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?
- 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)
- How to Moderate a Session Meeting (and I'm not just talking about knowing Robert's Rules of Order front to back)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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?)
- 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)
- The nuances of clergy taxes
- Knowing when to "step up" and when to "step back" as a leader.
- 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).