My good friend, Sam, who graduated from River Forest this past month, is now at the seminary in Fort Wayne. He'll begin with summer Greek this coming week, which is not the most fun in the world, but it'll be a review and refresher course for Sam. Beginning seminary studies is an exciting and significant thing, in any case. I've gotten to know a fair number of seminary students over the past decade, but I think I'm closer to Sam than anyone else I've known in recent years who has subsequently gone to the seminary. He's even closer to my daughter DoRena, let the reader understand; so let me simply say that I have more than a passing interest in his future plans and progress. I'm confident that he'll be a good and faithful seminarian, and, God-willing, a good and faithful pastor down the road. Remember Sam and his fellow students in your prayers, as you think of it. Being a seminarian is challenging in all sorts of ways. My own experience was that the devil launched an all-out assault on my faith and confidence, especially in my first year at the seminary. Thank God for the strength and support of His Word and Spirit.
Thinking about Sam and the beginning of his seminary studies has made me thoughtful and reflective about my own journey to the Office of the Holy Ministry. He who aspires to such an Office desires a good thing, but one doesn't simply wake up one morning and decide to be a pastor. Vocations of any sort come from outside of us. I'm still uneasy about the way that people will sometimes speak of being "called" to be a seminary student. Those kinds of decisions are important, of course, but they are not so clear-cut, black and white, or written in stone as all that. Picking any kind of school or course of study, whether it be college or seminary or what have you, is guided by all sorts of factors. One makes the best decision possible, and then goes with it. Live forward in repentant faith, and trust the Lord to work all things together for good, for Jesus' sake. It is true that, in going to the seminary, one is placing his life in the Lord's hands and basically offering up his body as a living sacrifice for the service of Christ in His Church.
I'm trying to recall whether there was any semester of college in which I didn't change my mind about what I was going to do with my life. I'm sorry to say that I was not a very good student in my undergrad years. Oh, I got excellent grades, but I coasted and got by and didn't apply myself like I should have. I wasn't very motivated, but I was easily distracted. After I got married, had a daughter and was working full time (nights), I got burned out pretty fast on classes and studies. If I hadn't had a four-year, full-ride scholarship, I probably would have quit. I'm not very proud of the person I was at that point in my life, but there's no undoing the past. I really didn't know what I was doing, nor what I should do with myself, and consequently I didn't make the most of the opportunity I was given. It is a shame when God's good gifts are squandered. But get to the point, Rick! The one thing I was sure I did not want to be was a pastor, in spite of the fact that my Dad, who was also my pastor, was hoping and praying I would follow in his steps. I guess that was the closest I came to rebelling against my parents. But, of course, I ended up being altogether wrong about that one thing I was sure of.
After graduating from college and finding myself in a job that just didn't fit me, it took less than a year for me to figure out that I needed to go back to the drawing board. With my B.A. in hand, I had foolishly declared that I was never going to set foot inside another classroom. Ha! Despite all my happy wandering, I did have a desire to serve the church in some full-time capacity, and that would mean going back to school. Okay, I figured that meant finishing up what I would need to become a teacher, or possibly a DCE (a route that many of my college friends had taken). When I mentioned these thoughts and plans to my pastor in Minnesota, where we were living at that point, he asked me if I had considered the Office of the Ministry. Having someone other than my father suggest this possibility was eye-opening. I was intrigued by the fact that another pastor was urging me to contact the seminary and to pursue that course of study. As I did, everything fell into place rather quickly, and it wasn't long before we were in Fort Wayne.
That was eighteen years ago. It was in the fall of 1989 that I began with the same Greek class that Sam is taking this summer. I was most amazed at what a different experience it was than my undergrad years. There was never any uncertainty or ambiguity about why I was there or what I was doing. It all seemed terribly important: every class, every assignment, every book. I threw myself into it and never let up. I was so thankful for my professors, and looked up to them throughout my years at the seminary. I learned as much or more from my field work and vicarage pastors, who really taught me by their faithful example what it means to be a pastor.
