August marks the time when many who felt God's call to Holy Orders and whose call was affirmed by various diocesan and denominational committees arrive at seminary. Many have left family, communities of faith, and familiarity to venture into the unknown. A close friend is making this very journey (yay Matt!), and months ago, he asked if I had any insight or advice for someone just entering seminary.
Shockingly enough, I do.
1. Thinking you will learn most of what you need to be a priest (or pastor or minister) in your seminary classes is akin to thinking you can learn to ride a horse only by reading books and going to lectures. You can't. Yes, you will learn things that will help your vocation. Knowing theology, scripture, and church history, among other things, is foundational. But at some point, the only way you learn how to be a priest and pastor is to do it...and screw it up in ways at which your ego will shriek in horror. You will also be exactly the priest you need to be at exactly the moment, too.
2. Go to open 12-Step meetings to learn about addiction and to be confronted with your own addiction issues. I cannot quote Richard Rohr enough: we are all addicts; some of us just have socially acceptable addictions. My experience is that most seminary classes have members who are in recovery and will be quite helpful about all that is addiction. Trust me when I say most new clergy (and many older clergy) have no idea how pervasive addiction issues are in congregations.
3. Learn about mental illness. Learn as much as you can about mental illness. If your seminary is on top of things and has classes that offer education in this area, take as many classes as you can. My seminary offered one, and it was almost ignored by seminarians on the ordination tract. I took it and still felt woefully unprepared for working with parishioners who struggle with mental illness and how their illnesses impact a community.
4. Keep the sermons you write and preach in seminary and your first two to three years after ordination. In about a decade after your ordination, take them out and read them. I hope you'll think, "Oh God, I preached this?" It means you've gotten better. That's a key point in this ministry call - to grow and change and become - even after you are ordained.
5. My favorite writer has a quote that goes something like this: "If you run into a jerk during the day, you ran into a jerk. If you're surrounded by jerks, you're the jerk." Basically, you will run into jerks in seminary and you will be the jerk. All those people in your class who annoy you to no end? Yeah, those same personality types will also be clergy in your community. Because, quite honestly, what you hate in them is really what you hate in yourself. Isn't God a stinker for using others to show us the darker, unpleasant parts of ourselves and to help us see the plank in our own eye?
6. None of us were called to ordained ministry because we are awesome. Somehow in God's economy, our wounds and scars are what God sees as valuable. So begin the hard, hard process of tearing down all the false awesomeness and letting your wounds and scars be exposed. A caveat - don't become that person who is only known by his/her wounds and scars. That's just another way of hiding behind false awesomeness. One way to do this (and I say it repeatedly): therapy.
7. Know deep in your bones this vocation will call you to sacrifices you will not want to make. I wish I could give you the, "But Jesus makes it all better," but I can't. In the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the writer notes that because of all he went through with his son's illness and death, he knew he was a better rabbi. He also is brutally honest when he admits he'd rather have his son back. Our pain might be redeemed, but even redemption doesn't mean we are glad to have gone through the pain. Every priest I know can tell you personal losses they've experienced, parts of themselves they've had gutted by the church, the way their families have been wounded by their call, and an untold number of moments that left them bloody and broken on the floor of the church. Some find ways to go forward in full-time ordained ministry. Others hear God calling them on a new path. Jesus warns us so many times in the Gospels that this ministry thing is no bed of roses. Believe him.
8. Remember, the clergy collar does not make you a priest. If you aren't enough without the collar, you'll never be enough with it.
9. For the Episcopalians reading this: READ, LEARN, and INWARDLY DIGEST the Book of Common Prayer. Know the rubrics. Believe rubrics are your friend. Read them again and again until you can recite many from memory. Some months ago, when talking with a priest from another diocese, he asked, "Do you use the Nicene Creed every Sunday? I find it takes away from the sermon." I wish, at that moment, I was that priest who carried a flask of bourbon with her at all times. Contrary to my Kentucky reputation, I am not, so I took a deep breath instead and died a bit inside. I cannot stress this enough: bad liturgy is akin to bad pastoral care.
10. Find ways to pray that are not in the acceptable and impressive seminary category of prayer. Experience new ways to pray: go regularly to art museums or concerts, do Tai Chi, paint - use your imagination! The challenge of ordained ministry is that our prayer and worship is also our work. So we need to find other ways to be still and know that God is God.
11. And remember, you will have some of the most challenging and most celebratory moments of your path to ordination with your classmates in seminary. Be present fully. Laugh deeply. Cry honestly. And skip classes every now and then to play.