I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Burns while at the Atlanta General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America last summer. His son, Rob Burns and I went to Westminster Seminary together for a season before he transferred. Bob was kind enough to buy me lunch and pass my contact information to other pastors in the PCA which was a great help. He has spent his life training pastors, considering the nature of education as it relates to preparing pastors for the ministry. In a recent book All For Jesus: A Celebration Of The 50th Anniversary Of Covenant Theological Seminary Bob contributed an article entitled, “Pastoral Learning After Seminary.” The title alone had I not meet Bob would have merited a reading, especially given my season in life as I exit seminary.

There was one quotation by Bob at the end of the book that I found extremely helpful, he says;

These pastors considered their formal seminary education to be helpful, but limited in providing an understanding of what they would face in practice. Popular wisdom among pastors is that they develop practice knowledge in the day-to-day struggles of the ministry. They conduct their ministries in the “swamp” of the church that presents messy, confusing problems that defy technical solutions. Through learning in practice – by reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action, negative experiences, and exposure to mentors and models – these pastors have demonstrated learning characteristics that need to be better understood if seminary graduates are to develop an informed practice.

For most of us its no surprise that Seminary doesn’t do the job of preparing us for the practical nature of day-in and day-out church ministry. This isn’t to dismiss seminary, but to treat it as though it was a ticket to competency is going to cause a lot of over booked flights. I think Bob’s experience and research bears out something that every seminarian needs to hear, and pastors need to be reminded of; our most valuable lessons in ministry happen in the midst of ministry and not in the quiet reflections of our studies. In seminary much of our learning came through class syllabus, well in ministry our learning comes from broken marriages, untimely deaths, staff conflicts, suspicions and rumors, missional seasons of refreshment and special movements by the Lord, and we could go on…

What this should do is sober seminarians up to the fact that the most important learning they will have during their seminary years will be their ministry internships. Growth for pastors happens along practical and theorhetical lines but the emphasis in life is on the practical. I really appreciated the way Bob parsed this out, ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’ and ‘negative experiences’ and ‘mentors and models’.

God calls us as pastors to continue in ministry and reflect-in-action, but he also calls us to those special times of reflection-on-action. In my own denomination pastors are given a six month sabbatical every 7 years to do just that. God in his providence brings many ‘negative experiences’ into our ministries in order to grow us and not to burden us down with grief. And God calls pastors into mentoring relationships with other Christians, be they pastors or not; as well as calling us to consider our model for ministry and how it can grow. Its a rich call to pastor, its an ongoing call that entails a lifetime of responsibilities that should lead us into dependency upon Christ.

I’m very excited to enter this next stage of learning, the Post-Seminary stage…