Free Advice for Seminary Graduates

About this time last year, I was celebrating the fact that the world did not end. There was another celebration, which was for my graduation from seminary.

Much has changed  in my life since I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary last May. I’m blessed to serve two congregations and humbled to share life and ministry with some amazing people as a result. I’m doing something that I am enjoy and love doing each day. With that, I’ve experienced everything a first-year pastor experiences (which will be the focus of a post at some other point in time) from the joys and the agonies.

One thing I quickly realized is that seminary did not fully prepare me for ministry. That is no fault to Asbury, my professors, or even to my own studies. The fact of the matter is theory can only go so far. Theory must be met with practical application and that can only be learned in the midst of ministry. Seminary is about teaching theories of ministry and it is up to each pastor and leader to take that theory and apply it to their specific circumstances.

As many seminary students graduate this month and enter their first appointments in the coming weeks, I offer some suggestions. These are added, I know, to the mounds of unsolicited and solicited advice that many graduates receive. I don’t pose myself to be an expert. I am simply giving advice as a recent graduate and pastor and as someone who desires to see all servants enter ministry prepared for the journey ahead.

My first piece of advice is to hire a good CPA. This may not seem like a ministry-related task, but it will be beneficial to you and your family. The tax code is complicated enough, but becomes more complicated with specific laws surrounding pastoral salary and benefits. Prior to this tax year, I did my own taxes and could file quite easily. The combination of my taxes and my wife’s taxes became a burden and a stressful endeavor. Give it over to someone who knows the tax code and has experience working with pastors. In other words, do not go to your neighborhood H&R Block and expect them to know your about pastoral taxes. Find a quality CPA in your area or ask other pastors whom they use. If you have trouble finding someone, seek guidance from your denominational representatives on whom they would recommend.

Recognize that you will make mistakes and it is OK. When we enter a new appointment, there is a tendency to want everything to be perfect. Perhaps it is because as students we’ve had three or four years to think about what we would do in those first few months. While we should seek to be the best pastor we can be, we should be aware that we will make mistakes. It is only natural. Plans will fail to gain traction. You will deliver a sermon that doesn’t quite elicit the response you had desired. You will forget someone’s birthday. You will make a typo in the bulletin and sometimes several. It’s OK. It’s not the end of the world or your ministry. The moment you realize that is the moment you will begin to learn from your mistakes and grow from them. It takes time, and I admit that, but it will happen and growth will occur.

Carve out family time and be intentional about making it a priority. This might seem like a no-brainer, but family time is one of the first things that gets ignored in ministry, especially in the first year. When a schedule becomes full family time always seems to be the first to go. It sends a message to our spouses and children that the job of ministry is more important than our calling and our family. Be intentional about having date nights with your spouse and family time with your entire family. That doesn’t mean everyone sits around the television while you are working on the sermon. Instead, be willing to walk away from what you are working on and embrace doing things with your family that they enjoy and that you enjoy doing.

Take time for physical and spiritual self. One of the things I ignored in my first year is my physical health. I had prided myself on losing weight in seminary. However, when I began serving my physical health was the last thing on my mind. I struggled with telling someone “no” on food or even carving time to go for a walk or play a round of golf. Be diligent about caring for your physical self. If you are tired and do not  have any energy, then you will have nothing to give to your congregations and your family. At the same time, grow spiritually. Take time to be a disciple and to find time in the Lord’s presence. You need it.

Finally, make sure you laugh. Ministry is hard. Preaching is hard. Find things in your life that makes you laugh. Your soul will thank you.

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