Seminary and church: Similarities and differences

Posted Sep 19, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Mark Miller-McLemore


This is the first in a four-part series on transitions in ministry.

M Miller-MclemoreOur lives are shaped by the school calendar. Those with children in school know how the seasons are deeply entwined with school schedules. The rhythm gathers momentum through repetition: summer vacations, fall football games, Halloween, family visits at Thanksgiving, Christmas holidays, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, spring break, exams. The cycle is embedded in our culture and our consciousness.

The beginning of the fall semester at the Vanderbilt Divinity School also brings the Opening Retreat for students at Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt. The retreat has four purposes:

  • To build community among the 25 students who live in residence together.
  • To pass on “wisdom from elders.” Returning students share experience and insights on thriving in a challenging environment. How does registration work? What professors should you not miss? Where’s the best Indian food nearby? Where will you see the country music stars having lunch in Nashville?
  • To keep students connected with church and ministry. We meet at a nearby church camp, have conversations with church leaders about navigating ordination processes and interact with ministers about their vocations and work. Can being a pastor actually be fun? Can you earn enough to raise a family? If you’re a single pastor in a small town, how can you date?
  • And to remind students, softly but repeatedly, that the church and the school are very different places.

Like its calendar, the school shapes our outlook. After 20 years as students, seminarians are prone to forget that the aim of theological education is not just good grades, but to become equipped for the complexity of life and leadership in church.

So every year we ask students to remember and anticipate how churches and schools are different. We read articles, and we talk together. For example:

  • Though finals week and Advent come about the same time, ministers don’t start vacation December 15.
  • Though students will receive grades each semester, ministers receive informal evaluations every Sunday.
  • Though in school you finish a semester and start over, the work of ministry just keeps going.
  • Though professors will expect them to dissect and deconstruct texts, caring for parishioners in crisis will require you to make meaning out of life’s chaotic whirl.
  • And though you may be a great student, it takes more than that to be a great pastor.

We tell them about William Sullivan, who in his book, Work and Integrity, discusses “three apprenticeships” professionals need to serve: knowledge, skill, and outlook or disposition (coming mostly from doing). We talk about Patricia Benner, co-author of Educating Nurses: A Call for Radical Transformation, and the way she locates professions such as nursing and ministry as “complex, situated, and engaged.”

We think ministry flourishes best when these two institutions work together well. Seminary and church are close, but different. For students, it can be confusing, and confusion often makes the transition into ministry bumpy. So we try to remind them, often, that each place has its right context—something obvious to those who have already negotiated the transition, not so clear to students in school.

Instead of taking the similarities and differences for granted, it’s good to give them some attention on the cusp of a new school year. We hope students will benefit from seeing the proper place for what they learn in the classroom and lecture hall, but also realize that learning for ministry will not—cannot—end when they have a degree on the office wall. It just happens differently.

Mark Miller-McLemore is Dean of the Disciples Divinity House and Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ministry at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. The Disciples Divinity House serves as the host for the Congregational Immersion Project, which works with new Disciples of Christ pastors and congregations to make effective transition into ministry.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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