Friday, March 18, 2011

The Things They Don't Teach You about The Things They Don't Teach You in Seminary

One of the running jokes among clergy is about the literally endless list of things they don't teach you about in seminary. Whether it's dealing with facilities issues, difficult people in your congregation, or unclogging toilets, I and many other pastors tend to laugh about these unexpected things and put them on that proverbial list.

As a seminary student, and now as a young clergy person, I've been extremely blessed to have older clergy to talk to about situations I face, get their advice, and hear their stories. And now that I've got a bit of experience under my belt, I've really enjoyed talking to seminary students and sharing some of the things I had to learn (often the hard way) after seminary.

I'm starting to wonder, however, how much of those "things they didn't teach me" are really applicable to other people and how much is just me and others universalizing our own experience.

I wonder this because I've had conversations with older clergy where they've said that certain things would definitely happen to me during my career. Some things, people blaming you for their own personal problems, for example, have happened and I'm glad someone told me it would. But there are other things that I haven't yet encountered and may never encounter. Some of the "this will happen to you" stories I've heard are so bizarre I can't imagine them happening to every single pastor!

I've certainly been guilty of this, too. I think I unnecessarily scared a younger colleague once when I told them how badly the Board of Ordained Ministry would treat them, based on my own previous experience. This person didn't encounter those same difficulties, so I wonder if I caused them undue anxiety. On the other hand, perhaps it caused them to prepare differently. I'm not really sure.

The real question is how much of our own personal experience is normative to what others experience, and is therefore instructive, and how much of it is so unique to our own situations that universalizing it is more about making ourselves feel important than it is about imparting wisdom to another.

Regardless of what the answer to this question is, one of the most powerful things we can do together in any type of community is to share our stories with one another. Whether or not our experience exactly matches that of another, we can find common ground in all of our stories. We've all experienced joy, excitement, frustration, anger, discouragement, and confusion. Particularly when it comes to negative emotions, it can be easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel this way, and hearing another's story reminds us that we are not alone.

So how much of my own story is helpful and instructive for others and how much is just my own junk? Well, that's something they didn't teach me in seminary.

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