REFLECTIONS ON THE “SENIOR SEMINAR”
Priming the pump with "ministerial arts"
From the Gettysburg P.O. by Michael L. Cooper-White
Each January we offer a “Senior Seminar” for students in their final days of preparing for the Church’s public ministry. In addition to what is offered in other venues, this non-credit seminar seeks to provide our seniors with some practical tips for interviewing with bishops and parish call committees. Dr. Marty Stevens offers an overview of compensation-related matters, including some aspects of the Internal Revenue code that apply uniquely to ordained clergy. Our financial aid director, Ms. Susan Kowalski, likewise gives counsel on how to cope with student loan repayments. Finally, representatives of the ELCA Board of Pensions, Foundation, and Mission Investment Fund round out the seminar with additional nitty-gritty information and advice, all of which the seniors seem to appreciate.
A highlight for many who participate in the seminar is when a group of recently-rostered graduates come to share their experiences. With a year or two of ministry “under the belt,” these newer alumnae/i reflect upon their own initial call processes, and also have some wisdom based upon their first year or two of ministry. While not much prompting is required, we “primed the pump” for a lively hour-plus of conversation by asking our five presenters in the 2011 Senior Seminar what they wish they would have known as they were finishing Seminary and being considered for their first ministerial positions. They also were encouraged to share their most important insights gained early in their careers.
In being interviewed by a parish call committee, suggested one recent alumnus, it is crucial to discover a congregation’s vision and sense of its mission. “If they have one,” he urged,” ask a call committee to talk about their mission statement and how they live it out.” Whether one is a newly-minted minister or seasoned veteran, learning as much as possible about a congregation or other ministry prior to an interview will serve the process well. In addition to reviewing the standard congregational profile, a candidate for call can do additional “homework” ahead of an interview by reviewing parish publications, a website, and such documents as congregational histories and the constitution. Gaining insights from the synod (or other judicatory) bishop and staff may be possible as well.
Being authentic and transparent is to be expected on the part of Christian leaders. At the same time, a call interview is not the time for a “tell all” in which one reveals every mistake ever made or permits inappropriate intrusion into deeply personal and private matters. Particularly dicey in “churchly” settings can be probing questions about family circumstances, physical challenges and the like, that would be illegal for “secular” employers to ask in a job interview. How one fields such questions will signal a person’s ongoing approach to ministry. If we are overly-guarded, we may be perceived as aloof, defensive and non-transparent. At the same time, the failure to insist that appropriate boundaries be maintained by all involved in a call-related conversation may create the impression one will allow ongoing unreasonable intrusions into personal and private matters.
“You’ll learn early on that usually the ‘real issue’ at the heart of a conflict is not what appears to be the case on the surface,” said one of the alumni in his reflections. In view of the fact that the nature of ministry is never-ending, and that no one can do all that is expected by self and others, another of the speakers insisted that it is vitally important that one “learn the art of saying NO.” Recognizing that new pastors often come out of the starting gates rearing to go, another counseled the seniors, “Figure out your own internal clock, and THEN SLOW IT DOWN!” In other words, recognize that most goals and objectives formulated early on by any new leader will require a much longer timeline than anticipated.
On this same theme of patience, several of the pastors “young in ministry” urged the class of 2011 to begin contingency planning in the event they do not have calls immediately upon graduation. With calls taking at least a bit longer on average than in more recent times, contemplating the possibility of some “down time” between Seminary and first call is important. Likewise, said one alumnus, seniors should avoid giving way to a sense of desperation, which could result in saying “yes” to the first opportunity offered in spite of having deep reservations about whether or not there is a good enough “match” between parish and pastor-to-be. “And most important of all,” voiced one of the alumnae, “it’s critical to deepen your prayer life as you move through this challenging time of transition.” At that, heads were nodding up and down the row of those invited back to campus to share their experiences.
What a privilege it was for a handful of us who serve on the Seminary staff to eavesdrop on this “holy conversation” between recent graduates and members of the class of 2011. As the first day of the senior seminar concluded, this eavesdropper was proud of what our school produces by way of leaders for the Church. And I found myself hoping that the kind of collegiality demonstrated in that Library “upper room” on a cold wintry day will persist lifelong for all of us who hear and heed Christ’s calling to the Church’s public ministry!