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8 Things I Should Have Learned Before Ministering

Matt Damico posted recently on “8 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Seminary.” It’s worth reading even if you have never gone to seminary. Even if you never plan to. Even if you pray daily that you won’t have to.

But it got me thinking. I’m not sure I can remember eight things I wish someone had told me before seminary. But I can remember and reflect on eight things I wish I had been taught when training for the ministry.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my ministry training taught me many things. How to preach, more or less (mostly less). How to visit the sick. How to do simple accounting tasks. How to offer basic pastoral counseling. Stuff like that.

But, looking back now on 30-plus years of public ministry, these are eight things I really, really wish (somehow) my ministry training had taught me, but didn’t:

1. How to pray. To be fair, we did have a seminar on prayer, and I knew there were faculty members who were men and women of deep and constant prayer. And it probably wasn’t something I would have learned from a class or seminar, per se, but from the example of a mentor over a period of months and years. (And that’s not to say I didn’t pray or didn’t learn things about prayer, but it was decades before I could say I had truly learned to pray, and that came from a multitude of sources and experiences that I wish I could have had as a 20-something wannabe pastor.)
2. How to read the Bible. I’m grateful for the many great Bible classes I had while training for the ministry, and I was a voracious reader back in my training days, but I think I could have profited from a course (or two, or three) on reading the Bible for personal spiritual profit as opposed to studying it for ministry purposes (maybe along the lines of Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth).

3. How to Sabbath. Granted, I trained for ministry in a very activist tradition, but I still wish I had been taught the importance and practice of Sabbath all those years ago. It would have been a boon to my soul and my ministry. And my family.

4. How to handle criticism. Even with my glaring youthful weaknesses, no one could have foreseen all the mistakes I would make in ministry, and all the criticism (much of it justified) I would face over the years. And this alone may have required an additional year or two of training. And I probably would have shrugged off much of it because I truly thought (when I was in my 20s) we could all just get along. But a thorough preparation for criticism would have been helpful, nonetheless.

5. How to say no. This was surely touched on at some point—perhaps in a class or two on time management—but I could have used an entire ministry track on the importance of saying no and the art of saying no.

6. How to get a life. Looking back on three-plus decades of ministry, I can see (now, sure!) how insulated my life (and my family’s life) was. I was so absorbed in my church and ministry that I barely knew my neighbors, barely had any friends outside my church or denomination, barely had any life outside the bunker of my responsibilities. This probably goes with knowing how to Sabbath or say no, but I fervently wish I had known how to (and had the priority of) getting a life in my community and neighborhood.

7. How to speak another modern language. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to learn Spanish over the years. Nor can I quantify how many times it would have been a blessing in my interactions with others. I know there are only so many hours in the day and days in the week for seminarians, but I do wish I had learned at least one modern language before launching out in ministry.

8. How to be. This kinda goes with the Sabbath point, but I was trained to do all sorts of things in ministry. And I did them faithfully for decades. But it wasn’t until sometime in my third decade of ministry that I learned—again, from a variety of sources and experiences, among them the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemane—to be. To rest in God. To repose on him. To be rather than do.

This is not intended in any way as a criticism of the wonderful men and women who did teach me way back then (or tried to, at least). Nor is it to dismiss or belittle many of the good things I learned (well, except maybe the music appreciation class). But I do think I would have been better off to substitute these eight priorities for ANY of the classes I did take (except maybe Bernard Ditmer’s Old Testament class; his impression of Queen Jezebel was about the highlight of my experience).  

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I’m desperate for God. Desperate to make a difference. Desperate to find some sanity in my life and ministry. And because I am in desperate and constant need of help, prayer, counsel, grace, and forgiveness.