For most seminarians Masters work does not cover ground to which they’ve been introduced as undergraduates. Few have majored in religion and, in any event, a religious studies major, which focuses on comparative methods, is nothing like the world of theology. Theology is different in both its approach and subject matter.
There are a number of new disciplines to which seminarians are introduced that receive no mention at all in a religious studies major: pastoral counseling, church history, and homiletics, to name a few.
Most seminarians are asked to think in synthetic ways that differ radically from the highly compartmentalized character of their undergraduate majors.
Seminarians write and write and write. Sadly, neither high schools, nor most college programs teaching writing any longer. But the vocational worlds into which most seminarians will move is a word-intensive environment, where the ability to express oneself clearly is not just an advantage, it is mandatory and inescapable.
And, for many seminarians, this will be the first time that they have juggled the demands of academic life, the needs of a family, and (in the case of student pastors) the challenges of caring for a parish.
All of those challenges and others fuel the insistence that a seminary education should be easier. But it won’t be and it shouldn’t be. In fact, arguably it should be harder. There are at least four reasons:
One: Seminary is the one and only opportunity that students will have to acquire a deep grounding in subjects that are essential to articulating the Christian faith, but which demand little space once a seminarian graduates. The exigencies of parish life – financial challenges, failing buildings, crisis care, program development and a host of other tasks – fill the average pastor’s day, leaving little room for the in-depth study of the church’s theology and history that grounds their ministries and their preaching.
Two: If seminarians believe that the challenge of “getting things done” and the task of praying and achieving spiritual, personal and professional balance are all more difficult because of seminary, they are mistaken. Work expands to fill the time available. Like the aging adult who can’t believe that they had the time or energy available for parenting – or the retiree who can’t imagine where he or she found time for a job – balancing life’s demands is a task and an art that never evaporates.
Three: The challenges of parish ministry are growing in complexity, they are not diminishing. When I graduated from seminary, most of us believed that we were moving into an ecclesiastical world that was relatively fixed and stable. People went to church as a matter of course. That is no longer the case.
Both on an interpersonal and institutional level, life in the twentieth century is increasingly fluid. Fewer people have a sense of connection to the church. The challenges that people face spiritually, emotionally, and physically are greater than ever before. Clergy are also moving into local congregations whose very survival — more often than not — is in serious question. Those challenges cannot be addressed by clergy alone, but they cannot be addressed without clergy who can provide effective leadership. Clergy will not only need to preach, teach, and provide pastoral and spiritual care for their congregations. They will need to assess the spiritual and physical needs of their communities. They will need to be analytical and visionary in their approach to connecting their congregations with the needs of those communities. They will also need to cultivate lay leaders, galvanize their congregations, and inspire engagement with the body of Christ and all in ways that the pastors of the twentieth century never dreamed would be necessary.
Four: Then there is this perennial truth. Clergy are responsible for the well being of their congregations’ eternal souls – not in the sense that they can “save” anyone, not in the sense that they should live their lives in dread, but in the wonderful sense of having been called into a ministry that offers the promise and possibility of deep connection with the living God.
When my wife was installed as rector of the parish that she currently serves, this was the prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer) that she prayed on that day and on every anniversary of her installation:
O Lord my God, I am not worthy to have you come under
my roof; yet you have called your servant to stand in your
house, and to serve at your altar. To you and to your service
I devote myself, body, soul, and spirit. Fill my memory with
the record of your mighty works; enlighten my understanding
with the light of your Holy Spirit; and may all the desires of
my heart and will center in what you would have me do.
Make me an instrument of your salvation for the people entrusted
to my care, and grant that I may faithfully administer your
holy Sacraments, and by my life and teaching set forth your
true and living Word. Be always with me in carrying out the
duties of my ministry. In prayer, quicken my devotion; in
praises, heighten my love and gratitude; in preaching, give me
readiness of thought and expression; and grant that, by the
clearness and brightness of your holy Word, all the world may
be drawn into your blessed kingdom. All this I ask for the
sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is no way of making that ministry easier. In its sheer wonder and complexity, it requires not just care in its execution, but in preparation for it. And, if after seminary, the challenges of staying creative, engaged and balanced seems to be easier, in all likelihood you aren’t paying attention to something: the needs of your congregation, of your family, or your own soul.