The Process of Becoming a Pastor Has Changed – That’s Both Good and Not-So-Good

I preached my 40th Easter Sermon in what is the historically oldest congregation in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina last weekend. Professional ministry and the preparation to become a professional minister have changed in those forty years.

Note: This is not a post about how it used to be better or harder so let’s make it harder for seminarians.

There are certainly generational differences in those entering seminary today and those who entered seminary 10-50 years ago. Requirements have changed. Demographics have changed. Expectations have changed. Seminaries have changed. Thanks be to God.

Today, we have online seminaries, weekend seminaries, commuter seminaries, and the traditional live-on-campus seminaries. Today it’s possible in many of our seminaries and/or denominations to be ordained without ever doing field education in a congregational setting, much less in a congregational setting that’s unlike one’s home church. Some people are even ordained to serve their own home church.

It used to be true that every seminarian was required to get experience in contexts unlike what’s familiar to them. For example, I grew up in a large small city church. I had planned to be a hospital chaplain when I started seminary, and took four units of Clinical Pastoral Education, and was also required to do field education in a church unlike my home congregation. My first call was not as a hospital chaplain but as a rural church pastor in a town of 400. But it was okay. When my sense of call changed (from chaplaincy to little rural congregation) I was prepared for a broad variety of contexts.

Philadelphia Presbytery and Princeton Theological Seminary are partnering to offer a really cool field education experience that involves students serving in congregational contexts but working to dream about community ministries working from those congregations. This is great training for 21st Century professional ministry.

I’ve often said that I wish I’d taken seminary classes in non-profit management and community organizing along with all the language, Bible, theology, practical, and history classes. I’ve taken continuing education courses in those other areas over the past decades. And I encourage new and seasoned pastors to branch out and fill out what seminaries didn’t teach with new learnings after ordination. (Note: pastors also need training in conflict resolution, leadership, stewardship and personnel management.)

This is not about hazing seminarians or pastors as in “when I was a student I had to walk ten miles to my field education church and work ten hours every Sunday – so you should have to do that too . . .” This is not about forcing busy people to become busier for the sake of the Gospel. This is definitely not making seminarians “marketable.” (A mid-council leader once told HH that he was impressively “marketable.” Gross.)

This is about being a well-rounded leader whom God is preparing to do whatever.

I still believe that professional ministry (and I include Chaplains, Educators and Youth Leaders here too) is an unusual calling in which we can expect God to lead us to serve in places we would never choose for ourselves. See Abram, Ruth, and Jonah. It always concerns me when a seminarian declares that they will never . . .

  • Leave their hometown
  • Serve a small church
  • Live farther than 5 miles from a craft brewery
  • Go to a part of the world they don’t want to ever go

It’s possible that God could call us to serve in a rural community where we don’t know anyone or in a part of the country where we don’t have family or a place with three diners and no coffee shop. It’s possible.

God gets to be God in terms of leading people. If God is doing the calling, all will be well even if it’s arduous.

I don’t believe God calls us to contexts that will be abusive or damaging. But I do believe God challenges us and blesses us in unlikely places. As a person who lived in the same (semi-perfect) town where I was born for the first 23 years of my life, it’s been a blessing to serve in three other states far-ish from home these past decades.

May this Eastertide offer deep insights and nuggets of wisdom. If you are a pastor or you are preparing to be a pastor, keep an open mind. God has unexpected plans for us.

Image of the chapel at the Charlotte Campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

5 responses to “The Process of Becoming a Pastor Has Changed – That’s Both Good and Not-So-Good

  1. I remember, 40some years ago, promising that I would go wherever God called me. 4 years later, it was “Oklahoma? OKLAHOMA? I was thinking Africa…” Now, after all the O states, both the Carolinas, and California, in congregations huge and tiny, I guess God knew best…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Merritt Nickinson Schatz

    Jan, you offer wise words here. I would also include that just because God calls us to places different from where we were, we do not have to think or declare that previous places or ministries or missions were bad or wrong. Sometimes God calls us to let go of perfectly good things or places in order to serve in new and different ways. I tried to say this to a Session at a church I was serving and they looked confused, then tried to explain what God was preventing by having me leave comfortable places (being near close family could have been a bad thing, they said.) They couldn’t see that some things, some places, need to be let go – not necessarily because they were bad or wrong, but because something new needed to happen.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The ministry is a grand adventure because its packed with both uncertainty and discovery (and the two are inextricably linked)! To insist that ministry be entirely a matter of choice and preference only diminishes it. A rich ministry, on the other hand, means trusting God to make it so.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While I was in seminary I had a fellowship from the Fund for Theological Education and chose to use that fellowship to drive all around the country interviewing clergy women about their experiences in ministry. I interviewed women in Montana, Northern California, Texas, and New England the first summer and added some interviews in the Southeast the second summer. Part of what I was trying to do was to expand and explode my ideas about what ministry is, away from my pk expectations. It worked. I was moved by ministry unfolding in places I NEVER thought I would ever want to live and by people fulfilling roles I could NEVER have imagined fulfilling. Perhaps this is what led me to start my ministry as a solo pastor of a rural congregation despite the fact that I went to the seminary best known for preparing folks for urban ministry. I think God gets all the credit there, but I think it is so valuable to stretch our preconceived notions about call and fit.

    Liked by 1 person

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