SFTS Experience

Its ironic that, since I chose the original name for this blog, I’ve spoken very little about my ‘SFTS experience’. I’ve mentioned before that the blog changed based on the responses that I got – in the form of links to some of my posts on other people’s blogs which were…shall we say combative? Derogatory? Whatever. I stuck up for myself and feel, overall, ok with how I’ve handled that kind of thing since.

I’m about a week out of classes at this point, and with any luck, I’ll never have to be in school ever again. That’ll be a huge change for me, because I was in school solidly from age 5 to 22, and then again from age 25 to 28. That’s about 71% of my life spent in school…God help me.

I’m not the biggest fan of school. I love learning, but I think that school is one of the worst possible ways to go about it. I’ve found a lot of things about my time at SFTS really frustrating apart from the usual frustrations that school brings. (For those who want to say “Wait until you get into the real world” – you can stop now. I have four jobs right now, if you want to talk about real world, and I’ve had at least two for most of my time as a student overloading credits.)

I don’t think seminary does a good job of preparing people to go into ministry. Its a great deal of theoretical training for a very practical job. A good example I talk about is that if you add up all the credits I have in Biblical studies, Biblical languages, Biblical interpretation and so on, they add up to enough credit hours to have an entire Masters Degree in that subject. Far more than half of the required credits are in this area at SFTS. (Yes, uber-conservatives, we read the Bible here a lot, we just disagree with you about it.) One course in preaching. One course in pastoral care. No course in worship. No course in weddings and funerals. No course in administration. No course in how to lead or train volunteers. One course in christian education. One course in ethics. Two courses in church history. No course in child development or family theory. No full course in spirituality or spiritual direction. No course in evangelism. No course in community involvement or social change. You get the idea.

A lot of these gaping holes can be filled partially by electives – but the end result of a seminary education is that I am very well prepared to do what I will almost never do as a minister – academically analyze the Bible. Even if I am freakishly committed to exegesis, more than any pastor I’ve ever heard of, I might rigorously use those skills 10 hours a week. What do I do for the other 40-60 hours I’ll be working, on average?

Field education, the internship, is supposed to answer these questions. Field education at SFTS is supposed to do in nine months of full-time ministry what three years of full-time graduate school inevitably fails to do. I’m glad for the opportunity to do ministry for less than I’d be paid working at the very bottom of the service or food service industries – at least I’m being paid at all (though for a long time even that was in question) – but I’ll be honest. I think I could have gotten a similar education for the cost of library late-fees added to the internship time I’ve spent.

I don’t mean to disrespect the professors at SFTS and the GTU. They’re just not doing what I wanted them to do – prepare people for pastoral ministry.

And it isn’t just these schools. With a 50% burnout rate in the first five years of minstry in mainline denominations (that’s worse than air-traffic controller). To put it in perspective, if we were all trying to be Marine Scout Snipers, the wash-out rate would be about the same.

Somewhere, maybe everywhere, there is a massive amount of epic fail going on. And its been pretty frustrating to be part of that process that is so catastrophically failing to produce ministers.

I realize that all of this is going to come across as whining and sour grapes. I’m in a good mood and I don’t really care. I’m currently covering for my internship supervisor at my internship church, and I’m loving it. I think I’m doing an ok job. I have a lot to learn, but I always will, and that’s what I like about life. I never get to a fixed point and look back and say “I’m done.” Not with anything. Not in this life.

Its heartbreaking to see a number of people I’ve met get seriously discouraged about their call because it seems very possible to be well-suited to ministry and ill-suited to graduate school. Its also heartbreaking to see the PCUSA abandon so many gifted and passionate ministers – not just the ones who happen to be homosexual, against whom we still wrongly discriminate, but also an excellent missionary who absolutely belongs in Kenya helping to dig wells for people who drink alkali-saturated water every day who has been completely abandoned by the denomination and the failure of the school to support him.

Well, he’s in Africa right now, because impoverished students supported him more than the entire denomination and school combined did. (Yeah, that’s right uber-conservatives, we also support missionaries here. Who’d a thunk it?)

What I take away from this experience is the same think I still cherish from undergrad – the relationships I’ve built. I’m not an extrovert at all, but I make a few friends and then I hold onto them. I’ve learned time and time again in the past that it is your friends and family who will keep you going when everything else falls apart.

So, in a last bit of irony, my SFTS experience didn’t have all that much to do with SFTS. It had to do with the people (mostly students and others outside the school entirely) I met here, and it had a lot to do with the GTU, going to classes with the Jesuits and Franciscans, studying with Episcopalians and Lutherans, Jews, Atheists, Catholics and a lot of others. By far the most important thing about STFS is its relationship to the GTU. That was my main reason for coming here, and that part of the decision was a good one.

Anyway…I don’t know if I’ll write more about the original topic of this blog. We’ll see if reflection brings clarity.

I do know that when I am officially graduated (won’t happen for a while yet, even though classes are over for me), I plan on having a long hard conversation with at least one person in administration here. And then we’ll call it even.

