On-the-job training

After a decade in ministry, a pastor shares lessons that they didn’t teach in seminary.

By Amy Butler

Every minister knows there could be massive tomes written on the topic, “Things I Never Learned in Seminary.” This is not because seminary faculties try to trick us by leaving some of the essentials out of the curriculum on purpose; it’s more that there are some things that are best learned by experience.

This Sunday marks my 10th anniversary as Calvary’s pastor. Thinking about this journey we’ve been on together has made me a bit nostalgic about where I was and where I am, and some of the things I’ve learned in between.

Back in the day, when I started this adventure of pastoring, there were some things I knew for sure. Those things weren’t too defined or fully fleshed out, but they could be best summed up like this: Christians are great! Jesus is great! Church is great!

Ten years later the gift of experience has helped me learn these in new and deeper ways, and also taught me a few more lessons. Here are four that immediately come to mind:

-- You have to earn respect. It’s a mistake to answer a call to ministry assuming that your title or your calling will automatically make people respect you, offer you jobs, pay you adequately, write you glowing thank you notes on a regular basis or even be nice to you.

Maybe in the society of a hundred years ago pastors got carte blanche because of those three little letters in front of their names, but not anymore. In fact, a title like mine might be more of a liability than anything; at the very least it’s usually a real party killer.

So maybe respect for the Rev. is hard to come by these days, but here’s what I’ve learned: just like anything else in life, the payoff comes when you work hard and do your best. You’ve got to earn whatever respect you’re given.

And, you should also learn when it’s more expeditious to just leave off the Rev. and answer a question about what you do with, “I run a small nonprofit.”

– Pay attention in math class. Really. Pay attention in math class and every other class that has no relevance for the deep theological inquiry for which you are preparing.

Go ahead and pull out your beloved and well-worn copy of Church Dogmatics to pore over while you have your morning coffee if you must. But don’t stop there, because Karl Barth is not going to help you when the sanctuary air conditioning stops working.

I’ve learned the pastorate doesn’t conform very well to the specialized vocational trend in this country; pastors have to know a lot about many different things. In the past 10 years I’ve had the opportunity to learn more than I ever expected to know about things like plumbing, mental illness, marketing, landscaping, food service, human resources, pest control and the law, to name a few.

– Find a pastor. I entered pastoral ministry partially because I loved the church. For many pastors it was the church that nurtured and shaped us, so what could possibly be better than spending a lifetime working there, right?

The problem comes when you move all your books into the pastor’s office and find out fairly quickly and sometimes painfully that you can’t really be on the receiving end of that kind of ecclesiastical nurture and still do your job well.

This is as it should be, as effective pastoral leadership takes a bit of professional distance to help with critical duties like articulating vision and saying prophetic things that make people mad.

But all of that doesn’t mean you don’t have a spiritual life, need a spiritual community, and even need a pastor yourself.

So, find them. Outside your church. Spiritual director, colleague support group, personal trainer, psychiatrist – whatever it takes, build your support team and use them.

– Keep learning. I sat in Washington National Cathedral the day I received my doctor of ministry degree and cried because I was so sad school was definitely, officially over for me. I cried because I love school, but also because I forgot for a moment that effective pastoral ministry means you never really stop going to school.

There are many, many opportunities for spiritual, personal and intellectual growth out there, and as a leader you do your congregation a disservice if you don’t take advantage of them.

You also cheat yourself out of learning that expands your horizons, gives you new skills, and helps you dance gracefully with the ever-changing partner of vocation.

I am still thinking about the many theological applications of motorcycle operation, for example.

These are just a few off the list of things learned. The list also includes: it’s not about you; don’t say the word “hell” in a non-theological context when being interviewed by a reporter from the Washington Post; hire people who are smarter than you are; make sure you never wear a short skirt if you’re not leading worship in a robe; laugh at yourself a lot and many, many more.

Ten years feels like a big milestone but it’s not that long in the span of a whole human life, so looking back at everything I’ve learned these 10 years leads me to suspect that there will be even more to learn moving forward.

But on this anniversary I’ll just pause for a moment and say: for all the many things I’ve learned these years of pastoral ministry, I am indisputably changed and shaped and (mostly) grateful.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.