Things Seminary Didn't Teach Me

Things Seminary Didn't Teach Me

Reflections after my first year in ministry

I am called to be a pastor to the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY.  They are a small congregation of around 100 members in a small town setting in New England.  In my first 16 months of ordained ministry, I have learned that the list of things I'm expected to know from the get-go that seminary didn't teach me is growing, and growing, and growing.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am a HUGE fan of my alma mater, Columbia Theological Seminary; it is a great seminary and I am a better pastor because of my training there.  Nevertheless, many of our seminaries are great at teaching us bible things but struggle to teach some of the more practical aspects of ministry (which is NOT to say that the Bible can't be practical!).  

One of the reasons for this, I am convinced, is that fewer and fewer of our first-call pastors are entering ministry as associate pastors.  A generation ago, the paradigm was quite different; there were many, many more churches that were large enough to justify (and afford!) an associate pastor.  Take my father-in-law, for instance.  After graduating seminary in the late 1980's, he began his ministry as an associate for youth.  As he began his ministry, he had a head pastor that served as a mentor and helped teach him all the things seminary didn't.

Today, that is happened less and less.  Instead of beginning ministry with the professional safety net of serving as an associate, more and more first-call pastors like me are going straight from seminary to being a solo pastor with no one "above" us to handle difficult issues (disclaimer:  which is NOT to say that associate pastors don't handle difficult issues!  Here I'm referring specifically to first-call pastors).

In my first 16 months of ordained ministry, I have found myself many times wishing that I had spent less time on bible things like Hebrew and Greek and a little more time on something like working with a Budget & Finance Committee on balancing a budget for a small congregation.  Or how about moderating a session meeting or a staff meeting?  In those moments, I remembered and resented the hours upon hours that I spent pouring over vocabulary cards for a language that I would LOVE if I had actually the time to use in the precious few hours a week I get to prepare for my sermons.  

Therefore, I am thinking about doing a larger blog post series on the "Things Seminary Didn't Teach Me."  Below are a few things I'm thinking about writing on.  What things would you add to this list from your experience during your first call?

  1. Budget & Finance (especially in small congregations, also learning the lingo of endowments, bank accounts, and the importance of having sound financial policies to protect everyone)
  2. How to Moderate a Session Meeting (and I'm not just talking about knowing Robert's Rules of Order front to back)
  3. Building & Grounds (many congregations are in aging buildings and, in addition to serving as a preacher and a pastor, you are expected to know how thermostats and boilers work, for example.)
  4. How to communicate financial information to the congregation (do we tell the congregation that we are in the hole?  How do we do that without inducing a panic?  How do we conduct a stewardship campaign?  How involved should the pastor be in that process? etc.)
  5. The nuances of living in a Manse (who is responsible for changing the lightbulbs?  How long is too long to wait for a repair?  What happens if you go over budget on your electricity bill and the church is upset?  What is tax deductible?)
  6. Knowing when to use other people's liturgy and when to write your own (ironic shameless plug warning:  click here to see my liturgies for the season of Advent - Year C)
  7. The nuances of clergy taxes
  8. Knowing when to "step up" and when to "step back" as a leader.
  9. Fully appreciating the burden (and blessing) of preaching week in and week out (what it really means to preach 45 times a year as opposed to the lovely two or three times a semester that we're used to in seminary).

What would you add to this list?

What were things seminary didn't teach you?

Click here for liturgies by Stephen M. Fearing for the Season of Advent
Click here for original hymns by Stephen M. Fearing.
Click here to read Stephen M. Fearing's 2015 Daily Advent Devotional


Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.