Pastoring is just not all about academics
My friend told me the other day that he has a pseudonym on social media because he doesn’t want his seminary drama to follow him. He attends one of the biggest seminaries in the country where everyone wants to be smarter and woker than everyone else, so he shies away from the drama because he’s not trying to live that messy life. I can appreciate that. Swimming in drama is stressful. Christians should be interested in reconciliation, not one-upping each other. Apparently that wasn’t really happening at his school.
But I did tell him that my seminary experience was much more down-to-earth. Palmer Theological Seminary is not known for how prestigious it is (but the professors there are brilliant if you ask me). It’s not a huge school with a big endowment. It’s a humble school and it was an honor to study there. Two of my favorite things about Palmer? It is incredibly diverse: theologically and racially, in terms of age too. I loved that nearly all of my Bible professors were women. Palmer is designed to accommodate working pastors. So, very little of my education felt abstract. It was real, often delivered by active pastors to other pastors. It was applicable. That saved us from superfluous debates, but it also grounded us in reality. There is really nothing like applying what you learned a semester ago to the work you are doing right in the moment. Most seminarians don’t get the chance to have that experience until well after school. I think that is damaging for two reasons. First, I think some pastors think their job is just about studying and academics or even getting all the right doctrine and theology down. Those things matter. They just aren’t all that matter. I think the reverse is another problem, though. Some pastors are so frustrated by the academics, they just throw it all out once they are in the field. I think there are risks to both extremes, but I think seminaries that detach academics from practicum run those risks.
The office pursues you, not the other way around
So I was very grateful that I was called to be a pastor by Circle of Hope prior to enlisting in a seminary. I generally think that the “office” (that is the “office of priest”) should pursue the person and not the other way around. The career-oriented education we have in the United States and elsewhere in the world, really doesn’t accommodate pastors very well. I think being a pastor is a calling and a matter of communal discernment.
I became a pastor at the very young age of 24. I was called into a process to discern that with a few other women. We thought about who the Holy Spirit was calling, and we agreed that we should move forward with me. The church’s leaders, and ultimately the whole church, affirmed this decision. My training then was on-the-ground. The pastors team I was called into was elemental in my training; and at the outset, I really just did everything they told me to do. These days, I still try to do whatever the team wants; although eight-and-a-half years into the gig, I have some things to share with them too.
Going to seminary for me was about expanding my experience and education after I encountered a situation I couldn’t handle. I had to learn more, and so about five years ago I enrolled part-time in seminary. In some ways, it was the worst time in my life to do it. We had a six-month old baby at home at that point, and by the end of seminary, we had two. So with young children, and a young church, it was intense. But it stretched me and grew me. I actually thrive under those high-pressure environments I came to learn (but not everyone does, so this is hardly prescriptive).
And seminary was great for me. I loved it and I had a ton of fun doing it. I like being in school and I love reading and writing, so it’s right up my ally. I also miss being in school, even though I’m just a few months removed. I’ve talked to some pastors who couldn’t pick up a book after seminary. I’m a different animal I guess. So I had to watch the temptation to just keep my nose in a book all the time, even after school.
We all can be pastors in our own right
But what I learned from seminary? You don’t really need an education to be a pastor. Education augments the calling and the conviction. It seasons the life of a pastor, but strictly speaking, I think that Christians all have the calling to be shepherds in their own right.
Anabaptists have radically applied the notion of the “priesthood of all believers,” a Reformation-era idea that was a first-step toward deconstruction of the church hierarchy that led to a lot of oppression in Europe. That separation between “laypeople” and “priests” might be appropriate in some contexts, but I think codifying it as law causes a lot of problems. Not least of which is a barrier to entry to service. Eventually, you’d need to find both the time and the money to get a seminary education to even become a pastor. Add to that the enrollment process, and the implicit bias and prejudice. I mean, for a long time, and still today, seminaries are largely dominated by white guys. So how many minorities are we excluding from serving as pastors because of these measures?
Ordination is a whole other problem. That’s an additional barrier-to-entry that I think causes us to limit who leads us. This hierarchical power structure creates more problems because it gives us another mechanism for silencing people that aren’t suited to our tastes. We can dismiss them for being uneducated, or we can oppress them with how they are educated and that their message is threatening to us. It creates more avenues for dismissal and that’s exactly what power structures do. And so we create more power structures, based on ideology and identity, that compete with the others. It becomes an academic, spiritual war. Sometimes it is a literally material war, as well, that theological disputes rooted in political and social power cause.
You don’t have to have it all together, but you need a community
However, another issue we have here is that pastors are supposed to be superheroes who have it altogether. We’re supposed to save and rescue everyone. Know everything. Be entirely self-sufficient. I think that the solo pastor of a small church is a dangerous job. We need accountability, intimacy, connection. I think that’s one of the best reasons to be in a denomination. Not for the hierarchy, not for the leadership necessarily, but for the community. The problem is with a general community of pastors is the lack of mission that binds them together. What binds denominations together is often doctrine and theology, but I think their movement should. What should bind them together is where the Holy Spirit is leading them. Sure, you can move faster alone, but you move better together. You move with momentum when you build mass. Mass takes time, it takes agreement, it takes consciousness.
But this is the problem with the Reformation. Without a singular magisterial power holding the whole church together, we just created smaller magisterial powers. We were no longer united in vision or mission, and in fact what ended up holding us together was liberal democracy. It’s just deflating for the Christian movement to be subject to the political philosophy of the day (more on that next week, I think).
Anabaptists have both eschewed individuality that curses Protestant denominations and the hierarchy of the Catholics, particularly. That left us without many friends, but it did require us then to rely on our commitment to agreement and commonality, and allowed the Holy Spirit and the Bible to be our centered platform.
The one thing you need to be a pastor? A community. A team. An education helps, but you don’t need it. It can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. Education and other barriers to entry limit the work of the Holy Spirit living in you. You, right now, have what it takes to serve the church. What we need is someone to call it out in us. We need a context to serve in. And a mission to serve for.
What did I learn in seminary? That most of us have what it takes to be a pastor even without fancy letters behind our name.