May 31 2013

Learning to Rely on God

“They don’t teach you that in seminary”, or “You do not learn this in seminary” is one of the common catch phrases I have heard being thrown around by pastors and laity alike. It is sometimes said with a snide undertone that conveys the idea that seminary education, when put to the real life test of pastoral leadership, is found wanting. And it always brings to mind my Candler education and learning experience.

My three years at Candler were among the most fruitful of any preparatory experience I could ever have to become a pastor. The academic rigor, the contextual programs, and the shared wisdom of my professors and fellow peers have indelibly shaped who I am and how I serve as a pastor.

My first appointment after seminary as pastor-in-charge of a small church in the heart of Atlanta became the litmus test for my seminary education. Though the church was small, the worshipers who came were very diverse. They ranged from the very elderly members, to the transient national and international Ph.D. students from Georgia Tech, along with the visitors who came because they were invited or were in need of a place to worship. They were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Seekers. I had to serve all in their different life journeys, attending to their needs, while guiding them to the constant awareness of their souls’ worth. We had numerous conversations about Scripture and the interpretation, the Kingdom and reign of God, and death. One can imagine what those conversations were like with such a variety.  In one Bible study session about sin, one of my aerospace engineering graduate students drew a diagram that showed the Holy Spirit as a “sin-dampener function” to explain her understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work.  How more relevant could church be?

This small church was certainly not your everyday cut to fit church. Notwithstanding, it was certainly the best church I could have been appointed to because of the experience I gained. And I could not have been effective or make the impact I did without my seminary education. As the only pastor, with no staff support, I relied fully on God and put into practice what I had learned at Candler. I remember there were times I went back to my notes and textbooks from my “Leadership in Small Membership Church” class with Dr. Rogers to draw upon the insights I had gained. During the sermon preparation for my first funeral, I pulled the notes from my “Preaching about Death” class with Drs. Long and Kraftchick and crafted my sermon accordingly.

Now in my second appointment as the associate pastor at one of the biggest churches in the North Georgia Conference, I still draw on my seminary education from Candler. And I know this education will still be of great benefit to me in the many years to come. When writing sermons, or having conversations about Scripture, or making decisions about ordering the life of the church, or anything to do with ministry in general, I still find myself saying “Thank you, Dr. Rogers,” or “Thank you, Dr. Long,” or “Thank you, Dr Fry Brown,” or “Thank you, Dr. Carolyn StephensErskine.”

Thus the phrase “They don’t teach you that in seminary” should never be used as a broad spectrum brush to paint a picture of what is lacking in seminary education, for though I know that no one can ever learn everything in seminary, I know that what I have learned at Candler is taking me farther than where I would have been without it.

- Carolyn Stephens

Carolyn is a 2011 graduate from Candler and Associate Pastor at Cannon Church in Snellville, GA.