Ministry-A Work in Progress
1996 Grads Reflect on the First Year Out

by Julie E. Browning

From April 8 to 11, 1997, thirty-eight graduates from the Class of 1996 returned to Princeton to participate in the Seminary's annual continuing education event designed to assist recent M. Div. and M.A. graduates with issues of transition from life in an academic community to roles in other settings, especially pastoral leadership. James Cushman, an ordained Presbyterian pastor and a specialist in understanding transition issues, presented workshops on pastoral role adjustment. Donald Juel, the Seminary's Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Theology, was chosen by the class to give the faculty lectures. Other event leaders included Brian Blount, an assistant professor of New Testament at PTS; Dean Foose, the director of alumni/ae relations at PTS; and R. Scott Sheldon, program director for congregational life in the Seminary's Center of Continuing Education. Among those attending were five alums who shared with Julie E. Browning their experiences-the highs, the lows, and much in-between-of the first year in ministry.

Learning does not stop with graduation or ordination. According to a handful of recent PTS graduates, that is when the real learning begins, and it is this situational learning that the graduates most value, even if they don't always fully understand how their experiences will benefit others.

"I realized that I don't know everything," said Andy Rausch, who has spent a year working as associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Marion, IA. But there were some moments when the theoretical and the practical came together. "Like the first time I opened my Greek New Testament to look at a passage I was actually preaching on," he said, "I thought, wow, this is why I took Greek!"

Last fall Hey Young Nam began working as associate pastor at a United Methodist Church, comprising both a Korean and an American congregation, in Eatontown, NJ. Nam said that although she does not always feel confident in handling new situations and her impact is not always felt in the way she initially anticipates, it is clear to her that she is helping others. To illustrate her point, she told of a Korean congregation member whose wife was ill and would not leave her home. When Nam visited the woman at home to support and encourage her, she realized that the woman needed medical attention. Nam found herself accompanying the woman to the hospital.

"I think God asked you to be here," the woman's husband later told Nam. "You were here at the right time for us."

Likewise, Mary McKey was impressed by the "fit" of her position as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Lincolnton, NC, a 350-member congregation that had not previously considered hiring a female pastor. Reflecting on the past year, she noted, "For me the high point was having my gifts and experience match so closely with what the congregation needed. It was amazing the way that God brought us together."

McKey's ministry has been aided by the classwork, particularly the courses she took in preaching and in the theology of small groups, from which she constantly draws. In addition, she refers back to her clinical pastoral education (CPE) experience, which taught her that she could not "fix" other people's problems. "The important thing is to sit with them in their pain and to walk the walk with them," she said.

Nam agreed, saying that while she had focused on theology and Bible during her academic career, these had not proved to be the most practical for her professional role. Recounting her visit to a dying man, she said, "It's hard to know what to say to a man with a terminal diagnosis." The man spoke with her at length about his fear of dying, the places he wanted to go, and his concerns for his wife. "God will be with you in another stage," Nam told him as they prayed together, holding hands. Within a week, the man had died. In asking God to help her talk with the man, she realized that her role was to be a listener, a presence. "I need to let them talk," she said.

"People in the hospital need a person at the moment, and it happens to be me they see. It is not really me; it is God working through me," she said. "The more I experience this, the more empowered I feel."

Cathy Bunting, associate pastor of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in Akron, OH, agreed with the need for ministers to listen. "You have to really listen to people with all your heart," she said. "You pray for and with people, and you really listen." An important experience for Bunting during her seminary days was her field education work in the oncology unit at The Medical Center at Princeton. "I felt as if I was standing on holy ground," she recalled. "People allowed themselves to be vulnerable with me." The lessons she learned there, she has carried with her into her ministry.

In retrospect, several of the graduates noted, given the opportunity to do it again, they would make changes in their coursework to better prepare them for the situations they face. Nam said she wished that she had spent more time studying preaching. "In the field, preaching is the main thing," she noted, adding, "But I'm still glad I took other courses because everything I learned is helpful."

Bunting said, "I would have liked to have had one semester of Greek and one semester of Hebrew, as well as information about tools for translation," in order to read texts in their original languages.

