My friend Matt has been blogging this month about the things he’s learned since seminary. Matt is super conscientious and full of grace, nodding in his titles to our need to be lifelong learners, curious and comfortable with faith and vocation as ever-unfolding journeys toward wholeness.
I’m way less graceful. I’m titling this set of posts “What I Wish I’d Learned in Seminary,” because I always want to already know everything there is to know, right this minute. Full disclosure: I didn’t exactly expect to be in congregational ministry when I started seminary almost 10 (WHAT?!) years ago, and I was somewhat, eh, condescending about being forced to take practical courses in pastoral care and religious education. Some of the lack had to do with seminary curriculum; most of it probably has to do with my arrogance.
Somewhere in these last intervening years, my vocation got bent. I looked up, just now, and found myself 1.75 years into congregational, pastoral ministry. And – surprise, surprise - I kind of love it. I get to work with hilarious, rascally middle schoolers who constantly amaze me. I count exegesis and writing as on-the-job hours. I get to be intimately involved in both the life of the scriptures and the lives of people I have learned to love deeply. No day is like any other.
But being a pastor is just…hard, y’all. It is not coal mining or trauma nursing or even middle school math teaching, all of which seem to me to be grueling vocations to which I regularly thank Jesus for not calling me.
Being a pastor is hard because, well, nobody seems to know how to do it. I mean, you can go to seminary and seek out the wisdom of your elders and read superb memoirs and consult job descriptions and google how longfamous pastors spend on their sermons (35 hours. Thirty-FIVE. No disrespect, brothers, but how in the world do you have anything to preach if you’re spending all week with the books instead of with the people?). You can be as conscientious and as well-educated as you’d like. But the fact is that the pastoral vocation is in such a state of flux, caught up in shifting cultural winds and ecclesial battles, that nobody really knows how it ought to be done.
In her (phenomenal) memoir, Pastrix, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of a seminary student who has come to shadow her in her work as a minister for several days. After hours of trailing her through visits and conversations, the guy finally blurts out, surprised, “Oh my gosh, you’re basically a person for a living.” That is exactly what this feels like, at least, what it feels like it ought to feel like, and it is exactly why it’s so bedeviling to attempt as a job. Bolz-Weber picks up the comment, and agrees. “I get to be a person for a living. A person who every morning thinks about her quirky little church and prays, Oh God, it’s so beautiful. Help me not fuck it up.”
That’s what I’m thinking most every morning, too. This is such a beautiful thing. Help me not fuck it up. Which is really the impetus behind these posts: church is like this riveting exhibition where people bring all their goodness and all their nastiness and pitch it all – willy nilly, tohu a vohu – up against one another. And this willy nilly church and these beloved people have entrusted me with caring for a few chunks of that ridiculous, beautiful thing. The problem is that, just like the art of being a person, no one really knows how to do that. And I want to know everything, always, right now. So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to follow Matt’s lead and write about some things I wish I knew. I don’t honestly think that all these things can be taught or learned in a seminary classroom. But man: wouldn’t it be great if they could be?
What I wish I’d learned in seminary. For what it’s worth.