Advice to New Clergy by William Willimon

William Willimon posted ‘advice’ for those starting in pastoral ministry.

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Between Two Worlds

In retrospect, my first year as a pastor was perhaps the most painful, frightening year of my entire ministry. Part of the terror that I experienced was my fear of failure, not simply to fail at being an effective pastor (I had little means of knowing what being “effective” would look like), but rather my fear that I had failed to discern God’s will for my life. What I had thought was my tortured, gradually dawning, wrestling with “call to the ministry,” might be revealed as something other than God’s idea. Looking back, I realize now that the early bumps and potholes that I experienced during the course of that first year were so disconcerting because each one of them made me wonder: maybe my friends are right. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a pastor.

As it turned out, I received more confirmation of my vocation in that first year than invalidation. Wonder of wonders, God really did occasionally speak through me to God’s people, God really did sometimes use me to work a wonder, and God’s people – some of them – really did respond to my ministry. I came to realize that much of my consternation was due, not to my own lack of preparation, or to inadequacies in me or in the church but rather to a move I was making from one world to another.

I remember experiencing dissonance in my first days in my first church in rural Georgia. I was the freshly minted product of Yale Divinity School now forlorn and forsaken in a poor little parish in rural Georgia. My first surprise was how difficult it was to communicate. If was as if I were speaking a different language. As I preached, my congregation impassively looked at me across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf.

At first I figured that the problem was a gap in education. (Educated people are continued to think this way when dealing with the uneducated.) I had nineteen years of formal education; many of them had less than twelve. Most of my education involved lots of writing and talking, whereas they seemed taciturn and reserved.

I was impressed that they knew more about some things than I. Mostly, they talked and thought with the Bible. They easily, quite naturally referred to Scripture in their conversation, freely using biblical metaphors, sometime referring to obscure biblical texts that I had never read. If they had not read the masters of my thought – Bultmann, Tillich, and Barth, then I had no way to speak to them. I had been in a world that based communicating upon conversations about the thought of others, rather than worrying overmuch about my own thoughts. I realized that my divinity school had made me adept in construing the world psychologically, sociologically (that is, anthropologically) rather than theologically. The only conceptual equipment my people had was that provided by the church, whereas most of my means of making sense were given to me by the academy. Their interpretation of the world was not simply primitive, or simple, or naïve, as I first thought. Rather they were thinking in ways that were different from my ways of thinking. I came to realize that we were not simply speaking from different perspectives and experiences; it was as if we were speaking across the boundaries of two different worlds.

When a theologically trained seminary graduate like me confronts the sociological reality of the church, when a new pastor, schooled in a vision of the church as it ought to be, has his or her nose rubbed in the church as it is, it’s a collision that is the concern of this book. The leap between academia and ecclesia can be a challenge.

I want to avoid a characterization of the challenge as a leap between the goofy ideal (ecclesia as portrayed in the thoughtful academy) and the gritty real (ecclesia as it is in all its grubby mediocrity). Sometimes new pastors say, “Seminary did not prepare me for the true work of ministry,” or “There is too great a gap between what I was told in seminary and what the church really is.”

I do not want to put the matter in a way that privileges academia over ecclesia, as if to imply that to theological schools and seminaries has been given the noble vision of the real, true, faithful church whereas it has been given to the church the grubby, impossible task of actually being the church, putting all that high falutin’ theological theory into institutional praxis.

The challenge is not to stretch oneself between the ideal and the real, or the clash between the theoretical and the practical, the challenge is in finding oneself in the middle of an intersection where two intellectual worlds collide. True, there is often a disconcerting disconnect between the questions being raised in the seminary and the answers that constitute the church. Yet there may also be the problem that the seminary is preoccupied with the wrong questions, or at least questions that arise from intentions other than the Kingdom of God and its fullness.

The Seminary’s World

To be sure, it’s risky to attempt to characterize so complex and diverse a phenomenon as “the seminary.” My characterization arises out of nearly thirty years on a mainline protestant seminary faculty and visits, in the course of time, to over forty different theological schools. Some of my books have become standard texts in the curriculum of a few dozen seminaries, so I know at least a large part of the world of the seminary.

