This week marks one full year that I have been the pastor at Clinton First Church of the Nazarene. Jess and I arrived at our apartment during the last week of June a year ago and our first Sunday here was July 1, 2007. Of course, it is somewhat cliche to comment on how quickly this year has gone by and how much I have learned but both things are true. It is hard to believe that we have been here a year already and of course, I have learned many, many things about pastoral ministry over the course of this past year.
Some of these things were obvious learning experiences like how to run a board meeting or an annual election and I am thankful that I am the pastor of a church that has been gracious towards me as I have stumbled through learning how to lead in these administrative tasks. A large portion of what I have learned, as would be expected in a profession like the ministry, has been interpersonal and relational in nature. I continue to learn how to relate to others, how to share in their joy and their pain. I have even learned quite a bit about myself. I have experienced what a struggle it can be to comprehend your own pastoral identity when you have become a part of an entirely new community.
As I have reflected on this past year of ministry, I think the area of learning and growth that I have found most interesting has been at the intersection of my theological education and the practical life of a congregation. Of couse, in many ways this is not at all unexpected since that intersection represents one of the major transitions in my life over the past year. The whole point of my education is to enable me to better serve Christ and his Church by providing a theologically coherent vision of God and the Church for this local congregation. Most of the learning experiences that I mentioned in the paragraph above are really just subsets of this one larger learning project of coming to understand how the things I learned in the classroom apply to the lived reality of church life.
What is somewhat unexpected is exactly how I have come to regard my time at NTS and ENC in relation to my experience here. Over the past year, I have come to regard my education less and less as an academic endeavor or even as training for the ministry and more as an extended period of intense spiritual formation. I have come to realize recently that more than anything else, my time in school was about shaping me to be a certain kind of person. It was not just about increasing a certain body of knowledge which would then enable me to provide more theologically consistent leadership as a pastor, as important as that might be. It was not just about learning how to preach, how to teach, how to counsel, and how to console although it includes those things. It was not about better understanding what the Bible says so that I might pass that knowledge on to others or learning what others have said about God in the past so that we might speak more truthfully about God in the present, though that is certainly something the Church needs. No, it must run even deeper than all of that, although those things already run pretty deep. My education had to do more than just inform me, it had to change me, shape me, mold me, transform me and fortuntely, I believe it did just that.
What experience as a pastor has led me to this understanding of my educational experience? Primarily, that when you speak as a pastor you must, (in fact, most of the time you will inevitably, whether you want to or not) speak from your heart, from your inner most being, from what you really believe. When you speak as a pastor, whether it be in a sermon or to someone who is grieving or to your church board as you attempt to make a difficult decision most of the time you will not have the time to carefully sort through the issues and address them as thoroughly as you would like to. Of course, you are as thorough as you possibly can be in the time that you have but most often you have to think on your feet and address issues on the fly. Most of the time you have to trust that the way the Spirit has already prepared you up to this point will be sufficient to guide you through this crises for which you feel completely unprepared. So many times I have thought to myself "If only I had known she was going to show up unannounced at my office with that question, I would have been better prepared" or "If only I had a little more time to research this biblical theme..." But most of the time you do not get to consult Wesley or Augustine, Paul or Matthew. Instead, you have to rely on the way that the Holy Spirit has already used Wesley, Augustine, Paul, or Matthew to shape you in the past long before you ever knew you would need their wisdom at this particular moment in this peculiar situation.
This in no way lessens the importance of the academic nature of seminary or our liberal arts schools. Often, we act as if anything truly spiritual must be uncritical and unthinking. However, seeing this time of study as a matter of spiritual formation does not take away from the rigorous academic nature of it all. Just because it is a kind of spiritual discipline does not mean that we simply pray over Barth and Irenaeus and sing Amazing Grace instead of engaging these theologians in critical dialogue. In fact, viewing the academic life as a time of spiritual formation actually places greater importance on this critical interaction. This is the case because the interaction with these theologians and the biblical authors will not cease once one is familiar enough with them to get the desired grade in a course. Instead, it will continue well beyond the requirements of the course because you know that you are studying for more than a certain grade.
You are studying to be better prepared for a certain situation that you can not yet see. You are studying because you never know how Barth and Irenaeus might help you speak God's words of life when they need to be heard the most. You are studying so that you might become a more powerful tool in God's hands. You are studying, not so much to learn how to be a minister as you are to be transformed into the kind of person whom God can use most meaningfully as a minister. Even as you study something that causes you to wonder what practical value it could ever have for the life of the Chuch, you persevere trusting that God's Spirit is shaping you for your calling even in that moment. Even in thoroughly academic institutions like seminary and college, the life of the disciple is not so much about what we learn as it is about who we become.