7 thoughts on “SFTS Experience

  1. Dear Doug,SFTS requirements now are different than APTS requirements “back in the day”. In addition to what you listed as requirements, we had required courses in worship, mission and evangelism, and a second preaching course.Your point still stands. The PCUSA expects its seminary graduates to acquire a majority of their necessary ministerial skill set with nothing more than on the job training. That expectation doesn’t take into consideration that each pastor is gifted differently from the rest. Not all of us are administrators. Not all of us thrive on being the church’s representative on umpteen community boards. Not all of us love to spend our time preparing for committee meetings. Not all of us know what to do when the pipes leak.As I once told session elders, “Don’t ask me how to repair the roof. I haven’t the foggiest idea. However, if you want me to lead a Bible study on the friends who cut a hole in Jesus’ roof in order to lower down the paraplegic for healing, or if you want me to draft a theological statement on “roof” as a metaphor for God’s grace, or if you want me to pray over the roofers, I’ve got ya covered.”The problem isn’t just that the seminaries are failing their students. The problem is also that the PCUSA is failing itself in understanding Christian vocation in general, and the pastoral vocation in particular. Our members keep holding up a corporate business model and wondering why so many of their leaders either fail so miserably to reflect that model or reflect it so well that they lose sight of pastoral ministry. The same problem exists in other North American denominations.While I’m at it, there’s something to be said for grumbling, as long as grumbling turns into positive action, and action transforms the Church for the better. The Israelites weren’t the only ones grumbling in the desert; God was, too. Only, after God grumbled, God took action and reshaped the inactive grumblers into a nation.On another note, congratulations on completing your class work!Doug, I’ve told you before that I respect you highly. I’m pleased to know that people of your caliber are entering into church leadership. It gives me hope that God is at work.Yours in Christ,Mark


  2. Mark:I and two friends have tried a few ways to turn grumbling into real change. We published the only student periodical for a couple of issues called Shared Governance, trying to bring issues up in a public way. That died on the vine because we just had too many jobs with classes and internships and other things all going on. I also hope to talk to some people about our concerns. We’ll see if there’s any kind of movement.And thanks for then praise. I’ll accept it as if I deserved it.


  3. Having gone to a seminary with a different balance that way (coursework in church leadership, for instance; and one of the theology requirements was a year-long course on theological reflection in ministry, which was a lot of the same stuff I then did in CPE)–I appreciate the more practically-focused classes I took, and the two years of field education, but I <>still<> wound up learning most of it the hard way. I don’t mean that as a slam on any of my professors, either; I’m just very doubtful that school can teach most people how to live this life. At least, if there’s a model out there that would work, I haven’t run across it. It’s like imagining that dating prepares one for being married–they aren’t completely unrelated, but the difference is greater than it looks.What we do about this, I don’t know. Some sort of apprenticeship model might work–but not without a generation of pastors trained and equipped to train and equip apprentice pastors. Sometimes, I wonder if maybe the problem isn’t that we’ve let churches’ expectations get out of hand a bit; I have a colleague down Phoenix way, the founding pastor of a strong, healthy church, who frankly affirms that he’s only good at one or two things, and is pretty firmly convinced that that’s true of most pastors. I’m inclined to think he’s right, but most congregations seem to expect a lot more than that–and for whatever reason, most of us in ministry seem to expect it of ourselves. If that’s the root of the problem, it’s something no education, however good, will ever be able to fix–except, perhaps, by training pastors to identify the one or two things they can do well, and make that clear to churches.But then, of course, is the fear: if I’m talking to a church that has four “required” skills and five “desired” skills on their CIF and I tell them that, what chance will I ever have to get a call? So it would still take an awful lot of work on the other end, too, by COMs and pastors, before this would actually fly. I don’t know. But when I hear 20- and 30-year veterans of the ministry, guys who pastor churches which are strong and healthy in every respect as far as anyone can see, admit that they still come to the point of quitting several times a year (as I did last week) . . . well, I start to think that maybe it’s not only not just me; maybe it’s not the fault of the training I got or didn’t get. Maybe this is just what ministry looks like in the church in this country these days. And given Spurgeon’s advice (if you can possibly do anything else, do that instead), maybe it always has.


  4. Those are all good points. I would personally love to see an apprenticeship/technical school model applied to training for ministry. Honestly, most of what you do in minstry is skill-related rather than theoretical or academic, so we should take a cue from schools which are designed to train skills – technical skills.There is definitely an elitist view that ministry has of itself, a clinging to the view that it is a rigorous academic discipline, and I just think this has to fall by the wayside. Academic training will probably never prepare people for ministry in a way that will help cure this hemorrhaging of ordained persons. We need something else.As for me, it might just be arrogance (we’ll see) but I think I have my head in a good place where ministry is concerned. I don’t buy the basic-training viewpoint of “if you can do anything else at all, do that”. I can do lots of things with my life that I’d enjoy and find fulfilling. Ministry is at the top of that list, but it isn’t alone. I think that ministers do a lot of things that are unhealthy, and I agree that some congregations seem to have equally unhealthy expectations.I also think, honestly, that ego has a *lot* to do with it. Ministers seem to want to see themselves as part of God’s Marine Corps, by their behavior and habits flying in the face of the fact that we’re supposed to depend on God here or we’re totally hosed.


  5. <>I also think, honestly, that ego has a *lot* to do with it.<>No question; but it’s not just ego. It’s also the desire to do enough to keep enough people happy to stay ahead of the curve to be able to keep your position. Which is to say, for some folks, it’s ego; for others, it’s insecurity. (And for some, it’s both, which can’t be a comfortable place to be.)


  6. Caught between ego and insecurity. Isn’t that just what it means to be human? 🙂But I take your point. Sometimes its expected that when a church hires a pastor, they are hiring God’s Marine, who will work 70 hours a week for less pay than other professions get for working a little more than half that, smiling all the way. I don’t know if it means I won’t find a call as easily, but I want to be clear what my acceptable norm for hours spent working are. I’m not signing up to be someone’s martyr, to be blunt, and luckily that’s one of the few temptations I don’t have much trouble resisting.


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