Seminary doesn’t teach you everything you need to know about being a minister.
For the past year, I worked as the youth minister for Freedom Fellowship, a church that reaches out to the homeless and poor in Abilene, Texas. At the beginning, the students in the youth group didn’t trust me. I was the new guy on their turf. So two students, who we’ll call David and Alicia, made it their goal to test the boundaries of what was appropriate for a couple to do in class. In other words, they made out – during class.
I learned that confronting the issue head on (“Hey, please don’t make out”) had no effect. Instead, I tried to have conversations with them to distract them from their eternal romantic gaze. Nine times out of ten, it worked.
One time, it didn’t. They made out with fury and dedication. I tried talking to my other students, but they were too distracted by the monstrosity occurring five feet away from them. One kid, who we’ll call Luis, ran out of patience. With a few of his favorite expletives, Luis told them to stop making out. At this, David stopped, stood up, and pulled out a knife.
Five other students (friends of Luis) stood up, ready to respond to this new development with their version of conflict resolution. Without any time to think, I stood up and put my hands in between Luis and David and repeated the only word that came to mind. “RELAX! RELAX! RELAX! RELAX! RELAX!”
I know, strange word choice. But, after ten seconds that felt like forty minutes, David, Luis, and Luis’ five bodyguards slowly sat down.
I remember driving the students home. I thought to myself, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” When I took the job at the church, I had one year left in seminary at Abilene Christian University. I loved my classes and professors, but seminary did not teach me what I needed to know for that night. Which meant that my seminary didn’t teach me everything I needed to know about being a minister.
I’ve come to believe that seminaries should not try to teach us everything we need to know about being a minister.
Why not? First, seminaries never promised to do so. Seminaries promise to teach subjects like theology, ministry, and church history. Second, they don’t have the resources to teach ministers everything. Otherwise, they’re pretending. For example, seminaries don’t train ministers to become marriage therapists. Therapists are required to have hundreds of hours in a clinic doing therapy for their clients. If I take one therapy-related class in my seminary, I am not a licensed therapist. I am a minister who has taken one class about therapy.
This is why young ministers (like me!) should slow down before they blame their professors for “not preparing them enough.” After stumbling into a situation in which you have no idea what you’re doing, the temptation is to blame your teachers. “All my professors taught me was abstract; none of it was practical.” “They never connected the dots from seminary to church work.” “They don’t know what the real world is like.” I have used these stock phrases and they made me feel better about my failures.
But working in a local church taught me the opposite lesson. Seminaries exist to prepare students to become ministers with the imagination it takes to respond to situations they never see coming. Working in a local church made me appreciate my teachers all the more. My professors expected me to connect the dots; they did not connect the dots for me. I’m glad they didn’t. Now I have to imagine how seminary connects to kids who are ready to pull out knives in an argument.
On the next blog post in this series, I’ll share some of the connections I’ve made between seminary and local church work. But for now, I’ll finish the story.
Because that night was my first knife fight in or outside of the church, I had to go to the leaders of the church to ask for help. They talked with David; he didn’t deny bringing the knife. He listened to the elders, who told him Freedom Fellowship resolves fights by communicating, not with weapons. He never brought his knife back to church and we never had another incident like it.
You know, your typical success story in youth ministry.