Jason I will always remember sitting in a conference room with my local board of ordained ministry, hearing their counsel, but trying my best not to listen. It was 2013, and I was living in East Tennessee, serving a church under appointment as a full-time local pastor, and having a great experience in ministry. The board told me they saw spiritual gifts at work in my life and ministry (terrific!), and that I needed to go to seminary in order to more fully live out the call God had placed on my life (say what?).

I was happy where I was and had no intention of leaving, so I argued with them. The argument continued for weeks, only it was no longer the board I was arguing with; it was God. When I finally understood the futility of arguing with the Creator, my family packed up our home to move to North Georgia, where I was to begin serving a church and attending classes at Candler.

Thinking back on my old life at home in East Tennessee, I admit that I had been the willing victim of flattery. There were a few vocal friends in the congregation who said, “Seminary? You’re fine the way you are! What can they teach you that you don’t already know?”

How kind! And oh, how woefully and completely wrong! I vividly recall sitting in classes my first day, mouth dropped, only then realizing the depths of all that I did not know. I did not have a deep knowledge of Scripture and had never critically engaged the text. I had no theology at all that I could claim as my own. I had no working knowledge of United Methodist history, church history, or hardly any history at all. I had been a United Methodist for twelve years, and yet I couldn’t even articulate what that really meant with any clarity. I remember thinking, “How did I ever do this job at all?”

Though I had always loved preaching and pastoral care, the realization flooded me in a moment: I wouldn’t consider choosing a surgeon because she just really enjoyed cutting people. I would insist that someone who had been thoroughly trained perform the surgery, someone who had really taken the time to understand all of the issues involved as I lay on her operating table. And if I would hold a surgeon to that standard with my body, don’t our local congregations deserve at least that much care and attention to their spiritual well-being and to the body of Christ?

My home and church are 92 miles north of campus, and in order to have dinner every night with my family, I often get up at 4 in the morning to drive to campus, and drive home right after classes end. At first, the commute was my enemy, but I was determined to turn my enemy into my friend. For the last two and half years, I have downloaded class lectures and listened to them again and again, made audio notes on my iPhone of key points from classes and readings, and played these through my car speakers on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. This not only cemented key concepts, but I often found myself pausing the recording and reflecting out loud, “Okay, makes sense now…Just needed to hear that one more time.” 

I have found great joy in serving as a pastor while at Candler. Contextual Education, I learned, is a lot more than a program name. When I learned about the prophets or the psalter, it felt wrong not to share all I was learning, so I preached on the prophets or the psalter. When I learned about pastoral care, I had the opportunity to apply all that I was learning right away, in real time, with real people. When I learned about approaches to preaching that I had never heard of, I had the opportunity to try out all that I was learning that Sunday.

There is no doubt whatsoever that I have become a better pastor because I committed to do the work of being the best student I could be. And likewise, there is no doubt whatsoever that I have become a better student because I committed to the work of being the best pastor I could be. That’s true contextual education, and I have been enriched in countless ways for it, even as I am committed to enriching the Church in every way that I can.

I have several friends back home who are interested in ministry, have clear gifts and graces, and exhibit signs of a call. “But life is good!” they say. “Why move?” they say. “What could seminary possibly teach me?” they ask.

Well… Those are some conversations that I very much look forward to, as only one who has been there can answer. 

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