Thursday, November 10, 2016

Not by Diplomas Alone

From the Sounds of St. Francis.

The Christian life is sustained by texts and practices, ideas and experiences.  We learn to follow Jesus by reading the Bible, listening to sermons and participating in classes.  But we also grow through common worship, observing the decisions that fellow believers make and reaching out our hands to serve the poor. 

When people answer God’s call to serve as leaders in the church, we prepare them best by a combination of rigorous study and practical experience, giving them opportunities to observe congregations close up and to try their hands at the tasks of pastoral ministry. Priests are not made by diplomas alone.  

We’d be reluctant to commit ourselves to the hands of a surgeon who’d only watched a video about the operation.  We wouldn’t want to commit an important matter to the guidance of a lawyer who’d only encountered the problem in question while preparing for her exams. Confidence and true knowledge comes through practice, seeing how the concepts and tools of a discipline are applied in real situations.

“Field education” goes back to beginnings of ministry in the life of God’s people.  The boy Samuel was sent to live with Eli, the priest who tended the tabernacle at Shiloh to prepare for his future vocation as a priestly leader (I Sam. 1).  Elisha founded a “school of the prophets” who could learn how to discern God’s will by praying with the master and watching how he spoke the truth in challenging situations (II Ki. 2, 4). 

Jesus brought his disciples with him as he healed and taught the crowds, and the Gospels preserve several of the discourses and a lengthy prayer he offered for them, bearing in mind the practical challenges they would face in carrying on His work after the resurrection (e.g. Jn. 14-17). It’s striking that when a new apostle needed to be chosen to replace Judas in the days after Jesus’ ascension, the main selection criteria were experiential, “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22).

The use of seminaries to provide candidates with a professional training for the ministry is a relatively recent development in Anglican churches, going back only about two centuries.  While churches of our Communion have generally always insisted on an educated clergy, the majority of Anglican priests over the course of history prepared for ministry by “reading for orders,” studying the Scriptures and church doctrine while living and working alongside an experienced cleric.  Each year sees more residential seminaries closing, and many experts talk of a future model much more like the older one, in which mentoring and practical experience in congregations play an even more central role.

At least for the next five months, Saint Francis will be serving as a site for field education, as we welcome Taylor Devine, a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary to work among us.  Those of you who have been members of the parish for many years will know that there is a long tradition of work with seminarians here, with VTS students serving here as recently as five years ago.  The lay committee assembled by Nancy Hoke to help guide the seminarian’s work even includes a few members with pastexperience in this ministry

It has been a blessing for me to work with Taylor for about a year and a half during my time as the interim rector at Saint Timothy's Church.  I’ve actually been working with seminarians and newly ordained clergy almost continually for the last seven years of my ministry.  Taylor is a very gifted preacher and teacher.  Her academic training in social analysis and her perceptive nature make her a really insightful observer of patterns in congregational life.  She’s also very compassionate, and was valued by parishioners at Saint Timothy’s for her skills as a pastoral caregiver.  I know you will come to value and care for her as I have.

Taylor will be with us about ten hours a week, and will assist in leading worship each Sunday.  She will preach about once a month and share in teaching and pastoral care duties.  Observing parish life is an important part of her work, and she will attend some fellowship and youth activities as well as a variety of meetings.  Each week, she will meet with me to relate what she is observing and experiencing to the ideas she is learning in her classes at the seminary.  I’ll also be providing some training for her in leading worship and other tasks related to pastoral ministry. 

Being a field education site gives us, as a congregation, an important stake in the future of the church.  When Taylor is ordained next summer, we will stand behind her, at least in our prayers.  This relationship gives us an opportunity to share what we have found to be true, good and faithful with a person who will shape the lives of many congregations over the course of what we trust will be a long and fruitful ministry. 

Taylor helps to keep us fresh and perhaps also to expand the work we are able to do in Christ’s Name.  I’ve found that seminarians often notice things I have missed, and ask perceptive questions that reveal new opportunities.  As we think about reaching the millennial generation, it’s helpful to have one among us as a leader who can speak directly from her own experience as a committed Christian of that generation.  I’ve also found it helpful to have a woman in a position of authority in parish life who can offer care and speak into issues and situations where it’s more difficult for me to do this. 

You’ll all be able to meet Taylor when she joins us for the first time this coming Sunday.  She will speak about herself as part of our adult education time, when we will both share our stories about our life in the faith and how God is calling us to do His work

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