"I would have taken more counseling courses," said Frank Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, PA, who acknowledged that he refers back to his PTS coursework to guide him in his ministry. Other areas in which some of the graduates felt that they needed more education were in the practical areas of budgeting and business administration.

In reflecting on their years at Princeton, the graduates felt both appreciation and nostalgia. For Bunting, seminary taught her how to think both logically and theologically. "It is all coalescing," she said.

Schaefer misses the Seminary's academic setting and finds that structured learning is difficult in his work. "It helps to go back and reread some of the things I did at the Seminary," he said. "It affirms that the intellectual stimulation that I had at Princeton continues to be with me, and I get away from the nitty-gritty of ministry." Looking around the empty classroom, he reflected, "It is nice to return here. Outside it is hard to be disciplined and to continue to study."

The transition from the academic to the working world brought significant changes in lifestyle-some positive, some negative-the graduates said. On the one hand, several noted that their living conditions had improved. "I am so blessed to live in a house ten times the size of my dorm room!" Rausch said with a laugh. "And to have privacy!"

On the other hand, for Schaefer and his family, living in the manse has meant less privacy. "I cannot get away from work. I am always there, and people are always coming by," he said. "I am always mentally at work." In addition, the living situation has brought stress for the rest of his family. "We have four children," he said with a smile. "The house does not always look spic and span, so my wife worries when people feel they can drop by anytime."

Just as Schaefer feels he is always "on call," others said that their communities have trouble seeing them in roles other than ministry.

"I found it very hard to worship on Sundays," Rausch said, noting that he had difficulty in being a member of his congregation. "You need a place where you can go and just be a member of the congregation. You are going to dry up if you don't."

Schaefer said that he occasionally feels pressured by expectations. "One thing I am noticing is that I am being put up on a pedestal," he said. "I still have problems and challenges, but I don't feel that I can share them with my congregation. They come to me with their problems, but they don't expect me to have any."

For Bunting, one particular sermon revealed just how seriously her congregation takes her. "There was a reference in my sermon to chocolate," she recalled. "I added, 'Boy, do I love chocolate!'" Within days, she was inundated with chocolate-flavored gifts from congregation members. Although she appreciated the kind offerings, Bunting said the experience made her stop and think about how the public perceives ministers and about the difference between work and school.

"It's different," she reflected. "In the church you are not surrounded by a community of people who are striving for common careers, so the bonding is not there. At the same time, you must maintain a professional distance, and there is less diversity among the community. My church members are very similar, very homogeneous. I miss the diversity at PTS."

Rausch said that he has been both challenged and encouraged by his work with young people. "What is so exciting about youth work is that kids are so busy," he said with enthusiasm. "Yet some pick church over all their other activities." During his youth, it was not uncommon for youth groups to number 150 to 200 members. "Now we're talking about a dozen members," he said. "But a newcomer's presence is really felt, and we get to know them well."

Since today's youths are so busy, Rausch said that he must sometimes go to them. "I'll go to the places where they work and say hello as I'm buying something," he said. "I bought a lot of ice cream this past year," he added with a laugh. "But it gave me a chance to see them in a 'real life' setting, to remind them that I'm interested, and it allowed them to tell their friends and coworkers who I am."

It is this ability to be human that is most important, the graduates agree. They urged the Class of 1997 to be true to themselves and to recognize that there are many things that can't be learned in a textbook.

"It's important to be yourself, be relaxed," Schaefer said. "Don't try to be the best theologian in the congregation. When I started here [at PTS], I was very confused. But toward the end, I really had defined my theology, and that has given me a tremendous source of confidence. Now I can help my congregation, which is so different from where I am theologically, by giving them my support."

"You learn more out of class than you do in class," Rausch mused. "You have to respond to people. And sometimes you just have to throw out the plan and wing it."

Julie E. Browning is a freelance writer who lives in Trenton, NJ.

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From top to bottom:
Hey Young Nam
Mary McKey
Andy Rausch
Frank Schaefer
Cathy Bunting

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