What They Don’t Teach You In Seminary (Part I)

What They Don’t Teach You In Seminary (Part I)

Image courtesy of Joe Loong via Flickr.com; Creative Commons 2.0

Duke Chapel image courtesy of Joe Loong via Flickr.com; Creative Commons 2.0

by Jack King

The truth is that I could have attended 10 seminaries and never have been entirely prepared for ministry in the local church.

I attended two different seminaries in my Masters of Divinity degree—Asbury Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School. Both were really good schools and I’m grateful I had experiences at both institutions. Historical theology was stronger at Duke, which caused me to transfer from Asbury, though I loved professors and the seminary community in Wilmore.

But on my second day of full-time ministry, I received a phone call while fixing dinner. A teenage boy I had never met suddenly lost his life. I did not know the family, but I was called to be present in a living room with a mother who lost her son. I introduced myself in the same moment I offered my condolences. I was 26 years old, having never known a personal tragedy in my life. The newly awarded letters ‘M.Div.’ by my name meant nothing in that moment. Could I ‘weep with those who weep?’ That was the test. No paper or exam could have prepared me for that moment.

Seminaries Can’t Be All in All

Ten years ago I sat in Duke Chapel for our divinity baccalaureate. I wish I could remember the carefully chosen words spoken that evening, but I can’t remember a single point from the homily. I’m sure it was profound. Most people said I wouldn’t remember much from my seminary years and I’d be lucky to escape with my faith intact. Maybe that was true of other seminaries or divinity schools, but my experience couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t remember much from my baccalaureate service, but there’s plenty more that I still vividly remember from those three years of intensive study. I left with a passionate desire for the Kingdom of God. I still consult lecture notes and papers from time to time. I don’t care if anyone in my church recognizes the influence of Irenaeus of Lyons, Hugh of St. Victor, or Maximus the Confessor in my preaching and teaching. If they want, they can read my manuscript and footnotes for sources. But most people need ancient wisdom for a broken and distressed world without all the scholarly rhetoric. Without professors like Boyd Taylor Coolman or Geoffrey Wainwright, I can’t say that I’d know where to find such wisdom or interpret ancient truths for life today. I received an excellent seminary education.

After seminary, it was common for me to go on a rant with some seminary friends about what we didn’t receive in our education that was vital in church leadership. Especially on weeks after attending the funeral of a 17 year old young man. The pattern of complaining of what was missing from our seminary experience continued for a few years. Eventually I stopped that moaning and whining. Some of my complaints and laments about seminary life were valid, but after a few years, I realized I expected too much from seminary. It’s a three or four year education. How can you prepare somewhere for their entire vocation in three or four years? Answer: you can’t. The best you can do is lead them to trustworthy sources that will continue speaking wisdom long after graduation. Like the Book of Psalms. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like Gregory the Great.

At Duke, we were encouraged to acquire a ‘love of learning and the desire for God’ (a notion coined by Jean Leclercq). Duke was excellent in forming that love of learning, but not excellent in stirring hearts with a desire for God. Every seminary has weaknesses. Just like every church. Just like every human being.

When I stopped griping that seminary didn’t provide everything I needed for a life of ministry, I was able to appreciate the training and skills I did receive. I was thankful for teachers who led me along trustworthy pathways where I could find guidance and counsel for a life of service in Christ’s church.

Ten Years Later: Seminary, Ministry, and a Life of Learning

Over a few additional posts, I’ll share some lessons I’ve learned over the last ten years since seminary graduation. This series is not a well-researched, academic study on the experiences of pastors after seminary. I won’t be suggesting a way to reform seminary education. Every pastor’s experience in seminary and ministry is different and I’m only speaking from my own experience, which is certainly limited.

But my limited experience also includes many interactions with other pastors and their experiences in seminaries beyond the ones I attended. Over a decade of friendships, conversations, and meetings with pastors, one begins to see some patterns of what American seminaries value.

From all these experiences, I’ll be sharing personal convictions of what I’ve learned thus far. Here’s the prevailing theme of these ten years for me: I’m still a novice. Much of what I’ve learned has been simply surrendering to a life of un-learning.

In my next post, I’ll write about one of the most significant lessons I learned through un-learning: how personal repentance should be the chief virtue in a pastor’s life. I didn’t start out in ministry with that priority. No one taught me that virtue in seminary. But everything changed when the Spirit impressed upon me the urgency of learning repentance through prayer as a pastor. More on that story next time.

jack_kingJack King is Rector of Apostles Anglican Church, Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes here and at www.knoxpriest.com.  Find him on Twitter @knoxpriest.   

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