Thursday, October 4, 2007

For those preparing for ministry

I was given this extended quote from William Willimon in the context of my Clinical Pastoral Orientation class at Truett Seminary. As I work my way through a very difficult semester, I am reminded of the fact that the challenge is necessary and worth it. For those of you who are pursuing education for ministry, or who have completed such education, I hope this is a reminder and an encouragement to press on.

Sometimes seminarians complain that the seminary's expectations of them are too demanding, that the course is too difficult, or that it is placing academic burdens upon them that they cannot bear. Perhaps they feel that their sincerity and their sense of vocation are enough to sustain them in their ministry. They are wrong.

I remind them that I did not call them into the ministry. I am sorry if they have been misled, but the pastoral ministry is a very difficult way to earn a living, and our Master can be very demanding, despite His reassurance of a light burden and easy yoke. Then I tell them something that happened to me.

One day the dean casually commented to me that a member of my Annual Conference once wrote him a particularly moving letter. Did I know him? Before I could answer, the dean continued, "He wrote to tell me that he had been called into the ministry some years ago. He commuted to a seminary not far from his home, doing just enough work to get by. He said that he got along well with people and knew how to please a congregation. For four years as his first church, he delivered this 'package,' and it worked. Then he delivered the same package of pleasing sermons and caring concern at his next congregation and, for four years, it worked there too.

"He is now at his third congregation and he said that his 'well has run dry.' He needs renewal, but he doesn't know where to find it. He doesn't know enough about theology to be able to read his way back into ministry. He wrote me this letter, asking if he could come here for a sabbatical and spend time working back through all the theology that he had missed. We tried to help him, but with his family and all, he just couldn't swing it. Do you know what ever happened to him?"

I told the dean, "He had been on a year's leave of absence to receive treatment for his alcoholism. Last week, he was found dead in his kitchen, drowned to death in his own vomit after a bout of drunkenness."

And the dean and I stood there for the longest time in silence. Then he said, "We really have our work cut out for us here, in preparing people for ministry. The stakes are at times unbearably high. Let's get back to work."

I think the first paragraph of Willimon's testimony deserves repeating: "Sometimes seminarians complain that the seminary's expectations of them are too demanding, that the course is too difficult, or that it is placing academic burdens upon them that they cannot bear. Perhaps they feel that their sincerity and their sense of vocation are enough to sustain them in their ministry. They are wrong."


Tim said...

As one who is on the otherside of the seminary experience... I give you the hearty,


Tim Dahl

Lory Hunt said...

wow...thanks Emily for making me think and reminding me that Jesus said to "Love the LORD your God will ALL your heart, soul, mind and strength."

UnderMidnight said...

When people say they are called to ministry my first response is "For the love of God do something else, anything else." Then comes a barrage of verbal battery and mockery. If they're still too stupid to listen then they must be called to ministry. No one in their right mind would do this if there was no such thing as the holy spirit. It's because you have to be out of your mind to want to do this.

In this day and age, especially with all manner of heresy at our fingertips via the www, a solid education is necessary. If peopel complain about it being too hard...good grief, once upon a time they had to know Hebrew, Latin, and Greek to a staggering degree. The degree of knowledge of the old masters is humbling. We have it easy. Too easy. My problems with school are due to my sorry organization and not the curriculum. People who complain about school being too demanding should be given a binky and a fresh diaper.
We should all have to go through scribe simulation for a week in a robe and a freezing stone room. We should get beatings and food rationed when we make mistakes. We should have to live by candle light and read the previous guy's sloppy handwriting.
That would give us perspective.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I love your thoughts and the way you put things. Thanks!


Joseph said...

Thank you for this reminder that ours is not just an emotional calling, but a profession, in all senses of that term. At Wesley Theological Seminary, where I teach as adjunct, one of the students -- a lawyer in her former life -- complained that the curriculum was not demanding enough! May her tribe increase.

My BD (yes, old nomenclature) was granted 44 years ago, and it still works! I learned habits of thought and means of study at the old and now nearly forgotten Southern Seminary (Louisville) that have served me well and have kept me alert to new possibilities. I am grateful every day for that heritage.

Your four-years-and-out story pales, however, beside the story of a pastor I once sat under who ran out of material in only six months and began to repeat himself!

Strider said...

Wow, 'study harder or choke to death on your own vomit'. That's a motivator. But I think the issue is deeper than that. What we are really talking about is our allegiance to Christ. He is either the precious gem that we sell everything for or he is not. When it comes to His Kingdom too many are willing to do a time-share but not sell everything they have. Personally I hated sitting in a classroom and I hated formal education. But I did it. I did the six years of college and the four years of seminary and the four years in the pastorate to prepare me to be overseas where I am today. It costs a lot, but not enough. We who preach the message of the cross must be prepared to live the life of the cross or our message has no power and no meaning. My latest post speaks to this. We must give all even as the one we claim to follow gave all. To do less is not to fall short of being in professional ministry- it is to fall short of being a follower of Jesus.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Good word, Strider. You are absolutely right. I study not for ministry, but for obedience to the Lord. And, the cost is not my time, energy, and money, but my whole life--every single thing.

Thanks for your wisdom,