I asked a seminary student what she wanted to read about in Catalyst, since this is a resource for seminarians. What would be helpful to her? She answered by asking, “Seminary is meant to prepare us, but what does preparation mean? There’s no way we can be truly ready to handle (or predict) each and every scenario that will come our way, so how do we prepare well without losing our way in the minutia of our classes and experiences?” An excellent question.
The teacher-y answer I want to give is to ask what she thinks seminary is preparing her for. She is a friend, so I know what look she would give me if I pulled that teacher move. Instead, let me offer some thoughts that I hope are encouraging to her and to you, dear reader, as you face a new semester of studies.
Let me start by affirming that this student is right. There is no way you will be truly ready to predict each and every scenario that comes your way in ministry. But if you trust the curated preparation your professors have set forth for you in your curriculum, you will be ready to handle them. I don’t mean that you will leave seminary with a binder full of “how-to” manuals with sheets labeled “Sanctuary Carpet Color Disagreements” or “Church Custodian Sees Demon in Basement” or “Church Member Overdoses” or “Parishioner’s Sister’s Suicide” or “Parishioner with Life-Threatening Pregnancy: Abortion or No?” You will pick up much practical knowledge in preaching and pastoral care classes and on field ed placements, and many professors of more “theoretical” classes will also share practical insights from their own ministry experience, but your education is less about practical guides and more about preparation in fundamentals so that you can improvise in whatever situation presents itself.
The jazz metaphor is over-played, but it’s apt anyway. In seminary, you’re learning your scales and practicing fingerings and playing the same set pieces over and over in a place where everyone is learning and with professors who can correct missed notes so that you can stitch all these things together when you’re called on for a solo. When a situation arises that you never even thought to imagine, you’ll have deep wells of theological resources to draw from, a library of (dead) friends to ask for help, a phone-contacts list of living friends, and colleagues to call on to harmonize or to have a jam session and come up with a creative solution.
That’s a bit abstract, but what I’m really asking you to do is trust that your professors have developed a curriculum, developed field ed requirements, and developed assignments and readings and discussions that they think will provide you with the broadest and deepest well of resources you may need when you’re out of seminary. Give yourself to the details they ask of you the way musicians give themselves to practicing scales until all the fundamentals are second-nature. Who knows but that the timeline of the Babylonian Exile you learned in Old Testament won’t provide an insight when you’re stuck in sermon preparation for the millionth service in Advent and Christmas? Or when a parishioner asks a question you’ve never considered, who knows but that your church history professor’s voice will be whispering, “You’ve seen this before—it’s another version of the question Augustine asked in Confessions.” When the unthinkable happens in your congregation, who knows but that this way of thinking you learned in theology and that insight from New Testament and this moment you observed in field ed don’t come together to give you your first move? And then your dead friends (Chrysostom, Augustine, Heloise, Wesley, and so on) and your living classmates and friends will support you in conversation and ideas as you figure out the second and third moves.
There’s one more thing to say about this, at least for now. Sometimes you will make mistakes. You will hit a wrong note. I said you can’t predict all the situations but that you will handle them. You will not always handle them perfectly. Even here, though, you have been prepared. You have learned about repentance, about grace and mercy, about Christ’s present work redeeming and re-creating the universe, about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it. God trusts us with this work of re-creation, calling us to participate, but we are not responsible for it turning out right. God does the work. Ultimately, we are participating in something that is already happening, that we cannot undo with any number of mistakes.
Trust your professors. Trust the work you’re given. Do your work well. Build your library. Make friends living and dead. Practice. And remember that you are not finally responsible for the restoration of the universe. You’ll be fine.