(I wrote this letter to myself awhile back and just reread it. Have you had similar experiences and is this advice still relevant if you’ve been in ministry for awhile?)
Seminary prepares folks for the extremes of ministry. From the transformational moments where a youth begins to transfigure like Christ because of your exceptional teaching – to the all-out-brawl that consumes a Session meeting, the examples used in seminary to prep us for parish life were laced with outlandish, yet real actions of God’s people. In reality, ministry has been much tamer than what I was prepared to expect.
The rationale behind seminary education’s use of the extremes is to prepare us for all that might come through our sanctuary (or hospital or non-profit) doors. Furthermore, the extreme cases are always the juiciest; embedded within them are opportunities to flesh out situations as you discuss triangulation, presuppositions, and use phrases like, “What I hear you saying is…” In defense of my education, I lapped up these examples as I inched closer to graduation and ordination. I felt like a horse being set within the gates at Churchill Downs, receiving these stories as fuel that revved me up as I prepped for the upcoming sprint once the gates (CPM, Presbytery, Ordination Exams) were opened.
The gates were opened over five years ago. Instead of a sprint I saw a marathon course; instead of thousands of adoring fans, betting for or against me as I ran, I often found myself alone in my office waiting for the extreme case study to unfold in my parish.
When confronted with this misalignment of expectations and reality you do what I did when I was ordained—you make extreme situations out of ordinary ones. It isn’t our fault; we were prepared for the extreme cases. So, the youth who is doubting her faith becomes an opportunity for a spiritual intervention, whereby you will lead her back to her faith through pastoral care visits and sound theological arguments while enjoying ice cream and coffee. Because of the gravity of the situation, you might even bring her parents into the situation because “it takes a village to raise a child.”
Or maybe it is at a session meeting where you hear a small hint of injustice lurking within an elder’s comments. No injustice need go unnoticed, you tell yourself. What commences is an opportunity to utilize your extensive theological training in order to diffuse the comment and enlighten the elder as to how he could be more sensitive. The ordinariness of an off-handed comment in a staff meeting propels you to address the comment and the need to rectify what you perceive as a wrong; you might go further and discuss it with multiple people as you gather resources to help alter the situation. Throughout all of this you remember that your seminary training instilled in you a voice you must use to change the world. Here’s a word to the wise—sometimes it’s best to pump the brakes and remember that we are all human.
I’d love to tell everyone to temper his/her expectations about ministry—but the truth is ministry is more about learning from your experiences than attempting to control them. (I would argue that life is like that too!) So go forth and replicate my mistakes; make a mountain out of a mole hill. Those examples above are real. But know this—you aren’t alone in that endeavor.
I made the ordinary extreme because I craved the rush. I needed to use the skills I’d learned; I needed to use the theology I crafted; I needed to exert my pastoral wisdom for no other reason than because, I am a pastor. But here’s another bit of advice: temper your expectations about the long-term reality of ministry. The extreme cases are rare. Ministry is much tamer, laced with the ordinariness of human life. Even so, that doesn’t make ministry any less boring or demanding. Seminary education focused on the extreme cases because they wanted us to be prepared for anything (not to mention those cases kept our attention!). Once in ministry, I believe God wants us to be prepared for the ordinary; you never know what can happen when people are walking down the road, just ask Paul and the disciples; you know what can happen when you see a bush in the distance, just ask Moses. Temper your expectations for the extreme nature of ministry, but don’t forget all you’ve learned—you never know what God might do within your life.