Saturday, February 21, 2009

"They Sure Didn't Teach Me THAT in Seminary"

How often have you heard these words (or said them yourself): “They sure didn’t teach me THAT in seminary!” Now, sometimes this is simply not true. Committed professors drew upon their experiences in churches and their academic backgrounds to share skills and insights with ministers in formation. They tried to help us understand how to preach to meet people’s needs, minister to them in times of crisis, and how to apply biblical texts to contemporary situations. We simply did not get it. We had not reached that “teachable moment.”

On the other hand, the statement is sometimes true. There are several reasons for this:

First, even with a two or three year degree program, there is just so much a curriculum can bear. No matter how important a particular discipline or skill is, there are a limited number of hours in a day as well as in a degree program. In every theological institution, hard choices must be made about what to include and some things will be left out.

Second, we as students or the seminary leaders cannot always know what skills and abilities will be needed in the future. For example, how many of us were trained to deal with the personal and institutional needs that result from a national financial crisis? We expected incomes to increase, endowments to grow, and loans to be readily available. Who knew that computers would revolutionize how we write, communicate, and even conduct worship? Many of us started out using mimeograph machines and were grateful when Xerox copiers were added to the office. Who could foretell the changes in public morality and sexual mores that challenge our traditional concepts of morality? I took several counseling courses in seminary but I was not prepared to counsel the homosexual student who came into my office less than a year after I graduated.

Third, if we had listened carefully to our instructors, we might have heard some of them say, “We can’t teach you everything you need to know to do ministry. You will have to learn throughout your life.” They may not have used the term “lifelong learner,” but they understood the concept.

I was fortunate that when I graduated from seminary, I was able to pursue the ministry to which I felt called and for which I had prepared, but I found out pretty quickly that I needed to learn new skills—small group process, leadership dynamics, researching new faith movements, some additional counseling skills, and a new theology of doing ministry that centered on personal rather than organizational development.

The best thing that a seminary education (or any education for that matter) can do is to teach us how to learn. We either become lifelong learners or we fail to live up to our calling. “They didn’t teach me that in seminary” is not a valid excuse.

1 comment:

Chris Hammon said...

Well put, Ircel. As I have been working on a column for the Oates Journal on Just-in-Time learning, I have been reminded just how much more important learning to learn is over content. My locus for ministry did not yet exist when I did my initial seminary degree. And in the midst of working on my next project I am in the midst of having to unlearn how I did our last online conference so that it does not hinder my creativity in developing the next. While some of my biblical, theological, and pastoral care studies from seminary provide an occasionally useful foundation; I have even replaced a lot of that over the years as I seek to stay current with what I need to know for what I am doing and who I am connecting with today and tomorrow.

I was on a retreat with my clergy peer group recently and this topic came up in conversation. We all echoed this perspective as we reflected on leaving the seminary and moving into ministry. There were three things that we agreed that we wished that we had learned in seminary: (1) how to learn so that we would be prepared to learn what we actually needed to know for doing ministry as our contexts changed (and day one in the first pastorate was a new context). (2) How to take care of ourselves and our families while serving as ministers. (3) How to work as collaborators rather than competitors. So we redesigned seminary educations to better accomplish this.

Chris Hammon
Wayne E. Oates Institute