I'm continuing to share some of the things I learned in doing interviews with other pastors over my sabbatical. One question I asked each of them was this: "Looking back, what were the 3 most important things you learned in seminary?"
It's a question I've thought about myself a few times. Here are the answers I heard...
Pastor #1 (Saint Paul School of Theology) --
1) The first thing that comes to mind offhand is that I had an amazing insight about how the scriptures were all connected, part of the same word so to speak. That kind of gradually came to me. I didn’t realize it before, and I have taught that way ever since – centering on these themes, intentions – of what God was intending.
2) Saint Paul did a wonderful job helping us integrate the practice of ministry and the classwork, the theology – putting the learning process with the practice process. I was able to integrate a lot of what I was doing. I was working the whole time; that was a lot of what they wanted to happen.
3) For me at least, I learned a sense of community and how important that is. I wasn’t learning in a vacuum, but with other people. I’ve remained connected with a lot of those people through the years.
Pastor #2 (Concordia Seminary) --
1) The tools for ministry: Where the resources are and what they are, to draw for understanding. When somebody asks me a question, I have the tools in a toolbox and I know where to go to find the answers – particularly on knowledge or doctrine knowledge, history issues, etc.
2) The doctrine of the church: The teachings of the church, the positions of how we understand scripture. I take a confessional understanding in this way: I’m a Christian first, and then a Lutheran as far as the understanding of God’s word. But definitely first a Christian.
3) A love for people: Certain professors over and over emphasized this, including in vicarage (i.e. internship/residency): They’ll never care how much you know until they know how much you care. If God’s people can see how much you love and care about them, then they’ll want to know the doctrine. Sometimes pastors come in and thump doctrine, but they haven’t taken the time to develop a relationship. This is much more difficult - to help a person, show them that you care about them by having a pastor’s heart, a servant heart, a caring heart. Our people want to see that we love them. They, in turn, want to love you. But it doesn’t work if you’re a miserable and hateful person. I see that in some clergy; they have the answers because they went to seminary, but they come across like a hammer. Peter tells us not to Lord it over the church.
Pastor #3 (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) --
1) Theology – The school was run by the theology department. Everything was about right thinking. You had to have four required courses to get through (Louis) Berkhof’s systematic theology. It took a lot of time. It was ultra-reformed – just a hair below Westminister. The theology professors were OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). I’m moderately reformed, and a believer in biblical theology. Any system is flawed. The Bible is too fluid and alive to be systematized. A little systematic theology goes a long way. I came out appreciating Joachim Jeremias far more than I did Berkhof or any other scholar. He promoted a biblical theology, not a systematic one.
2) I didn’t learn everything I needed, but I learned how to find it. The seminary was poor in practical pastoral ministry at the time. It was heavy in biblical studies, but weak in practical application. I didn’t have any idea how to run a church or about visitation. I had two preaching courses, but I had to teach myself how to prepare a sermon. Whatever it was that I had to do, it didn’t do the job for me. Part of the problem was that Gordon-Conwell had gone from two seminaries to one, with 650 students. They were overwhelmed. It was a merger of two dying schools.
3) You have to recover from seminary. It was such an intense hotbed; everything was so important. Every scholar thought that his issue was most important. It was like, “You cannot be a pastor without this book,” - there referring to very obscure works. I had to realize that they had different ideas from what was important than reality. Everyone has to recover from seminary. Our school was controlled by the systematic theology department.
Pastor #4 (Bangor Theological Seminary) --
1) The reason I liked Bangor was that it was out of the box. It wasn’t a traditional type of seminary with tests and quizzes. It was the type of learning where they really wanted you to learn. It was up to you to know the material. They would give you an assignment that was more reflective in nature. It gave me a sense in ministry that you always have to be thinking outside the box; you can’t be stuck in one way of learning.
2) I learned the dynamics of interfaith. I realized that I’m going to be ministering among people that don’t have the same beliefs that I have. Not everybody’s going to be conservative like me – because Bangor was a classical liberal seminary.
3) I had to learn that it was up to me to come to grips with my own spiritual growth, to seek Christ, to study. They didn’t hold my hand there. I needed to seek out other believers to fellowship with. It was really on me. All these years later I can’t go out and expect people to hand me things. I have to be diligent to form these relationships. You have to be a person to want to seek.
Pastor #5 (American Baptist Seminary of the West, Drew Theological Seminary, Saint Paul School of Theology) --
1) I learned a lot about European theology at Drew - especially studying Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, etc. It was very academic there. I realized that scholarship and getting to know about European theology was important there. The professors influenced me in that regard.
2) Another one came from taking classes from John Swomley at Saint Paul. I was interested in social justice and Christian social ethics.
3) And at (ABSW) Berkeley, it was a turning point in my life. Three things became important to me for the first time: Christian education, pastoral care & counseling, and probably the influence and connection with Asian people and Buddhist and Hindu thought. I was making the transition from being a change agent and social advocate to being a pastor and as someone most interested in my personal spiritual growth and the growth of the people in my current and future parishes.
Pastor #6 (Clarksville Theological Seminary) --
3) Old & New Testament studies
It was more academic than it was spiritual.
Pastor #7 (Oral Roberts University) --
1) Relevant theology makes you relevant; obscure theology makes you obscure.
2) God is loving and trustworthy; He’s not out to catch you on a technicality.
3) Flee from manipulation, power-control, and hypocrisy. It comes quite easily. You have power in ministry. Some people use it in ways that are unfortunate. I watched people use power in ministry to hurt other people – including shame and guilt.