I am filled with anxiety as I pull up to the supportive housing unit to pick up women for our retreat follow-up gathering. They tell me how nice it is to have someone pick them up in a car instead of a 15 passenger van. I wonder, “Should I have a rented a van?” My anxiety increases as we arrive at our destination for an evening of reflection – security buzzes us in and I discover that our “reflection room” is simply the community room of a multi-story housing unit with the TV turned off. Large glass windows make us visible to everyone in the unit, creating a fish tank feeling inside. We cover the table with a blue plastic table cloth – pizza, Dixie cups, and soda bottles serve as the center piece. And despite the fact that we have all been on a retreat together I am acutely aware that I am a stranger – a young, white, highly educated woman amongst older, primarily black women living in supportive housing in recovery and recently coming from homelessness or incarceration. I am certain my apprehensions are written across my face and my mannerisms make me all the more a naïve stranger and not the pastoral leader I wish to be.
I sit down at the head of the table while the women chat. I am preoccupied by everything I know is wrong with the situation – the space, the food, and my inability to engage the participants – to name a few. I have no idea how to enter into the conversations or how I might make this a prayerful space that I can lead. But then Kate, the other retreat leader, walks in and everything changes. She enters with ease and the women quickly get up to greet and embrace her. She hugs, laughs, and finds a seat among the women – not at the head of the table with me. As the evening begins, I watch her do everything I want to do – everything I am supposed to do. She listens, reflects back, shares appropriately, and leads the conversation with compassion and ease when tensions and emotions arise, while simultaneously enjoying a slice of pizza and a Dixie cup of soda. All I can think is, “She is the minister I want be.” And all I know is, “I am not that minister. Am I really meant to be a minister at all or did my seminary fail in teaching me the necessary skills I am obviously lacking?”
In 2011 a group of theological educators, administrators, and ministers formed The Seminar on Integration in Theological Education and Ministry to grapple with the ways in which seminaries form and educate pastoral leaders who integrate expert knowledge, competent skill, personal identity and vocation into wise practice in the communities they serve. At its inception the seminar had people like me in mind – students who would eventually become leaders of the church, many of us serving as leaders far before we even had the slightest clue of what that leadership would ask of us.
What is the seminary’s role in forming and educating pastoral leaders? Of course, my inability to determine how to act in the situation is not necessarily a sign that my call is invalid or that seminary failed me, it is simply proof that I am a novice who has a large knowledge base but not necessarily the skills or formation to successfully integrate my knowing with doing and being. I am a novice who needs good mentors to emulate, learn from, and reflect with, like Kate. And no seminary could have fully prepared me for that gathering, how could it? I came to seminary with a unique set of gifts, fears, weaknesses, history, and callings. No one educator, let alone an entire institution, could know or imagine the specifics of my future ministerial settings and what factors would be at play when I stepped into it.
Theological education cannot prepare pastoral leaders for the wide variety and intensity of situations they encounter nor for the expertise required to respond to each of these situations. And yet theological education is charged with forming leaders prepared for the work of ministry in diverse settings, work that requires extensive theological and biblical knowledge, pastoral skill and competence, moral integrity, spiritual grounding, and keen judgment, all of which are necessary for communities of faith to thrive.
What influences the readiness of seminary students as they embark on leading churches? What kinds of courses and experiences leads to ministers who are creative, intuitive artists in their professional practice? How can students acquire what they need to know over the course of their studies and how can they best be taught to integrate knowledge into practice? How do they hone their capacity for practical judgment in the midst of ecclesial and cultural change? How do they grow in spiritual insight and wisdom?
We invite you, whether you are a new minister like me, a well-seasoned minister like Kate, a theological educator or administrator, or simply an interested reader to learn more about our seminar and join the conversation here on our blog, Insights.