Seminary: Growing Roots, Spreading Wings

For thirty years I was deeply connected to seminary life: a student, a pastor supervisor, a trustee, and a faculty member. In each of those roles, at each of those times in my life, I was given gifts and I was left with longings. As the discussion about what and if a seminary should be and do swirls around this website, I remember a quotation I read once about good parents: “There are two things we can give our children: one is roots,the other is wings.” If we believe that the Church in the faith community is the body of parental elders that prepares the following generations for ministry in the Church, then I look both retrospectively and ahead at each of my stages of seminary involvement to ask how roots and wings were and could be provided for women and men who are discerning and training for a vocation in ministry of Word and Sacrament.

As a student, in both courses, 15 years apart, at different seminaries, I was given deep roots in Scripture, in my tradition and its denomination, and in the focus areas of my discipline. That has grounded me solidly, and has been a well of resources to which I could go, over and over again. In the year in which I was a student, I was not given much energy and imagination to develop wings, those resources with which I could both imagine and pursue avenues of ministry and my own gifts which could be of use to God’s intended rule, outside the already well-trodden roads on ministry within the Church. As a woman starting theological training in an evangelical seminary in the late ’70s, I felt little prodding or room to dream of possibilities beyond the ones where women were already in place in the Church.

As a pastor supervising interns, I began to celebrate the rootedness I saw in those who served alongside me, but began to see that for many of them, already the changing church and the changing world was compromising the depths to which their roots could go. Added courses, added demands from churches, added financial pressures, both diluted the solidity of content that could be absorbed and circumscribed the freedom with which student interns could imagine arenas and ways in which Christ could be served in the world.

When I was a trustee, my roots tapped into the history of the institution that I served, and my wings continues to be clipped severely by the continual stress of the care and nurture of finances, which were always cause for worry and  grief. How I longed that as a trustee, I could really have the resources that could help students, in the moment of the school find bread for the journey and strength for the day!

My last connection was my 12 years as a seminary faculty person: a commuter seminary, classes at night and on weekends, multi-cultural, multi-denominational. My belief is that the students had good roots in what we offered, but as a small school in a particular location, we could not offer a curriculum that fit the wishes and/or needs of every person. Our students’ wings developed because they had to develop their own resources, both alone and together: community, flexibility, faithfulness. The seminary offered classes which aimed to integrate the academic learning with the field experience.

An added piece of formation to my belief about training for ministry came when I participated in a five year reflection group of 18 people, many ethnicities and roles in the Church, in my denomination committed to asking the question: “Who is the pastor for the 21st Century?” What surfaced clearly out of those conversations was the conviction that in this present time, even in one denomination, there is not a one size fits all way or place or even curriculum for training people for the ordained ministries of Christ in the world. As a world we are diverse theologically, economically, racially and ethnically. As a Church we are one at the communion table, but not too often in the quotidian paths of living in our lives.

My belief has become that the primary equipping for ministry  is the development of rootedness in the Holy and wings that can catch the updraft of the Spirit. Each institution, proto-institution, or community that understands itself to be called to participate in that development for God’s sake in the Church is responsible to discern what it is that it does best and offer that to the world wide Church of Christ. There is space enough in God’s reign for a variety of offerings, a variety of venues, a variety of styles in theological education.

Until today I have not ever made a post at the request of someone else, in this case the website. I offer it from my location with humility, with humor, and with trust that it adds something to the conversation.

To God be the Glory!

About Elizabeth Nordquist

Elizabeth Nordquist is a Presbyterian pastor, teacher, and spiritual director who pens beautiful reflections on women's issues, spirituality and Scripture. Each day she looks for ways in which the Spirit is moving in and around her.

  • http://www.choosejoy.us Susan

    Good comments, Elizabeth. I caught some of the conversation on Patheos yesterday. I think you are absolutely right. It is true that we need instruction in scripture, and a sense of heritage, but it is most important that we teach leaders how to be aware of the Spirit’s winds.
    One can be well-versed in theology, history, hermeneutics, even pastoral care, but if there is not an openness to and a familiarity with living in the Spirit, the Kingdom of God will not come.

  • Erin

    Elizabeth:

    One of the most powerful gifts you gave to me (and I imagine other students) in seminary, was that we needed to attend to the development of our own spiritual disciplines every day or we could easily become “uprooted” from our grounding when the stresses and demands of ministry pressed upon us. You taught us to be mindful of life balance, hard work, yes, but rest as well–good, meaningful rest that would renew us to be able to give back to the communities in which we serve. For me, one of the most important aspects of my seminary training was the practical portion, that while we worked hard at understanding and taking in all the theological learning, that unless we had the practical tools to communicate that learning, via preaching, worship leadership, or pastoral care, then it didn’t mean much.
    My internships, CPE and practical learning in a parish setting were just as important as the “book learning” and discussions in class. Which is why I loved my seminary training and appreciated all my professors in So. CA because they were “rooted” but also good at giving flying lessons.
    Thanks for weighing in!
    Erin Thomas
    Class of 2005

  • Richard C Grauman

    Your post reminded me of a song by Mark Harris called “Find Your Wings.” You can hear it on You Tube. It is beautiful and I think you will appreciate it.

    There are many people who fill our hearts with dreams and encourage us to fly in life using our wings – be it parents, grandparents, teachers, advisors, pastors, friends, etc.

    Then there are those who ground us and give us roots – our history, our identity, our personhood, our morals, values, etc.

    Both are important. In this world where so many loud voices are yelling to be heard, it is wonderful that if we just sit back and listen a voice of reason comes out of the silence. Good stuff my friend.