What They Don’t Teach You in Seminary

If you read the inaugural entry to the Ministry Across the Miles blog, you heard my comparison of our current church days to The Chick’s song, Wide Open Spaces. Today, the tune that’s rattling in my head is Uncharted, by Sara Bareilles.

I promise this is not going to be an ongoing theme: glimpses from my mental road trip playlist. Still, you are getting a peek at how my mind works: I feel like life has a soundtrack, and every road trip is made better by women’s power ballads. A couple weeks ago, I took my first extended road trip for OPSF:  Omaha —> Wichita —> Oklahoma City —> Tulsa —> Home

Before landing in Tulsa, where Becky Balestri, Program Manager for OPSF’s PLR Program, and I took part in a day of brainstorming with leaders of Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, I broke bread and chatted bar side with Gail Doering (interim executive at the Presbytery of Southern Kansas) and Landon Whitsitt (pastor of Westminster Presbyterian, Oklahoma City, and former exec of the Synod of Mid-America). Rev. Doering and I swapped ministry stories over bibimbap at GangNam Korean BBQ and Sushi in Wichita, a restaurant owned by local Presbyterians. I wrapped up our time together asking, “How do you think OPSF could resource places like the Presbytery of Southern Kansas?” Gail inhaled deeply and stared into her bibimbap for a moment and said, “We need something along the lines of What They Don’t Teach You in Seminary.”

I was thinking of the very many things they don’t teach you in seminary about honest-to-goodness pastoral work . . . like how to draft a personnel manual or carry two folding tables at a time. But Gail was much more articulate and philosophical. She wasn’t simply looking for answers to how to engage this new online ministry time. Instead, she said that we don’t really know how to measure effectiveness in ministry any longer. We know it can’t be only about booties in the pews (my words not hers). But how do we discern faithfulness from viability? How do we know when twelve people in weekly worship is a sign to close the doors or when those twelve people are engaged in the authentic work of Jesus Christ on a small but transformative scale?

I was thinking of the very many things they don’t teach you in seminary about honest-to-goodness pastoral work . . . like how to draft a personnel manual or carry two folding tables at a time.

Sara Bareilles wrote her song Uncharted on the heels of her breakout success with the song Love Song. The story goes that she was intimidated by the mass appeal of the tune that launched her career and that she didn’t know where to go from there. She didn’t want to follow some pre-prescribed formula for pop stardom, but the success from before left her with writer’s block. The unknown is painful, intimidating. She sings:

No words, my tears won’t make any room for more
And it don’t hurt
Like anything I’ve ever felt before
This is no broken heart
No familiar scars
This territory goes uncharted

(“Uncharted”, Sara Bareilles)

So often we feel the same way. We look back at the days of yore, when Christianity and all its trimmings (including church attendance) was an America cultural norm, and here we are with worship attendance falling, pulpits empty, the number of students pursuing graduate theological education dropping. And we feel inadequate, unable to sketch out our next showstopper. But in the wise words of the prophetic songstress, Compare where you are to where you want to be | And you’ll get nowhere.”

The music video for Uncharted kicks off with a spoof of a music class taught by singer-songwriter, Professor Ben Folds. Standing in front of a white board with the words “UNCHARTED” sketched across a music staff, he says that some people show up with no chart. They mistakenly think that just because they are chart-less that they’re uncharted. “No,” he says, “You have to learn the ‘un’ part.” (He also mentions that uncharted rhymes with ‘farted’ which probably has some other lesson for these times, but I haven’t discerned adequately to draw that connection.)

While the sketch is supposed to be funny, I find it insightful, particularly for churches and church people. I feel like I’ve engaged in lots of conversations about how we’re in a liminal time between what was and what will be, how we don’t quite know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. In these ways, we’re ‘chart-less.’ But we are reticent to talk about ‘un-charting’. What do we need to deconstruct before we can discern how to get to the place God is calling us?

I recently heard Dr. Matt Bloom (emeritus professor at Notre Dame and author of Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing) say that one of the primary drivers of clergy flourishing is a strong sense of pastoral identity, which is hampered by the outside forces which have long conferred pastoral authority to the pale, male, and stale. We still have much necessary ecclesial un-charting to do around implicit bias in the church. What else do we need to take apart before we can move forward?

Bubbling up from my early road-trip conversations is that un-charting is needed in some of the following areas before we can write our next chapter. We need to take apart the ideas that

  • Large church = healthy church or thriving church
  • Small church = the faithful ministry core
  • The path to real pastoral ministry must include three years of seminary education
  • Our sanctuaries are our ministries
  • Church happens on Sundays

I don’t know what’s next for Christ’s church. I’m not sure how we most faithfully live into our calling to love God and neighbor, and to make disciples who love God and neighbor. I think it’s okay to be uncertain about the future. Yet, being uncertain and being chained to a past that no longer serves us (and which never served all of us in the fullness of our humanity) and, more importantly, isn’t serving God is not faithful. I’m not ready to host What They Don’t Teach You in Seminary 2.0 (That curriculum at this time in ministry seems dauntingly robust). For now, I’m ready to acknowledge the inadequacies of our lessons and to join in the awkward and sometimes painful unlearning so that, when the charting time comes, we are unimpaired by our prior depictions of successful ministry.