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."