The transition from seminary can be daunting. Wesley graduates from 1996 and 2006 remember their time at Wesley and give advice for students graduating this year.
The Rev. Dr. Carletta Allen, M.Div. 1996 cum laude, D.Min. 2009 summa cum laude, lead pastor, Asbury United Methodist Church, Annapolis, Maryland, says:
Stay focused on your call. In the beginning it was about responding to a call. In the mean time it will be about responding to that call, and in the end it will be about a faithful response to that call. Many others will attempt to call, distract, subvert, but listen always to that mandate that called you from whatever held you bound to something other than the authentic life in Christ you were called to live.
Stay connected. We’re a connectional church, a covenantal body. Never forget. There’s power in our connections.
Lawrence W. Buxton, D.Min. 1996, senior pastor, Burke United Methodist Church, Burke, Virginia, says:
Love people, and let them love you. I believe that congregations want to love their pastors and to have a satisfying relationship. We pastors, on the other hand, sometimes think they’re judging us, so we have to impress them.
It’s tempting for us to come into a setting and want to prove ourselves—to show to we’re competent and smart and skilled and wise, all of that. That leads us further away from the key stance of listening and learning, asking questions, being teachable. It’s better for us to be uncomfortable with the different way this particular congregation does things than to start changing things in order to make ourselves feel more comfortable.
That doesn’t mean “Don’t do anything for the first year” (or six months, or whatever). Be yourself, but in the midst of listening and asking questions. Remember you’re saved by grace—that is, your place among God’s people doesn’t come by trying so hard to be good.
Relax, pay attention, build relationships. Work hard, sure, but offer them your heart more than your skill set. Love and let yourself be loved.
There’s more than one right way to do things. So I ask questions, listen carefully, and help identify the particular truth that God is incarnating in that person at that time.
There’s more than one right way to do church. There’s a rich array of ways to minister in these times, and our creativity is a great resource. That doesn’t mean one way is as good as any other, or there isn’t any wrong way; there may be lots of ways that are wrong, or damaging, or counter-productive. But be creative. Think deeper “inside the box,” and don’t just think “outside the box” is inherently good. We have a tradition of good practices for a reason.
The Rev. James Estes, MTS 2006, director of the library and associate professor of theological bibliography at Wesley, says:
You’ve successfully completed formal theological education. Congratulations! Both your faith journey and your vocation may take you into new and totally unexpected places. This can be discomforting, even terrifying; but this can also be amazing and an occasion for blessing.
Embrace these challenges as opportunities to wonder, to seek, and to find. Now go forth and learn!
In church history classes, Amy Oden (Wesley’s former dean and professor of history of Christianity) always returned to the “so what?” question. She would say we’ve just learned about a person, an event, a text — some “fact” of the story of Christianity. But what does it matter? How is this relevant to our faith and our life today?
This is the challenge of studying theology. We must do more than attempt to amass knowledge or assert truth claims; we have to make them meaningful. This has guided me throughout my ongoing religious studies. Learning has to return to the “so what?” of the matter, to move past information to transformation.
The Rev. Joe Flippin, M.Div. 2006, pastor, Oak Grove Baptist Church in Nanjemoy Maryland, says:
I would advise graduates to never give up. There will be many days in Christian ministry you will feel under-appreciated. You will want to throw in the towel and grow tired of people, budgets and problems. And you will say, “enough is enough.” Remember Jesus taught that once the Christian’s hand is set on the plow, it should not be removed! (Luke 9:62).
I have learned sometimes the best thing we can do in ministry is to just go to sleep, and usually it’s all better in the morning. During the night or when we decide to let go, God seems to work out things on our behalf.
People are attracted to excellence. Mediocrity breeds indifference, but quality attracts.
It is the lukewarm Christian Jesus spews out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16). So we must be excellent in our preaching, preparation, study, administrative work and all areas of ministry every week.
Excellence demands hard work! If we are going to excel in any area of service in the Kingdom, it will take hard work and dedication! Excellence is evidenced in the details! Also, excellence takes daily diligence!
Jeanette M. Block, M.Div. 2006 cum laude, pastor of Cape May United Methodist Church in Cape May, New Jersey, says:
Always remember you are dropped into the story of a congregation. Take time to listen to the narrative and history that the congregation has undergone. Do not be in a rush to start something the congregation has never done before; work with them so it becomes their idea.
Learn from Moses, Jesus and Paul: delegate and let it go. To control a congregation is to insult their abilities and the gifts they bring to ministry. They will appreciate that you trust them.
For United Methodists, use the Book of Discipline, but use it wisely. Use it as a tool for learning, understanding and growing. Do not use it as a weapon. Work with your district superintendent; you are colleagues.
I received lots of wisdom and affirmation from professors and classmates. Dr. Lew Parks took time with us to talk about the culture of the small church and about the realities of the small church. Dr. Lovett Weems, through his own narrative of ministry, has given me examples that I still use today in my teaching and mentoring.