I am helped, in attempting to generalize about theological education, because the world of the seminary is more uniform and standardized than the world of the church. Seminaries, be they large or small, conservative or liberal, have more in common than the churches they serve. They have patterned their internal lives, constructed their curricula, selected their faculties, and have expectations of their students that are based more on the models of other seminaries than on the mission of the church. That’s only one of the problems of theological schools.

Seminaries, at least those in our church, labor under a growing disconnect between the graduates they are producing and the leadership needs of the churches these graduates are serving. This disjunction causes friction in and sometimes defeat of the transition between seminary and church for new pastors. For example, most protestant seminaries have organized themselves on the basis of modern, Western ways of knowing. The epistemology that still holds theological education captive is that which was borrowed from the modern university – detached objectively, the fact/value dichotomy, the separation of emotion and reason with the exaltation of reason as the superior means of knowing, the sovereignty of subjectivity, the loss of any authority other than the isolated, sovereign self pared with subservience to the social, cultural, and political needs of the modern nation state. (The best history of what happened in our seminaries in the Twentieth Century is by Conrad Cherry, Hurrying Toward Zion: Universities, Divinity Schools and American Protestantism, Indiana University Press, 1995.)

That’s saying a mouthful but it is an attempt to depict the intellectual “world” of the theological school that has a tough time honoring the intellectual restrictions of academia and the peculiarly sweeping mandate of the church of Jesus Christ.

The word “seminary” means literally “seed bed.” Seminary was meant to be the nursery where budding theologians are cultivated and seeds are planted that will bear good fruit, God willing, in the future. Trouble is, seminaries thought they could simply overlay those governmentally patronized, culturally confirmed ways of academic thinking over the church’s ways of thought, and proceed right along as if nothing had happened between the seminary as the church created it to be (a place to equip and form new pastoral leaders for the church) and the seminary as it became (another graduate/professional school).

In the world of the contemporary theological school, faculty talk mostly to one another (As Nietzsche noted, long ago, no one reads theologians except for other theologians.), faculty accredit and tenure other faculty using criteria derived mainly from the modern, secular research university.

The Church’s World

Seminarians who have been schooled in modern, Western notions that they are primarily individuals, detached persons whose main source of authority is their own subjectivity, have thereby been inculcated into the unchristian notion that they should think for themselves. What a shock to enter their first parish and find that church is an essentially group phenomenon, an inherently traditioned enterprise. Our most original thinking occurs when we think, not by ourselves, but with the saints. The best thing that seminary has done for its graduates, if it has done its work, is to introduce them to the burden and the blessing of the church’s tradition, to form them into advocates for the collective witness of the church, and to make believe that the church is God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world. Yet the way that the seminary engages the witness of the saints makes it difficult for new pastors to think with the saints.

In my book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon, 2002), I observed that many seminarians tend to be introverted, reflective, personal seekers after God whereas the church is heavily politicized and communal. Pastors are supremely “community persons,” officials of an institution, leaders who the church expects to worry about community and group cohesion with a Savior whose salvation is always a group phenomenon. The seminarian who is trained occasionally to write a speech for a group of individuals, sometimes to do one-on-one counseling, to form intense personal relationships within a conglomerate of individuals, finds herself flung into a politically charged, complex organization, a family system that requires astute knowledge of group dynamics and wise leadership of a divisive group of people who have been caught in the dragnet of God’s expansive grace in Christ. When Chrysostom argued his own inadequacy to be a pastor or bishop, it was precisely this public quality of Christian leadership that he cited as the reason why he did not have what it takes to be a pastor.

I, therefore, say to seminarians, upon their graduation, you are not just taking on a new job, you are moving to a new world.

Recently, I asked a group of our best and brightest new pastors what they would like most from the church and from me as their bishop. I was surprised to hear them all respond: “Supervision!” They yearn for help with the move between these two worlds because they realize the inadequacy of their preparation. Churches and judicatories must take this move more seriously and must develop better means of mentoring and supervising new pastors through this process.

As someone who now works with new pastors on that move from the world of the theological school to the world of the parish, I have some specific suggestions:

1. Devise ways to learn to speak their language. Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses “religious” words like “spiritual practice,” “liberation,” “empowerment,” “intentional community” (this is an actual list a layperson collected and sent to me) that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such “preacher talk” makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership.

