What Did You Need to Learn in Seminary, but Never Did?

[Photo by stina jonsson]

I am putting together a draft syllabus proposal for a class that would cover the very broad topic of “practical” ministry. If you have ever graduated from seminary or know someone who did, I would love to know what you think should be included. In no way an exhaustive course on ministry, this broad survey will hopefully give people a taste of some of the practical skills that need to be developed as they serve a local church in the future. In addition to the mechanics of the ministry, through weekly reflections, students will articulate their understanding of ministry as formed by their academic study, cultural context and Biblical reflection.

Keeping in mind that this is a “how to” course more than a “why we do” course, here is what we will cover:

  • Baptism: preparation and the act
  • Communion: logistics and presiding
  • Weddings: pre-marital, rehearsals and services
  • Funerals: mortuary process and services
  • Worship: Weekly Planning and Special Seasons
  • Social Media: what, how and why
  • Budgets: forecasting, reading and accounting
  • Visitations: Home-bound, Hospital and New People
  • Meeting Management: moderating and agenda setting
  • Congregational and Neighborhood Assessments
  • Personality Type Tools: Enneagram and Myers-Briggs
  • Personnel, Nominating and other Committees: forming and facilitating
  • Project Management: Personal and Congregational Organization
  • Entrepreneurship and Starting New Projects
  • Small Group and Bible Study Methods
  • Catch-All: Flowers, Plumbing and other Glamorous Pastoral Privileges
  • TBD

Okay, so what is missing? Go.


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  • Cwilton  

    Stewardship: both leading the congregation’s campaign(s) and making decisions about one’s own personal stewardship (including how and when to share that information with the congregation).

  • Barbsa  

    Not to be completely negative here, and I agree with what others have written, especially with the conflict management comments, but as a subset of that; how do you know when you are in trouble, and what do you do when it happens?  In a denomination where 40% of separations are non-voluntary, this is crucial for us to know about.

  • Lyndamoore  

    How to not offend those with opposing political viewpoints.
    Learn diversifying techniques to teach, ie drama, song, discussions, kinetics, humor, art, dance, to name a few.

  • Helen Rose Moore  

    Confirmation classes–length, curriculum, etc.

  • Ntay31  


  • Pastor's spouse  

    How to pastor a church and remain a good spouse and parent.  How to pastor a diverse congregation including disability, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or preference, and age.

  • Leanne  

    Working Ecumenically (more pitfalls than one would think)
    Learning the “Secret History” of your congregation/community.
    Forming Friendships with Congregants. (Don’t kid yourself, it happens…figuring out how to keep it healthy/walking the boundary tightrope is essential)

  • Maria  

    How to determine how much spaghetti, sauce, and salad stuff you need for……the youth retreat, the Lenten Dinner, the Session meeting, the mission trip, whenever you are feeding the crowd.

  • Megory  

    Pastoral care at end of life is not just learning to do funerals. Let’s back up the continuum a bit and teach our clergy about care for the aging (huge demographic), the terminally ill, and those with chronic or life threatening illnesses. Death and dying are a significant part of ministry.

  • Rookie Pastor  

    Definitely would agree with others in terms of conflict management. 

    Oh and budgeting.

  • Mark  

    When I was in seminary in the 1990s, I asked the academic dean if a workshop could be offered on church administration.  He suggested I go to the state university across the street and take a course or two in business management.  Excuse me?  There is a clear difference in the dynamics between for-profit, not-for-profit, non-profit, and religious organizations/communities.  Too many congregations keep expecting the church to function as a business instead of as a faith community.  It’s time for the presbyteries to start training congregations, between pastors, about what it means to be faith communities, instead of simply asking where the gaps are in pastors’ training.  We throw one person (a seminary graduate) into a community with entrenched traditions and expect that person to be a catalyst for positive change — a non-anxious presence, in systems theory terminology — burning out that person in the process.  This same person is expected to lead the very people who are paying that person’s salary.  Is it any wonder that so many church members behave like stockholders demanding a return on investment than like fellow servants?  The eclipse of communal discipleship by “business models” is one of several reasons why I left church leadership after 15 years of ordination.

  • Lynn Brown  

    Vision-casting, goal setting, strategic and long-range planning.

  • Elaine Besthorn  

    Boundaries with regards to time/day off/sabbath/vacation.

  • Sarah  

    I definitely second the children’s ministry stuff.  In month 8 as a solo pastor, I feel like I’m finally getting a handle on it.  I am not a “children’s minister,” but I am the only minister, and there are 20+ children on a given Sunday.  So, surprise!  I am their pastor, too.

