Allan Hugh Cole, professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, has edited a book for new pastors, From Midterms to Ministry (Eerdmans). I was asked to write a chapter in the volume, recounting my own journey from seminary to the parish, drawing out any implications that my experience had for new pastors.
This month, thousands of new pastors will emerge from seminary.... I therefore offer these thoughts in the next few weeks, hoping that they will be helpful to those of us who are new in the pastoral ministry and those who are not.
Recently, I asked a group of our best and brightest new pastors what they would like most from the church and from me as their bishop. I was surprised to hear them all respond: "Supervision!" They yearn for help with the move between these two worlds because they realize the inadequacy of their preparation. Churches and judicatories must take this move more seriously and must develop better means of mentoring and supervising new pastors through this process.
As someone who now works with new pastors on that move from the world of the theological school to the world of the parish, I have some specific suggestions:
Devise ways to learn to speak their language. Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses "religious" words like "spiritual practice," "liberation," "empowerment," "intentional community" (this is an actual list a layperson collected and sent to me) that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such "preacher talk" makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership.
At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church's peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to my first suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel. Trouble is, most seminarians are more skilled, upon graduation from school, to be able to describe the world anthropologically than theologically. They have learned to use the language of Marxist analysis or feminist criticism better than the language of Zion. We must be person who lovingly cultivate and actively use the church's peculiar speech.
Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it's just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds. I recommend reading novels (Flannery O'Connor saved me in my first parish by writing true stories that sounded like they were written by one of my parishioners) in order to appreciate the thought and the speech of people who, while having never been initiated into the narrow confines of the world of theological education, are thinking deeply.
Remind yourself that while the seminary has an important role to play in the life of the church, it is the seminary that must be accountable to the church, not vice versa. It is my prejudice that, if you have difficulty making the transition from seminary to parish it is probably a criticism of the seminary. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church's demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not.
[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon" to the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, May 11, 2009]