2. At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church’s peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to my first suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel. Trouble is, most seminarians are more skilled, upon graduation from school, to be able to describe the world anthropologically than theologically.

3. Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it’s just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds. I recommend reading novels (Flannery O’Connor saved me in my first parish by writing true stories that sounded like they were written by one of my parishioners) in order to appreciate the thought and the speech of people who, while having never been initiated into the narrow confines of the world of theological education, are thinking deeply.

4. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church’s demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not.

5. One reason why the church needs theology explored and taught in its seminaries is that theology (at its best) keeps making Christian discipleship as hard as it ought to be. Theology keeps guard over the church’s peculiar speech and the church’s distinctive mission. The way the church “really is” is faithless, mistaken, cowardly, and compromised. It’s sad that it is up to seminaries to offer some of the most trenchant and interesting critiques of the church. Criticism of the church ought to be part of the ongoing mission of a faithful church that takes Jesus more seriously and itself a little less so. I pray that your theological education rendered you permanently uneasy with the church. Promise me that you will, throughout your ministry, never be happy with the church.

6. I pray that you studied hard in seminary, read widely, thought deeply because you are going to need all of that if you are going to stay long as a leader of the church. Your life would be infinitely easier and less complicated if God had called you to be an accountant. Most of the stuff that you read in seminary will only prepare you really to grow and to develop after you leave seminary. Think of your tough transition into the parish as the beginning, not the end, of your adventure into real growth as a minister. Theology tends to be wasted on the young. It’s only when you run into a complete dead end in the parish, when you are aging and tired and fed up with the people of God (and maybe even God too) that you need to know where to go to have a good conversation with some saint in order to make it through the night. Believe it or not, it’s much easier to begin in the ministry, even considering the tough transition between seminary and the parish, than it is to continue in ministry. A winning smile, a pleasing personality, a winsome way with people, none of these are enough to keep you working with Jesus, preaching the Word, nurturing the flock, looking for the lost. Only God can do that and a major way God does that is through the prayerful, intense reading, study and reflection that you can only begin in four years of seminary.

7. Try not to listen to your parishioners when they attempt to use you to weasel out of the claims of Christ. Much of the criticism that you will receive, many of their negative comments about your work, are just their attempt to excuse themselves from discipleship. “When you are older, you will understand,” they told me as a young pastor. “You have still got all that theological stuff in you from seminary. Eventually, you’ll learn,” said older, cynical pastors. Now it’s, “Because you are a bishop, you don’t really understand that I can’t….” God has called you to preach and to live the gospel before them and they will use any means to avoid it. Be suspicious when people encourage you to see the transition from seminary to the parish as mainly a time finally to settle in and make peace with the “real world.” Jesus Christ is our definition of what’s real and there is much that passes for “the way things are” in the average church that makes Jesus want to grab a whip in hand and clean house.

The Necessity of Mentors

Selecting a mentor can be your greatest challenge as a new pastor. Few experienced pastors have the training or the gifts for mentoring a new colleague. The “Lone Ranger” mentality afflicts many lonely pastors and their work shows the results of their failure to obey Jesus’ sending of the Seventy “two by two” (Luke 10:1). Some senior colleagues are often threatened by your youth, or your idealism, or your talent, seeing their own failures and disappointments in the light of your future promise. You will encounter those experienced pastors whose main experience has been that of accommodation, appeasement, and disillusionment with the meager impact of their ministry. They have a personal stake in robbing you of your youthful energy and expectation for ministry. Their goal is to get you to say, “Well, I thought that ministry in the name of Jesus would be a great adventure but now I’ve settled in and turned it into a modestly well-paying job.”

Yet in asking someone to be your mentor, to look into your life, to show you how to do ministry as they have done it, is one of the most flattering and affirming things you can do for a senior colleague. The Christian ministry is too tough to be done alone. There is something built into the practice of Christian ministry that requires apprenticeship from Paul mentoring young Timothy to Ambrose guiding the willful Augustine, to Carlyle Marney putting his arm around me and saying, “Here’s what a kid like you has got to watch out for.” In my experience, one of the most revealing questions that I can ask a new pastor is, “Who are your models for ministry? Whose example are you following?”

The Lord is infinite in mercy, full of forgiveness, and patient with those whom the Lord calls to ministry.

William H. Willimon