    With regards to baptism, I felt like I had a decent handle on infant and adult baptism.  But what about 5 and 10-year old baptism?  Too old to be picked up, too young to kneel without the pastor kneeling, too.  It’s the choreography that has had the steepest learning curve for me.Communication flow–how to make sure information is getting to you as the pastor (in my first few months I really irritated some people by not visiting them in the hospital, even though no one had informed me that they were IN the hospital), and that information is getting out to the congregation (as a 20-something new pastor, I had to be reminded by an older parishioner that in fact everyone does NOT have e-mail.  Oops.).

    How to find local resources for the people who stumble through the church doors looking for help–substance abuse, mental health services, government assistance, etc.  Most pastors are not qualified to provide these services, but we need to know who is.

  • Anthony Prince  

    Maybe a crash course in children’s ministry – though the Pastor might not be in charge of the nursery, they need to know best practices and the how-to’s on safety procedures, curriculum selection and some other #kidmin essentials.

  • Rebecca Kirkpatrick  

    The best way to burn palms for Ash Wednesday.
    How to pastorally deal with folks who come to the church asking for cash (“I’m stuck here in your town and just need money for the train to get back to Chicago”)

  • Jevans25  

    Conflicts and politics in the church – yes it does happen and some ways to deal with it.
    Organizing projects and communication within a church.

  • Steve Shively  

    You’ve got a couple of them pointing towards my comment: Business Management basics!
    From customer service, to marketing, to risk management to CRM.

  • Linda LeBron  

    Not a pastor, but my experience is that few of them know how to find/evaluate/adapt appropriate curriculum .

  • Matthew Lloyd Camlin  

    Bruce, I can tell you what *I* didn’t learn in seminary, and that was the importance of ensuring that my own soul was being tended. Huge numbers of young pastors burn out and leave within the first three years of ministry, and I believe it’s because spiritual formation is barely taught in seminary (if at all). The assumption is, “They must have robust spiritual lives, or they wouldn’t be in seminary.” But this is dead wrong.

    The problem with seminary education is that it’s entirely TOO “practical.” Do they teach you how to moderate a Session meeting or manage a church budget? No, and that would be helpful. But neither do they teach you how to pray, fast, confess, discern, meditate, or form spiritual friendships with others. Young pastors don’t burn out because their Session moderation skills are lacking; they burn out because all the practicalities of ministry distract them from the inner work of their relationship with Jesus Christ. As Gregory the Great wrote, “[The pastor] must not relax his care for the internal life while he occupied by external concerns, nor should he relinquish what is prudent of external matters so as to focus on things internal.” (Book of Pastoral Rule, II.1)

  • Michael Kirby  

    Talking about money. How to get the people who want to talk about nothing else to be more holistic. How to get the people who never want to talk about it to see it is more than budgets. Not being afraid to talk about estate planning and the church.

    Copyright laws: How not to go to jail or bankrupt your church.

    Building a community of colleagues for accountability and support (maybe lectionary too).

    Sharing space with other congregations/tenants.

    How to shovel snow (for southerners moving north).

  • Ken deBoer  

    The seminary that I attend teaches this course over four semesters. There is a lot in this “practical” area. I would suggest that you are missing pastoral care….it’s a lot more than hospital visits. Church education planning, Sunday School, youth group, young adults. 

    Self care might be a whole course in itself, but it is a necessary part of the role and needs to be taught to a certain extent.

  • Scott Dobovsky  

    Childrens’ Sermons-  using them to connect scripture for the kids, not using the kids to illustrate scripture for the adults.   

    Supporting Staff in a ministerial  way- not like corporate HR 

  • Becky  

    We actually had a bunch of the stuff on your list in a few classes in seminary (Columbia, ’93), as much as I think they could teach– a lot of it is really learn as you go.  But I would have liked more on small business management topics– personnel management, budgets, project management/entrepreneurship stuff.  Truly most of the stuff I know about this I’ve learned from mistakes– my own and others.  I’m not a “budget person” for some reason, so I’ve learned to find the two or three people in each church who I trust to clue me in on budget issues and who can answer my questions.  There was little to no social media in those days, so I’ve picked that up along the way as well.

  • Sean Gladding  

    Addiction, recovery and the church. Because every person you meet has been affected by addiction in some way, and the God who liberates people invites us to enter the Kingdom wherever we see it coming. And many, many of your students will be active in compulsive and addictive behaviour in seminary.

  • Rob Jackson  

    Maybe something on continuing education?

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