If you stop by the office August 15-28, you’ll find that I’m not here. Instead, I’ll be investing the time that would normally go into preparing sermons and studies, attending meetings and supervising staff, visiting the sick and connecting with the community in improving my capacity to serve effectively as your Pastor. Presbyteries require that the Terms of Call for any minister include study leave. This helps ensure that pastors are able to stay on top of developments in the fields of preaching, teaching, Biblical studies, and a large range of other areas where professional competency is required, but for which seminary does little to prepare us.
I can see you furrowing your brows. “Isn’t seminary supposed to give a pastor everything they need to serve effectively?” Well, the answer is yes… but no. Despite the fancy title “Master of Divinity,” the degree that’s required for all PC(USA) ministers is really nothing more than a certification that we know the minimum amount necessary to ensure (within a reasonable margin of error) that we don’t teach heresy and that we understand denominational polity (government). That means I’ve studied Hebrew and Greek and can read the Bible in its original languages. I’ve done extensive studies of the Book of Order and Reformed Theology (John Calving, et. al.). I’ve been well schooled in the practical arts of performing baptisms and officiating at the Lord’s Table. I’ve also learned a lot of Bible trivia. (To pass one of my ordination exams, I had to put the Kings of Israel in proper historical order!) But focusing on these fundamental areas of education means that others have to fall by the wayside.
As surprising as it may sound, I have more than a few colleagues who graduated with their M.Div.’s having never actually read the Bible. Seminary taught us the skills necessary for the study and interpret of the text – but putting those skills into practice had to wait until after graduation. The only in-depth studies I did of Scripture during seminary were a course on Mark’s Gospel and one on Ruth. That means that the Scriptural knowledge I currently possess was gained either prior to seminary or is being developed week-by-week as I prepare to preach. (Someone once compared this to trying to write an entire dissertation on a weekly basis. They weren’t far off. It takes some significant time to do this and do it well.)
I took elective courses on pastoral care for individuals with disabilities, for aging congregants, and for those struggling with addiction. But I received no formal training in family or marriage counselling. Though I have some good instincts in those areas, I’m also aware that this is one of my growing edges.
Also conspicuous by its absence was any formal training in church stewardship and finance. I’m fortunate in this regard since my undergrad work was in business. But I have more than a few colleagues who were massively overwhelmed the first time they tried to help a Stewardship Committee assess the needs of the congregation and develop a budget to meet them! No one had ever taught them how to read or interpret a balance sheet.
Perhaps the most striking element lacking from seminary education, however, is leadership training. Older seminarians like myself, often enter the program with some experience in this field – but congregations don’t operate like the military, the government, or businesses. The Presbyterian system doesn’t have a Chain of Command. Instead, it has a “Web of Command” in which volunteers, paid staff, and others work together(ish) in ways that aren’t always efficient and/or effective. When the system stalls or fails, when conflicts arise between individuals or factions, it’s the Pastor’s job to step in and help resolve them. The problem is that seminaries don’t offer “conflict management” – even as an elective.
Since this is another one of my growing edges (and since honing my skills in this area will free up a considerable amount of time which can be better invested in other aspects of congregational life), this is where I’ll be focusing my attention for those two weeks. I’ve enrolled in Cornell University’s certificate program in Conflict Resolution (https://ecornell.cornell.edu/certificates/leadership-and-strategic-management/conflict-resolution/) and will be dividing my time f between coursework and the study of several texts recommended to me by more seasoned ministers. In the end, I’ll return to you better prepared to do my job and do it well.
In the meantime, you will be missed!