Tuesday, September 06, 2011

What I Would Say at a Seminary Commencement

I fondly remember sitting where you are right now. After years of study and planning and dreaming, I sat in a church pew having just received my degree, the apex of my educational life, and I clearly remember opening the cover and just staring at it. This anticipated moment finally made real, I actually had to convince myself that it was so. I had spent so many years first in undergrad and then in this Masters program wrestling with eternal truths, using the best Biblical and theological scholarship available to me. Aside from that, I had spent three years immersed in a culture of liturgical experimentation and of justice preached to us by prophets ancient and modern. They were years of envisioning what the church could be as we explored the full gamut of worship experience and visualized what God's kingdom made proper and full would look like.

I imagine that this is what your seminary journey has been as well. You have spent this time steeping yourselves in such wonderful energizing work in classroom, chapel, and contextual placements, and now you will follow your calling to next steps of ministry, whatever that may look like. And I, along with your professors and peers prayerfully send you into these next steps with joy.

But I have to warn you about something, and it may not be easy for you to hear. In fact, I consider it strange and burdensome that I have to tell you this, but tell it I must.

Not all of you are going to make it.

I know. I didn't want to say that. Most think that this isn't the right time to speak of dark and depressing things, but I can think of no better time for you to hear this than right now. So you might as well hear it from me.

Basically, it's been my observation that you with whom we celebrate today--particularly you who are planning on entering the local church--eventually will fall into at least three different categories. You won't know which one fits you best until it happens, and it probably won't be for at least a few years. Allow me a few minutes to describe each one. They start out the same, but eventually diverge in the vocational wood.

First, there will be those of you who can conceive of nothing different than the past few years of pursuing justice and creativity in all things. The church at its best embodies what you've experienced here, and thus it must always be so. As a result, your first few years in a local church may be as far as you get. You'll want to claw out your eyeballs the first time you have to mediate an argument about how often to polish the pews. You'll quickly tire of the same hymns sung week after week and year after year. You may not know what to do with yourself the first time you realize that not everybody wants to follow you headfirst into a half dozen Really Important Causes. You'll wonder why council meetings are dominated by conversations about where to hang a painting rather than how best to serve the poor.

You'll experience all this, and you may end up wondering whether your call to ministry was ever a real thing. After all, this wasn't what you thought you were signing up for, was it? Surely you were going to come in and sing cutting-edge music and fight the good fight for all who are oppressed until a big river of righteousness began flowing down your center aisle, right? But instead, the church and its mixture of people are anxious about other things, some or most of which will seem inconsequential to you.

The good news for you who are in this first category is that yes, you probably won't spend more than a couple years in an established church, but you may seek out the necessary avenues through your denomination to start something brand new. You can't see yourself slogging through the caked-up muddy mix of issues that a church decades or centuries old is dealing with, but you could see yourself creating something out of nothing, something fresh and different and that fits your vision of what the church should be about. There's nothing wrong with that. If that's how you can best fulfill your calling, then God be with you.

The second group experiences everything the first group experiences, but decides to stick around. Unfortunately for both your congregation and yourself, you've decided that you're destined to be miserable because you can't be bothered to figure out something else to do with your life. You've just spent thousands of dollars on an education, so this is what you have to put up with as some sort of penance. So you'll spend week after week, month after month, year after year, rolling your eyes every time the phone rings, sniping at your parishioners every time they offer a suggestion or critique or whenever they focus on some "unimportant" thing, and generally hating everything that you do every day. You'll keep telling yourself that your talents are being wasted with these people and that some ideal church exists out there just for you, and every few years you'll probably circulate your profile and start fresh somewhere else that seems like it would be more liberating. Basically, you'll have a career of short and unhappy pastorates that will cause increments of emotional and spiritual death for you and every church you serve, and you'll never admit that you'd be better off working out your calling with fear and trembling at St. Arbucks than in a real church context. Seriously, if you end up falling into this group, get out and work at a coffeehouse or a mattress store for a few years to chill out and regroup, then maybe someday you can try again.

And you who will fall into the third group? You'll probably start off with many of the same realizations about the church as the first two. To be honest, every seminary graduate does. The difference is that you'll decide to stick around, all the while praying for patience, but also determined not to spend part of every day praying for a speedy road to retirement. Instead, you'll accept that arguments about paintings and pews happen, but you'll also decide that you aren't going to let people only be concerned with those things. Sure, you'll trudge through moments that seem ridiculous to you, but you'll also be listening to the issues underneath, trying to draw them out and minister to them as best you can. You'll find ways to introduce new worship elements and cultivate passion for service, but only after you realize that you'll probably have to be at this with the same group of people for a while before it even begins to happen.

Basically, Third Groupers (and First Groupers as well...and maybe eventually even you Second Groupers): you need to love your church. Whether it's a congregation that's been around since a group of German immigrants plopped down in the middle of a field 200 years ago or the brand new group of urbanites you've gathered in your living room, you need to learn to love these people including all of their flaws and hang-ups and treasure their gifts and ideas. You need to accept that the ideal vision of the church that you've been refining in your head the past few years may never come to fruition; that instead you've been sent to these people, and they to you, in a particular time and place. There will be the occasional bad match and moments where it seems you've come as far as you can together, but it takes time to figure that out, too. In the meantime, the world of ministry into which you have stepped involves being vulnerable enough to fall in love with actual people rather than your own ideas about people.

This calling is not for the weak of heart. I don't know how often you've heard that during your seminary years, but it's the truth. You'll be frustrated, you'll doubt yourself and others, you'll be tempted to leave, and you'll have illusions demolished. You'll also learn how to navigate relationships, build trust, and move toward something together, albeit imperfectly. And to do that, you'll have to love what you're doing and those with whom you're doing it.

There really is no other way. It's better if you hear it now so that you can be more fully prepared. Those who don't prepare are the ones who won't make it. So may God bless your journey wherever it takes you next, and may you allow the Spirit to empower you with love, no matter what.


Unknown said...

Would you allow me to use this as our Wednesday Festival tomorrow at RevGalBlogPals?

Jeff Nelson said...

I would be honored and flattered by that, Songbird. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Wow. Good thoughts. I will share this with the students in the ministry seminar group I'm leading this semester.

Brian said...

Well said. So true. Thank you for sharing these wise words.

Anonymous said...

Well said. And spot on for my life and ministry right now. THANKS!

elaine said...

As a soon-to-be seminary grad, I appreciate this. Thanks.

Sue said...

Beautifully spoken! Thank you.

La Peregrina said...

This really struck a chord with me. After two months of ministry life post-seminary, I'm still at that point where "bible study" & "worship" here in my charge make me cry because they are so far from the transformative academic study & liturgical practice of my beloved seminary community. I'm struggling because I feel like I continually compromise my ideal(s) of worship & study for life in the parish.

But it's good to know all the groups you named go through this...

(got here via RGBP :-))

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful post! As I have been in ministry for longer and longer, and worked with more and more students, I have become increasingly convinced that local church ministry is not for everyone, or even for all that many who graduate from seminary. Often, the best, most helpful thing we can do is to say that to people. You do that here with elegance and openness, but with a clear and piercing firmness.

The next challenge for us is to find ways to help people who love Jesus enough to give up their lives for seminary find a another way to dedicate their lives to serving God.

I look forward to sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Meaningful and so true. Thanks for reminding me in yet another way that I am not alone or insane! I will share this with my covenant group.