Going home: confessions of a returning seminarian

Todd Lovell

Todd Lovell

By Todd Lovell
Special Contributor

I seem to be getting a lot more questions these days.

Sure, there have always been questions. It is seminary, after all.

The first year, it was “What is your denomination?” Second year, it was “Are you seeking ordination?” Now, as I move to complete my degree in May, the question has become, “What are your plans after graduation?”

It’s a question that I’ve grown accustomed to answering. “I’m returning to serve the local church in Arkansas,” I’ll say. Sometimes I’ll simply say, “I’m going home.”

Going home.

It’s a lofty dream. During my time in seminary, Arkansas has become more of an ideal than a location. My home state exists in my imagination as a place of wonderful potential, a place to live out the calling I’ve become so well acquainted with over these three years.

But into this Edenic ideal of what I remember as Arkansas comes what I suspect to be the real truth. I can never truly go home. At least not to the “home” that I once knew. No, I’m sure that the Arkansas that is is quite different than the Arkansas that was.

Each trip home I’m both encouraged and distraught by how much things have changed. Anxiety begins to creep in: “Can I ever truly go home?” After all, “home” has changed so much. I have changed so much.

This feeling will undoubtedly be the case for many seminarians as they return home this summer. Though I do not wish to speak for them, I would like to speak as one of them. Allow me to share three ways in which you can help your seminarians to come home.

First, remember that the authority we have is given by you. Yes, there are certain pastoral privileges granted to clergy, but these are not wrested from the people by an authority from on high. Rather, all manner of clergy, even bishops themselves, have been called out from the humble pews of the local church. Before they were sent by the bishop, they were approved by you.

That means that when new clergy, or any clergy for that matter, make a difficult or unpopular decision, they are not trying to “pull rank.” They are simply attempting to live out their specific call within the life of their community, a call that you have affirmed. Listen to us, allow us to lead; trust that the potential you once saw in us was not an illusion.

Second, remember the calling we have was nurtured by you. Our respective callings were shaped and encouraged by you, and any authority we may have is granted to us through your gracious support. Many of us grew up next to you in the pews of our local churches. You got on to us when we were too rowdy in the halls, offered us snacks during Vacation Bible School and taught our Sunday school and Confirmation classes. We followed your lead as we took Communion together, and we learned to pray by listening to you.

Our calling, then, is not our own. It is not something we dreamed up in isolation. It was nurtured and articulated by you even before we could nurture and articulate it ourselves.

Third, remember that the passion we have is sustained by you. It’s no secret that the pastorate is no longer considered a safe and fulfilling profession. Current research suggests that physical and mental illness occur at higher rates in clergy than they do in the general population, and it’s often attributed to the increasing demands put upon the modern-day pastor. You have the ability—and the responsibility—to help returning seminarians establish patterns of self-care and Sabbath.

For many of us, seminary didn’t just teach us about theology and history; it also taught us how to pull all-nighters and work through physical and mental exhaustion. That may be doable one semester at a time, but the local church schedule never ends. There are no “finals weeks” to look forward to. Therefore, it is up to you to encourage your new pastors to establish sustainable practices of self-care so that they may provide the local church with a lifetime of healthy and fruitful ministry.

Of course, we seminarians know what we’ve signed up for. The life of a United Methodist minister can be demanding and isolating. We agree to go where we are sent and put our hands to the work of God’s Kingdom. Families will be tested, friendships will become distant and ministries will come and go. And yet, we welcome this struggle. We do so because we understand that our lives are no longer our own.

Through our baptism, we are granted a new life in Christ, a life that is lived out and sustained in Christ’s holy church. Our baptism tells us that, in many ways, this church has become our new home. In other words, my true home is no longer in a place; now it is in a people. God has called me to consider these people my family—my brothers and sisters—who will equip, empower and encourage me in this calling we’ve discerned together.

So what are my plans after graduation? I’m going home; home to Christ’s church to encourage the faithful in the work of the Kingdom.

Lovell, a student at Duke Divinity School, will return to Arkansas this summer to serve as associate pastor of First UMC Springdale.