4 Lessons I Didn’t Learn from Seminary
I have spent a good deal of time pondering the statement: “ The things Seminary didn’t prepare you for.”
I graduated from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in May 1986 and was ordained in 1987.
Now that I have been in ministry for thirty-four years this is an opportunity to look back as well as to look forward.
I had a good, solid theological education and while I am very thankful for that, as I look back, I see how much of my education for ministry was On the Job Training and trial by fire!
When I was coordinating the response of our Chaplain staff following the midair collision of two rescue helicopters, and losing thirteen souls on board the two helicopters, I drew on my year of Clinical Pastoral Education that I had completed through the Air Force three months prior to the crash.
Providing the appropriate trauma response as we notified family members that their loved ones had died and as we worked with the other members of the squadron who were angry and grieving wasn’t something that I learned in seminary.
During my five-years of ministry in Estes Park, Colorado I experienced death on a scale that I had never experienced before.
Over the course of those five years I officiated at 53 funerals and spent a lot of time providing pastoral care to the dying and to their families.
One particular moment stands out for me.
At 9am on my first day back in the office after my Mother’s funeral I received a phone call from one of my parishioners.
Corinne’s Dad had a subdural hematoma and was non-responsive.
She wanted to let me know but didn’t expect me to go to the hospital that was over an hour away.
My Mom had died as a result of complications from a fall and a subdural hematoma.
I put aside my own mourning in order to be fully present with the family as they took him off of the ventilator.
Somewhere in the middle of those five years I had a breakdown and sought help through the VA.
Self-care wasn’t really discussed in Seminary, however it was discussed in CPE.
Sadly, the competitive nature of the military was a roadblock for seeking care and counsel as a part of our Self-Care.
Another thing that seminary did not teach me was how to switch from in-person worship to Zoom in a matter of hours.
I also had to get the leadership of the church on-board as we transitioned every aspect of our ministry to the virtual world while helping older members who were not connected to the world via the internet and technology.
In all fairness though, when I was in seminary personal computers weren’t readily available and I typed all of my papers on a manual typewriter.
The 2016 and 2020 election related polarization along with the spreading of disinformation regarding the pandemic were frustrating to say the least.
The divisions created in families and in the church are also difficult.
As a pastor, sometimes it feels like the expectation is to please everyone in the congregation.
Congregational conflict might have been discussed by students who were in field settings at United but it wasn’t discussed at all in seminary classes.
It took me a long time to finally be given some very appropriate advice from a pastor and mentor of my wife Denise.
Her advice was very simple, yet profound.
When you are a church leader, especially a pastor, you need to realize that you aren’t going to please everyone in the congregation.
That is simply not possible.
Their mantra was “I can’t please everyone so I am going to try to please the Lord.”
Another part of that pleasing everyone situation is the trouble I have saying “no.”
In the Air Force “no” wasn’t an option, especially if the command is coming from a superior officer.
That concern has continued to this day.
Denise and I have been on the road between our home in Georgia and Minnesota caring for my Dad during a hospitalization, rehab, and now the difficult situation of moving him from his old Assisted Living apartment into Memory Care.
In addition to that, Denise’s Dad (94, legally blind, hard of hearing, and lives on his own) had a serious stroke while we were in Minnesota caring for my Dad.
As I was driving from Minnesota to Alabama to join Denise I received a text from a parishioner asking me to give her a call.
When I did, the first thing she said was, I know that you and Denise are incredibly busy caring for your Dads, however, a radio reporter wants to interview you tomorrow at 9:15am.
When I asked if that was Eastern Standard Time, she said yes.
When I told her that was 8:15am in Alabama and I will have just completed a fourteen hour drive it didn’t phase her.
So, I prepared late that night for the interview and was interviewed over the phone the next morning.
What was the lesson that I didn’t learn in seminary?
A good friend and mentor of Denise’s who was the Executive Presbyter in South Alabama Presbytery had a routine when he was going to ask you to do something.
He would invite you to lunch.
After the lunch he would say that he was going to ask the individual to take on a job or new responsibility with the Presbytery.
Before he asked though, he would always remind the person that “No is as holy an answer as Yes.”
Obviously this lesson has been a difficult lesson for me.
Between my military experience and my deeply ingrained “people-pleaser” nature, saying “no” is difficult.
Hopefully some of these stories and examples can help seminarians to begin thinking about what they need to learn and to reach out to mentors as they move out into the world!
Michael Moore is the pastor of Carrollton Presbyterian Church (CPC) in Carrollton, Georgia where he lives with his wife Denise and their dog Pixie. Ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1987, he served two small churches in northern Minnesota before going on Active duty as a US Air Force Chaplain in November 1990. He retired from the Air Force in 2011 as a Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel and was called to serve as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. He married Denise in 2013 and they moved to Estes Park, Colorado in August of 2015 where he was called to be the pastor of Presbyterian Community Church of the Rockies. They moved to Georgia in August 2020 where he began work at CPC on September 1st.