Recently I traveled to Northeastern Seminary on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, NY. I went to meet with a class of fifteen seminarians, under Professor Elizabeth Gerhardt. It was a four-hour evening class and the subject was Pastoral Issues. I’ve been doing this once a semester for the past thirteen years and these sessions are always highlights of my year.
Kathleen was with me. She doesn’t say much in class but her presence makes clear that we have a shared vision of the calling.
One week before my visit, the class is given a packet of 140 pages of papers I’ve written on pastoral issues both during my active life as a bishop and during my retirement right up to the present. For example, at this recent session I gave the class a fresh piece I called, “A Pastor’s First Church – Priorities For the First Thirty Days.”
We used this new piece to begin the evening encounter after I made brief introductory comments to show that ordained ministry is much more than a job (a time-limited task); it’s a vocation (a God-ordained, life-encompassing calling).
The packet these seminarians are given is wide-ranging. It takes up such subjects as: The Theology of Worship; How To Critique Your Own Sermons; Sexual Integrity in the Ministry; Guidance For The Pastoral Prayer; and Officiating at Weddings. I am given freedom to choose which subjects to deal with during the evening. The four hours go by fast and to me always seem to generate a certain strong interest if not excitement.
During my most recent visit, after dealing with the paper on priorities during the first thirty days at a new church I followed with in-depth reflections on the pastoral prayer and then sexual integrity in the ministry.
Before the class was over feedback told me I was opening windows on new vistas for pastoral ministry. One seminarian noted that at the outset of the class his view of the pastorate was that it’s a free-flowing assignment, perhaps not highly regulated. But, he said, in each of my papers he saw a certain pattern — with a strong sense of “intentionality” (my word). In essence, he saw that effective pastors work to a plan and have clear priorities.
Another older seminarian offered that he had often filled in short-term for churches that were without a pastor, but he had felt resistant to being a full-time pastor himself. He indicated clearly that from the evening’s exchange this reluctance had diminished.
This once-a-semester opportunity is dear to my heart. I recognize that Northeastern, by its standing invitation, gives me the privilege of touching the lives of men and women who will be leading Christian congregations long after I have departed this life. And it’s deeply gratifying to see that the classical sense of pastoring that I was first introduced to in seminary more than half a century ago — and that has grown on me ever since — still can resonate with seminarians of the present.