad ways in which the pastor sets about to "organize the love" of the gospel evidenced in that particular congregation. Preparing reports and bulletins are obvious examples of these aspects. Taking time to see that the right people are in key leadership roles and that segments of the congregation do not feel neglected and disenfranchised are also related to these aspects, which protect the body "from threats within and without" by helping the organization to remain healthy and whole.
Finally, the theological and ethical aspects of the pastor's work are evident throughout all of the above. We are called to be theologians and ethicists everywhere we go. The truth of this is easily seen when we are called upon to help a family think about the withdrawal of life support from a loved one who is terminally ill or when we help a young unmarried woman wrestle with whether or not she will have an abortion. We are also theologians and ethicists, however, when we make up our visitation list, work to put together the annual budget, and follow through on the details of the newsletter. In everything we do our theology can be seen. Everything we do shows our deepest ethical decisions about how we will treat people and what our values and priorities are in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The question is not, Will I be a theologian and ethicist when I am a pastor? The question is instead, What kind of theology and ethics will my ministry reflect?
THE LIFE OF SERVICE: HIGHS AND LOWS
Having read the above paragraphs about the nature and work of the ordained pastoral leader, stop and ask yourself what your reaction is. Do you find yourself eager to engage in this kind of work? Can you imagine yourself preaching Sunday after Sunday with a word from the Lord for your people? Do you want to spend your days and your nights thinking about ways to help your people fall more deeply in love with God and become more faithful to God's claim upon their lives? Are you ready to face the conflicts that will inevitably arise within the church over things that may not seem important to you but may threaten to split the congregation? How do you feel about working with budgetary processes, and how easily are you able to see that budgets are ethical exercises as well as fiscal ones? Do you long to visit your people, counsel them, and offer them God's grace liturgically and every way you can?
As my student's father asked him, I ask you: Is there anything else you could do with your life? Ministry is a rewarding and demanding vocation. It requires considerable physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energy. To be an effective pastor one must stay fit on every level, remain curious and intellectually alive, be willing to do the ongoing work of self-reflection in order to offer authentic and helpful leadership, and maintain a spiritually disciplined life.
Excerpted from What to Expect in Seminary by Virginia Samuel Cetuk. Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Tasks of Ministry,
2. Wrestling with Holy Things: Reframing Theological Education,
3. The Call to Ministry,
4. Life Together: Variety and Community,
5. The Classroom,
6. The Practice of Ministry,
7. Money and Time Management,
8. The Seminary Experience: An Overview,