A week ago, my Question of the Day was "What is your advice to first-year seminary students?" There were many insightful responses. Here is my advice:
1. Get heavily involved in a local church immediately.
2. Don't forget about the ordination candidacy process.
I've seen many students flitter from church to church, denomination to denomination, seeking a place where they felt spiritually attuned or where their friends attended or pastored. I took a different approach. We selected three UMC congregations near our home and visited them on three successive Sundays. I let Katherine choose which one we would attend regularly. After she made her choice, I told the pastor that I wanted to be involved in his church. Pretty soon, I had leadership challenges in that church that stretched and grew me.
I've seen other students take a year or two to visit many churches or suddenly change churches on a whim. Others become heavily involved in seminary life, taking chapel every time, serving on various student committees or being handy for the many tasks of a complex seminary operation. They form devotional study and contemplation groups, read classics like Nouwen together, and go on retreats.
This is not my approach. I rarely attend chapel and never serve on student committees. I go to seminary for my theological and pastoral education, but my devotional and service life is in my local church. I'm learning all sorts of critical abilities, like working with youth groups and missions.
The rituals of chapel and study groups can be enlivening. It can be spiritually formative. But remember that we're preparing to be priests, not monks. At bare minimum, a majority of our service and devotional activities should be in the local church outside of the seminary cloister.
"But I don't feel spiritually fed there. I want to be someplace else." If you're a United Methodist preparing for the ordained ministry, you'd better drop this attitude in a hurry. When I arrived in Orlando, I jumped into a church and put my nose to the grindstone. If you're a seminarian preparing for ordination in some denomination (particularly UMC), then you have work to do. Hop to it.
Part of that work is the lengthy and complex tasks of being selected and approved for the ordained ministry. Many essays, committees, meetings, and tests are required. I've actually heard seminarians say "Well, since I graduate in six months, I guess I ought to look into the candidacy process." Not prudent. Keep up with all of the requirements of your mentor, district, and conference. My co-blogger Larry once told me "John, you'll have no advocate except yourself." The rusty gears of the candidacy process don't move unless I personally turn them. They won't move themselves for you, either.
These two suggestions that I've made are interrelated. I missed going to a lot of fun Pentecostal and Anglican churches that my friends at seminary go to and all sorts of chapel experiences because I'm committed to serving in the United Methodist Church. If a candidate for the ordained ministry isn't active in a UMC congregation (or whatever your denomination is) and staying on top of the candidacy paperwork and process, then the Board of Ordained Ministry has every reason to doubt that candidate's commitment to the United Methodist Church.
So to sum up: don't lose your focus. There's a life beyond seminary, and you'd better be ready for it.
UPDATE: Henry Neufield writes:
What I’ve found amongst pastors, particularly UMC pastors, is that they came back from seminary knowing a great deal of stuff–in many cases good stuff, but that they didn’t know the things they needed to know about running a congregation day to day.