As I was nearing the completion of my M.Div. degree, several of my professors urged me to continue my studies, either at the seminary or in a doctoral program elsewhere. I ended up doing both, although it took me eight more years to finish my S.T.M. and Ph.D. My goal in both cases was simply to continue learning as much as I possibly could, in order to be the best and most faithful pastor I could be. No academic degree and no amount of education make anyone a pastor, but I wanted to be as well-equipped as possible for the work of the Ministry. I'm still learning and growing, and I hope that never stops. The older I get and the longer I'm at it, the more I realize how much I don't know, and how much there is yet to learn.
Being a pastor is different from being a student, especially in respect to the certainity of the Call. It isn't written in stone, not literally, but there is a clear-cut, black-and-white Diploma of Vocation on my wall, which testifies to the fact that God has called me to be the shepherd of His sheep in this place. Going to the seminary is a transitional period, like dating and engagement. You've got the counsel and advice of parents, teachers and pastors to guide and direct you, but there's still the trial and testing of the process to determine whether you'll become a pastor or not. Once you're called and ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry, being a pastor is not simply what you do, but who you are.
For myself, that sense of identity and commitment was most tested and clarified in the year that followed my Ph.D. Although it had never been my goal or intention to become something other than a parish pastor, there were lots of other folks who assumed that I would graduate from Notre Dame and then become a seminary professor. It's been almost five years since I defended my dissertation and became a doctor of philosophy (in November 2002), but I still have people question whether I ever finished, because they can't imagine why I'd still be a pastor in South Bend. I knew better than to think this way, but I fell into the trap of doing so anyway. After eight years of hearing people say that I'd graduate and become a professor, I kept waiting for that second shoe to drop. Diploma in hand, there was this nagging voice in the back of my head that kept asking, What now? It was a vocational crisis of the first magnitude, which was making me as restless and distracted as I had once been in my undergrad years.
I'm glad for the fathers and brothers in Christ who assisted me in returning to some clarity. In particular, I sought out two of my former seminary professors for their counsel and advice. To this day, I don't know if my questions came across in the way that I intended, but it doesn't really matter. The answers I received weren't necessarily what I was expecting or wanted to hear, but they served the purpose. This is how the Lord works. I was brought to repentance, strengthened in my faith as a Christian disciple of Jesus, and renewed in my vocation as a pastor of His Church. Pastors like myself, with a doctorate, are a dime a dozen. Humbling, but true. Getting a Ph.D. did not change who I am, not the way my ordination to the Office of the Ministry did. It's an academic degree, not a new vocation. If I really had my heart set on teaching, then I could apply for positions at colleges or universities outside of the Church. That was the advice that really brought the point home for me. I had no intention of abandoning my Divine Call, nor leaving the Office of the Ministry. So having it put to me that way, as a choice between being a pastor or being a professor, lifted the fog that had settled upon me. It was like a breath of fresh air, and like coming out of a darkened room into the bright light of day once again.
There are days, now and then, when my office and vocation seem tedious and tiresome, and I let myself wonder why I ever chose to go to the seminary. Our vocation as disciples of Christ Jesus means bearing the cross, whatever our particular stations in life may be. The old Adam in us will always be looking for the greener grass in our neighbor's lawn. My old Adam does, anyway. But second-guessing past decisions is foolish, and a kind of covetous idolatry. A Christian looks back in repentance, but forward in faith, trusting not in his own understanding, but Jesus only. If it were up to me, it would all be for nought and utter ruin. Yet, the Lord works through masks and means, including the finite, flawed and frail men He calls to the Office of the Ministry. His power is made perfect in weakness, including mine. The Call and Ordination I received were through His Church on earth, but they are His work, as are the means of grace that I preach and administer in His Name and stead.
Going to the seminary is a step of faith, sometimes a giant leap of faith, and it truly can be a trial and testing of both faith and life. Yet, it is an integral part of the process whereby the Lord hands over the sacred tradition of the Ministry to faithful men, who will in turn hand over the Gospel-Word and Sacraments to His Church. I'm grateful for the pastors and professors who faithfully passed on that sacred tradition to me. And I'm going to be praying for Sam as he now begins to receive the same deposit of the faith; not only because I care about him, but also because I care about the Church.