Friday, April 25, 2008

Approaching the final year, part 4: Keep it humble

So you're getting a seminary degree... what does that mean to you?

For many (most?) of us, it was an accomplishment that we were/are pretty proud of. It means a lot of hard work: difficult study, learning new languages, writing papers, reading mountains of books. It also means building new friendships, getting to know some amazing professors and others, getting to study the Bible and other wonderful fields of study with intensity.

For some of us it also means working full-time or nearly so to support ourselves and our families as we accomplish all of the above.

Your seminary degree is a great achievement, and something you ought to take great pride in. But it is also something that you need to keep a healthy (read: humble) perspective about.

Frankly, many people in your future congregation won't care so much about your achievements in seminary-- or if they do, it will be because they are intimidated by what you know that they don't. They won't have a clear understanding of how hard you worked, or how difficult it was for you to learn all that you have. At best, they will appreciate the fact that you know the answers to tough questions, and that you have gathered the tools you will need to minister the Word of God effectively.

You need to begin to cultivate now the attitude that will allow you to minister to them in the future.

When you complete your degree, you'll be awarded a "Master of Divinity" (or perhaps a "Master of Arts etc.") degree-- which is to say, you may feel compelled to consider yourself a master of these materials! But be careful: as you have probably become all too aware, you haven't mastered very much through the seminary process. If anything, seminary may (and probably should) have served to reveal to you how little you have mastered, and how much you have yet to learn.

A case in point: I didn't know of anyone in my preaching classes who earned an "A" on their sermons. I certainly didn't-- and shouldn't have. Think of what such a message would communicate to a seminary student? For many of us (including me), these were among the first sermons we had ever preached. Yet preaching is an art-form that takes years of practice to master, and often hundreds of sermons to become adept at. One pastor I know suggested that it took a pastor his first 100 sermons or so just to find his own style and voice in preaching. Should a seminarian be given any inclination of mastery after having preached his third of fourth?

Another factor to consider is that, despite your best efforts, you will likely have very little real-world experience applying the many things you have learned. You know lots of facts, and you know many good methods. But you don't yet know people-- especially the people you will be called to serve and shepherd in the context of your first pastoral call.

Who will those people be? Some of them will be better-educated than you, academically. Others won't have anything approaching a graduate degree, yet they will have many years of life experience and knowledge in fields you may never have heard of. All (or nearly all) of them have some things you don't: they know who they are, who the people in their congregation are, what the dynamics of that congregation are, and what the community and culture that they live in are like.

A few years ago, the TV show Ed centered around the lives of a few old classmates in their home town. One of these, Mike, had completed medical school and returned home to work with the old, well-established Dr. Jerome, who had served that community as the only doctor for decades. Dr. Jerome was a real curmudgeon, and showed Mike almost no respect as a doctor-- frustrating Mike almost to the point of quitting-- until finally Mike learns that Dr. Jerome has been waiting for Mike to begin to respect and care about the people he cares for as much as he cares about the medicine itself. At that point (not until the third season, by the way) Dr. Jerome finally begins to treat Mike with the respect and authority that Mike deserves.

Ministry is very much like that: until we respect the people we serve (or will serve) in ministry as much as we respect the knowledge and office of ministry itself, we won't have their ear and our efforts will be like spinning our wheels in the snow-- no traction.

You've done good work in your seminary degree; don't undervalue it. But don't assume that because you've earned a "Master of Divinity" that you're fully prepared for the humbling work of ministry.

A more reasonable title would be, not Master of Divinity, but Apprentice of Divinity. You've (almost) completed a huge step along the way toward gaining the knowledge and tools you will need for good ministry. Now it's time to begin shaping the heart of a pastor by seeking an appropriate level of humility.

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