5 Ways to Beat ‘New Seminary Grad’s Disease!’
This is a great time of year! School is starting. There’s an air of excitement and anxiety. People are open to new experiences. And many new pastors fresh out of seminary are beginning their first fall in the life of the church. Maybe they are in a new church and learning the culture of that church and community; and perhaps they are in the first church they have ever served. For the recent seminary graduate this fall is filled with opportunity, excitement, some anxiety, and maybe a bit of fear. They have experienced years of education, denominational processes, and personal discernment. They have preached that first sermon, led that first worship service, possibly even held their first funeral and first wedding. Certainly they’ve held that first business meeting. A lot of firsts have already happened over the summer and many more are on the horizon.
Years ago I heard a phrase that shocked me a little. I admit I thought it was a pretty condescending thing for a seasoned pastor to say, even if it was somewhat in jest. He said this phrase in response to the ideas of a new young pastor at a denominational meeting, “NSGD” or “New Seminary Grad’s Disease.” Later he explained, “that many of us pastors, when we finally graduate seminary and move into life in ministry and life in the church, do so with an air of arrogance about us. Most of us get over it within a year or two” he continued. “But unfortunately, there are some who never do get over it.” Over the years I have continued to think about that pastor’s statement. Early on I wondered if he was right or just cynical? But the longer I serve in pastoral ministry the more I see the truth of his reflections. However, I don’t think it’s challenging for just the new seminary grads; I think it can impact any pastor at any time during their life of ministry. As I’ve grown in my own awareness of this temptation I have been collecting a great deal of advice on life in ministry; and especially how to adjust to a new church and community. Some of it was great. Some of it was horrible. But here are five pieces of advice that I wish had been written down and handed to me before I ever stepped foot into a church as a pastor:
1. Don’t let your knowledge about Jesus become a substitute for knowing Jesus.
You have probably heard this before. It’s not a new piece of advice for clergy. Yet, it seems we continue to struggle with it. In fact, this may be the great plague of the modern church. We have substituted knowledge for transformation; we have settled for knowing a great deal about Jesus and missed out on intimacy with Jesus; we have bought into the myth that knowing information is the same as developing Christian character. Again, I think this plagues the entire church; and I believe the laity learned it from us. I think we’ve modeled it for them. If this is going to change then we clergy must take the first step into our own deeper discipleship. And then, maybe, the laity will want to go there as well.
2. Don’t let your degree divide you from the congregation.
There are very few communities in the United States where more than 30% of the population have a college or advanced degree. Educationally speaking, you are in the elite. You have had an opportunity and experience that most people have not. Pay attention to the demographics of your congregation. Your experience in college and seminary will help immensely in your ministry; but the way you reference it in conversations, sermons, and even Bible studies may push a bit of a wedge in between you and your congregation. Be careful not to appear arrogant simply because you’ve been educated. Another way to say it, ‘don’t be a know-it-all.’ You have more to learn from the people in your congregation and community than they have to learn from you.
3. Don’t let graduation keep you from continuing to learn and grow.
I once had a colleague say to me, “I read all the books I’ll ever need to read in seminary.” And another pastor friend said “I don’t need to go to any of these ‘how to do church’ seminars.” I continue to be mystified by those who seem to think they have no more to learn. The old leadership cliche is more than a cliche, ‘learners are leaders.’ Make it a habit early on in ministry to establish and follow a yearly learning plan. Set out what books you are going to read and what seminars or conferences you will attend. Join or host a pastors reading and study group. Your church needs you to be the chief learner in that community. Make it a commitment. Don’t stop learning, for when you do, you relinquish your ability to lead.
4. Don’t judge other preachers too harshly.
Ministry can be brutal and you never know what another preacher might have been through. Be extensions of grace in the lives of other preachers. That cranky and cynical preacher may well have been through several seasons of ecclesiastical hell. Let us pray for one another. Let us support and encourage one another. Make a decision early be in ministry to and with other preachers. We need to be on each others teams. We are not opponents. We are in this together. Let’s start acting like it.
5. Don’t forget the main thing is to make disciples of Jesus.
It’s amazing how easily this can slip out of focus. For me it usually happens at the moment I start to fill out our end of the year reports, you know that moment right? The report with the question, “What was your average worship attendance this last year?” And I begin to think about the three non-denominational ‘mega’ churches down the street (yes, there are three of them within three miles of the church I serve). We are tempted to focus on the statistical numbers and forget that the numbers represent people; people who need to know Jesus Christ. Discipleship is our main thing. Large growing ‘mega’ churches are great when they are making disciples of Jesus. Small intimate family churches are great when they are making disciples of Jesus. It’s discipleship that makes a great church. And a church of any size can get off-mission when the making of disciples is not the focus…so stay focused on making disciples!
So what do you think? How have you experienced NSGD in your life and ministry? Is it a continuing temptation? How have you dealt with it?
Grace and Peace, Rich