I wrote this four years ago in response to some frustrations I saw in our churches and education for pastors. Some of my views have changed,..but not really. I still spend most of my days saying to myself - "What the hell are you doing? Do you know what you are doing?" Luther has made some changes to their education since I wrote this, but I still worry that our focus may be off. Telling the truth to those who come to seminary may be important. Speaking of this as a calling of preachers to be sent as missionaries all over the world perhaps. Things we may not like to hear because we are comfortable first world people.
(Written on Thursday, October 30, 2014)
When one goes off to study for a particular career, the desire is to be prepared to actually perform those duties when one is finished. There should be some core competencies that one should be able to fulfill while studying in order to be ready for the real thing.
After three years of seminary (divided by almost a decade) and three months of being an intern pastor, I am mostly worried. Worried that what I have learned is great information but has not created a transformation in my being to this "pastor" person that is supposed to be a leader in the church, in the community, and in the world. I am worried that other future pastors have the same field plowed for them - hard, chalky, lumps of clay and stone - which might make the road forward both unknown and downright frightening.
Does this mean that becoming a pastor is some overnight creation? Of course not. Is it going to be easy? Hell no! Does this mean that once I am ordained and called, and "pastoring" that I am going to "know it all"? Absolutely not. But my concerns lie in the areas of what we are learning. Is it to be a pastor or a student? Is it graduate school or vo-tech college? Is it a trade and art to be apprenticed and practiced or just some information taught in a classroom, hopefully nurtured in a year of internship, and then...what? Have a good life? See you on the other side? Go forth and prosper? Hope you don't fail?
I spent the morning at the Joint-Ministerium of the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Area Synods here in the Twin Cities. The worship was enjoyable, the sermon was Gospel, and the table was presided-over. But then we went to a discussion forum with the new president of Luther Seminary to discuss the future of theological education. Asking the questions: What do we see ahead as things we must do to get people to come seminary and serve the church? How can we get them to apply? What should we do to make the experience better? What should Luther Seminary be doing? All of these are important questions, but none of them ask or answer the most important of all: What the hell are we doing? What is the end-game? Is it to make pastors or students? Is it to grow the church by proclamation of a God who came down to earth for the sole-purpose of rescue and forgiveness, or not?
I never get answers to these questions, today or otherwise. It is as though our minds are completely formed by the preservation of a particular institution (churches, seminaries, synods, church-wide offices) instead of looking to see how we better build a pastor. How we might prepare young people to actually serve the church and the Gospel in order to transform lives, to console burdened consciences, to be the friend to the friendless and hope to the hopeless. I heard nothing of this. I still don't.
Gifts are gifts and skills are skills. These are things one is born with or have grown over time, but if we are to be concerned for the work of the church, how are we serving our young people with how we make our pastors. I can think of at least three classes in seminary which I have taken which were interesting (some more than others) but were not helpful for what it is I am to be doing each week. Preaching class can be fun, but to be a better preacher you cannot just preach four times and then think you are prepared scholastically. We should be placed in positions at seminaries and in churches where preaching is a regular thing. Where every week we live with the people and serve them, then try and make sense of this God and this word we are supposed to proclaim. Then maybe we might feel prepared for the real thing. Yet many of us will graduate with little exposure to such an experience, then are sent off to a small town church, by ourselves, and think drowning is too neat of a term to describe our experience.
Pastoral care is not a scholastic endeavor. One cannot, and will not, be able to learn this in a classroom. You have to actually live it. I learned more about caring for people this way through my time in Clinical Pastoral Education than I ever could in a classroom. I have learned more through visits to parishioners these last three months than I ever did in the three months that I sat in a classroom trying to learn this thing call ministry. Why not, instead, bring in a pastor each week and let them tell stories of what they have dealt with? Or make us do regular visitations while in seminary to try and practice any of our learning on a regular basis. Or how else can we learn and mature?
Worship was a great experience of learning the history of the liturgy, singing songs together, reading prayers, and practicing the sacraments. But how can any of us truly feel prepared to get up every single day of worship and lead a congregation in an experience of something divine, whatever that means, with so little preparation? Even when I complete internship I see a difficulty with how to learn and practice the dance of leading liturgy. Leading prayers. Giving away the gifts of God. Even leading in song and doing it all well. I know that there are opportunities to lead during chapel at seminary, but quite often it is the same people. I know that there should be opportunities for future pastors to lead in their current congregations, but to what extent? How far is it able to go as an apprentice-type moment without becoming just a "cute-fest." "Ahhh. Look at her. She can pray." Or, "Wasn't that precious. He led us in the liturgy today. I am so glad the whole family was here to see it."
This is a lot of venting. I know. But there is a point to it all. A few points actually, and in no particular order of precedence:
1. One hour - Regardless of how you view things, pastor/seminarian/professor/bishop, the overwhelming majority of our congregations will only experience the pastor for one hour during their week. They don't involve themselves in ministry opportunities. They don't go to morning bible studies. They don't even tell the church they are in the hospital. That one hour is important. How are we training our future people to know this, enjoy this, and find it valuable?
2. Worship means something - When people attend for that one hour, it means something to them. We may slave away for twenty hours during the week in preparation for sermons, readings, prayers, and hymns, but our people come in cold and expect something. How are we leading? Do we take it seriously? Do we practice beforehand?
3. Words mean something - People don't like preaching, we say. Bull shit! Who cares. News is proclaimed. Good news makes a difference. If we are doctors, and a patient has had a bad diagnosis, but then somehow is cured, we don't go and clean their house. We tell them that they are cured! What the hell does Jesus have to do with anything if we don't actually talk about a God who came as the Word to proclaim release to captives and good news to the poor? Don't forget that. If you are indifferent about this Jesus guy, then I know plenty of good jobs that might be available with non-profits and social agencies. Please don't waste your peoples' time.
4. Religious consumerism - What do we have to offer them? This sounds consumeristic. So be it. Many of us are exactly that. Not in the capitalist sense, but that we have nothing to offer. Nothing to bring, except a desire to hear a word, to sing a melody, to weep in prayer, or physically consume the God-man in bread and wine. This should not be surprising to us.
5. Smarts matter - Not that we are all geniuses. I am certainly not. But most parishioners want answers that we don't have. Eventually we may. We don't want to give them an answer to questions when they are stuck in suffering or grief. That fixes nothing. But please...PLEASE...try not to say "I don't know" when you are teaching. Or make fun of what it is that you are teaching, thinking that everyone is as aloof as you are. Congregants expect some answer. We are supposed to be professionals to some extent.
6. People die - I know this is a shock, right? People die, and they expect you to do something about it. Consoling the grieved. Commending the body to the earth. Preaching some sort of Gospel within all the crap that is our mortality. People commit suicide. They get murdered. Babies die of SIDS, or are stillborn. What will we do for them? Where do we show them God in that?
These are six things that have bugged me. Add your own if you like. Hate me if you want. ELCA, please ordain me if you see fit. But, seriously, what are we doing? Are we making pastors or not? Are we serving people or not? Can we make some shepherds willing to lead the sheep, feed them, clean them up, give them baths, and bury their dead in ways that make being a sheep still worth it? If not, the institutions we think necessary need to go, and what we have left might be pastors and churches who at least see their calling as one defined by vocation rather than survival.