“Seminary did not prepare me for this!”
You have probably heard a pastor, chaplain or other professional minister say something like that. It usually comes out when the church HVAC system is on the fritz for the umpteenth time, the deacons are bickering over the thermostat or it’s time to negotiate the copier lease renewal.
In truth, there are a thousand different reasons someone with a theological degree might utter that statement. Typically, though, it is offered in jest as a kind of catharsis for the stress of operating almost continually within the “other duties as assigned” portion of one’s job description (or “covenant” as some church folk like to say).
As a pastor, I have either the fringe benefit or the occupational hazard (or both, maybe) of spending a lot of time with other clergy. This peculiar vantage has allowed me to witness via social media, text messaging, phone conversations and everyone’s favorite – Zoom meetings – that the use of “seminary didn’t prepare me for this” is on the rise during this global pandemic. However, the connotation seems to be shifting from cathartic to panic.
I can understand why.
As I call to check in on the half a dozen or so 90-somethings in my congregation (seriously, what’s in the water in Rochester?), I hear repeatedly, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” That’s how I know that we are in unprecedented times. The generation that was shaped by two world wars and the Great Depression is a bit taken aback by what’s happening now.
“A course on real time logistics was not offered in the curriculum of my seminary; but theological reflection was.”
Most churches – and all responsible churches – have shifted weekly worship to a very unfamiliar format. Reading body language and other non-verbal cues has been almost entirely removed from the pastoral care toolbox. Programs, ministries and interventions carefully planned with particular goals in mind have all been shuttered. Both the means and the ends of ministry have changed more dramatically in the last few weeks than in the decades prior (and even that was a lot of change).
All this happened in the leadup to the most sacred time of the year for Christians. Pastors and other ministers got to preach, care and lead into moments of resurrection while watching the COVID-19 death toll rise. That has been labor intensive, soul rending and socially – well, distancing. It makes sense that we clergy would experience a bit of panic, and it’s good that we seek community with and support from one another.
But, my siblings in ministry, it is time for us to stop saying that we are not prepared for this moment. We are.
We are all inventing new ways to communicate with our flocks so they will be informed, feel a semblance of community and experience the holy on at least a weekly basis. Most of us didn’t take classes in seminary on livestreaming or email marketing systems or rapid web development. We did, however, learn what it means to proclaim the truth of the scriptures, foster community, equip leadership and lead the body of Christ, which has many parts (including a few folks who know how to use all this digital technology we need at the moment).
Several weeks ago we were forced to make quick decisions on how to shift our ministries, programs and gatherings to accommodate social distancing. Then suddenly we had to cancel everything. Those were difficult decisions in a time crunch. They were literally life-and-death kinds of decisions.
A course on real time logistics was not offered in the curriculum of my seminary; but theological reflection was. Responding rapidly to real world circumstances in ways that are ethically and morally consistent with the gospel is exactly what our professors were trying to teach us.
There are hurting people everywhere. The pain of those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the anxiety of their loved ones and the grief of those who have lost loved ones is only a portion of the pastoral care need at the moment. Others are going through loss and celebration in the midst of a pandemic. Funerals are being postponed, weddings are being called off and even people whose lives are in a healthy or “normal” state are highly anxious.
I never wrote a paper or did an assignment on mass casualty events during seminary, but I was required to do CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). I learned to sit with people in their anxiety and to be aware of my own. I figured out that I don’t always have to have the right words and that sometimes just sitting together in silence (even awkward Zoom silence) is the way to share the load of grief. We learned too, didn’t we, which spiritual practices and what forms of self-care sustain us in our own anxiety, fear and exhaustion.
We didn’t have any practicums on digital communion, but we were encouraged to develop “sturdy” liturgy accessible to all people. We didn’t have to take tests on the implications of government stimulus efforts for religious organizations, but we did reflect on religious liberty and the principles that undergird it.
“As important as I believe our role is in the midst of this pandemic, we have an even more important role in the weeks and months ahead.”
There are a million things we didn’t learn in seminary, but here’s what we did learn. We learned to take a set of sacred texts that are sometimes bizarre and even frightening, but nonetheless redemptive and holy, and contextualize them in a world that is also bizarre, frightening and holy. We learned to engage in theological reflection in order to construct a ready set of moral and ethical principles to guide even the most rapid decisions in the most anxious times.
We learned not to be afraid of big questions, honest questions. We learned to sit with people in their pain and fear. We learned what sustains us when we’re sitting with all that anxiety. We learned how to imagine new ways to embody our collective relationship with God through meaningful ritual.
Siblings in ministry, we have to stop thinking or saying that seminary did not prepare us for this time. It did. In fact, we may be uniquely suited for the challenges all the world will face in the coming days and months.
That said, while I pray that this reminder is an encouragement to ministers, I have more on my mind than the edification of the clergy. As important as I believe our role is in the midst of this pandemic, we have an even more important role in the weeks and months ahead.
Even now civic leaders across the country and around the globe are beginning to forge plans for recovery post-pandemic. With history as our guide we know that catastrophes are disproportionately devastating for those who lack the resources and standing in society to withstand them. We also know that recovery efforts tend to focus on those who are privileged enough to be represented at the tables of power. Those planning paths forward for the collective must be reminded by credible, influential voices that recovery efforts must begin with those hit hardest by this pandemic.
In the months to come, the world will need those skilled in communication, wise in reflection, capable in administration, strong in vision, empathetic in compassion and courageous in justice. The world will need its clergy. But what if the moment comes, as indeed it already has, for us to take our place in the dialogue and we’ve been telling people all along that seminary did not prepare us for this?
It’s funny when the air conditioner goes out or the parsonage floods to say that we are not equipped to handle those things. But this is a global pandemic. In seminary we learned what we need to know and who we need to be as called servants of God.
So, if you hear a minister say, “I wasn’t prepared for this,” don’t believe them. We’re prepared.
Read more BNG news and opinion on this topic: