A Wee Ministry Reality Check

Alternate title: “Things I studied in seminary vs. things I actually do.”

Second alternate title: “If you had told me twelve years ago that my life would be like this, I would have laughed, and then maybe dropped out.” 

Final possibility: “I love my job and my life SO MUCH, but it is sometimes batshit crazy.”

On to the actual post…

I value my theological education, and I do actually use it – or rather, most of the time, it just is. It informs everything that I do, and I would never claim that it was useless. However, I am sometimes struck by the gigantic gap between what I believed that I would be doing if I became a pastor (I wasn’t convinced at the time that I would be one), and what I actually do on a regular basis. Granted, I have a very unusual ministry position. I know ministers who do a lot of the things that I was led to believe that ministers do: reading books, spending a great deal of time preparing sermons, visiting elderly people in homes and hospitals, teaching classes about theology and the Bible, etc. I even do these things, occasionally. But this week I’ve spent a whole lot more of my time trying to work within the ideal window for getting into heroin detox, speaking about the realities of prostitution, and convincing my new intern that he really can’t date girls in the youth group. Not exactly what seminary led me to expect of ministry. So, for the sake of contrast: 

What I studied in seminary: How to converse theologically and pastorally with people who have extensive church backgrounds, denominational loyalty, and respect for the authority and education of ministers.

What I actually do: Try to find theological language for conversations with people who have little or no church background, don’t know or care what a denomination is, don’t understand why church would ever be of value to them, and define themselves mostly as “spiritual but not religious,” or agnostic, or atheist. Explain what a minister is/does at least once a day. 

What I learned to do in seminary: Write a credible paper in an hour. 

What I learned to do in ministry: Place someone in a domestic violence shelter in an hour.

What I studied in seminary: How to translate the entire Bible from Greek/Hebrew to English.

What I study now: Addiction/recovery, volunteer coordination, and strategies for community collaboration toward poverty reduction.

How I thought I’d spend my days as a pastor: reading theology, translating the pericope for the week’s sermon, visiting nursing homes, teaching Bible studies.

How I am spending today: waiting for someone to tell me where to pick her up to go to detox, worrying that she’s on the run again, checking on space in rehab programs, visiting someone in the hospital who was hit by a drunk driver, meeting with a county judge to discuss the development of an alternate court system for prostitution offenses, meeting about the launch of a bicycle rebuilding program for youth, meeting with the neighborhood association about flood/disaster preparation. Hopefully beginning to write an article about gender justice in the new Presbyterian hymnal, but I’m not counting on that. Realizing I just used the word “pericope” for the first time in years.

Who I thought I’d spend time with: Church People. Granted, this idea terrified me, but it was nonetheless my expectation of ministry.

Who I spend time with: Church people, who it turns out are pretty much like other people; they cover the whole range of attitude, experience, socioeconomic class, etc. Youth. Non-profit employees, government officials, bikers, bartenders, bar patrons, big-time financial donors, other ministers, prostitutes, musicians, engineers, dealers, the local street drummer.  

What seminary led me to believe: Church people would be convinced to do things the “right” way by my excellent theological exposition, and by virtue of my position as their minister. 

What ministry demonstrated is actually true: Church people might consider your point of view if they have a trusting relationship with you as a person and a minister. They will rarely be theologized into changing their mind about the emotional connection they have with certain objects and rituals in their church.

My expectation: I would have time to set aside to write.

Today’s reality: Look, I did! But now that time has ended. What are you other ministers doing in ministry that seminary never led you to expect?



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