The Theology of Practical Ministry

Seminary is part of the official preparation of clergy for their ordained ministry.  Seminarians take classes in Holy Scripture, Church History, Theology, Liturgy, and even Church Music.  And then there are the practical classes - practical liturgy that helps you deal with squirmy babies at baptism without dropping the newly-baptized into the font; practical music educates you, hopefully, that since the organist doesn't tell you how to preach, you might return the favor; and practical ministry, or as I like to call it, things you should learn from life, but if you weren't paying attention, you get to do a case study for a grade.

Make no mistake, all of these classes are helpful in some ways.  The economy of Godly formation for all of us is that nothing is wasted, although my chapel practicum class came very close to being the exception.

So what would I say are some important tips for practical ministry?  Well, now that you asked...

1.  You can read all the books you want to read, plan all you can plan, and consult all you can consult, and you will still make some stunning mistakes.  You will say something inane in a meeting, annoy the bishop by being you, miss an important pastoral opportunity, and any number of other flubs.  Remember we are clergy, not perfect.  Our witness in life is not a life lived without error, but a life lived knowing we are loved in our imperfections and stunning mistakes.  Forgiveness is not just a theory; it's a challenging journey for all of us as we forgive ourselves for our errors.  Oh, and we will spend the rest of our lives learning to love ourselves and our mistakes.

2.  The church has been around for over 2000 years; God's people have been organized in some form or another for eons longer than that.  Whatever bright idea you have, someone's done it before.  Humility is a good thing.

3.  Contrary to the belief of a former colleague, we do not get all of our issues worked out in seminary.  Mental health is as important as physical and spiritual health.  Working on your issues with a trained professional is preferable to working them out on your parishioners or colleagues.  And less likely to get you in scads of trouble.

4.  Remember you were a child of God before you were ordained.  Ordination does not mean God loves you more.

5.  We hear over and over - find a hobby outside the church.  Yet I rarely hear people say why that's a good idea.  My experience is that professional ministry can be all-consuming.  There is always, always more work than week.  Having an interest (I think hobby sounds a bit thin, actually) where you can be you - not a priest - is grounding and helps with #4.  Giving your soul a place to sing that is not associated with formal ministry gives depth and beauty to your song.  And it gives you an escape when you need to do something "not church" for a while.  

6.  However you learned to do it in seminary, you will be faced with a situation that will ask you to reconsider the "rules."  Sometimes you'll reconsider correctly; sometimes you'll mess it up.  When you are considering, be willing to ask how much of your bending the rules is about pastoral need and how much is about you needing to be cool, needing to be liked, and needing to show you can bend the rules (also known as your ego).

7.  The only way you can be present to someone in the midst of their darkness and grief is to have made the journey yourself.  If you haven't dropped into the great deep with God, felt lost and alone, and screamed, "Why!" to the universe, you will eventually have the opportunity.  And when the time comes, wander with God.  Nothing is more distasteful to me than clergy who have never touched their own wounds, yet advise others on how to fix theirs.

8.  Be shamelessly excited about something wholly unrelated to the higher spiritual calling.  The Walking Dead premieres Sunday, and I love my new Mary Kay lipgloss.  Yay!

9.  You cannot save the world or your church.  Jesus did that already.  Just love the people who are in your life in a healthy way and tend the small corner of the vineyard in your care.

10.  Laugh at yourself.  Cry when you need to cry (and never apologize for tears - in the Orthodox tradition they are a gift of the Spirit).  Run wild when you need to run wild.  Pray always.  Share.    


Anonymous said…
I read these honest truths. I nod sagely in agreement. Why on earth do I therefore find it so difficult to take on board, and why are my own self-expectations so unreasonable?

Thank you. I often need the bleedin' obvious to be said aloud to me.

Fr. S
revlauriebrock said…
Don't we all. We never write what we don't ourselves need to remember again and again.
Noel said…
Thank you. I think that even outside seminary (or in my case, just not there yet), we all need to be reminded of this.
Anonymous said…
Amen, and seconded (both on the needfulness of being reminded, and the not there yet.)

Ansku said…
Excellent advice from experience. Thank you.

I'd better go now and laugh at myself.

Anonymous said…
I am so very glad a friend of mine showed me your blog--as someone very tentatively circling the idea of seminary, this is fantastic to read and remember. As someone who is within the church at all, this is fantastic to read and remember. (And I agree with Fr. S., how very easy it is to agree with something and how very difficult to do it).
Joie said…
I am so glad there are indeed those who understand these truths. I have endeavored to live them fully in and out of my ordained life but, honestly, have hit the brick wall of "The Church" over and over again. When will we, as the hierarchy, actually believe these things are true and support those on such a path? My experience in my little corner of the Church is that lip service is given but not real support. Thank you, however, for supporting such an understanding here.

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