The Gold Standard of “Context”

Everyone’s journey into ministry is different, but my own route into pastoral ministry was…well…unique. In our church body, the typical seminarian goes through two years of residential education followed by a year out in the field before returning to campus for a final year of classwork. After that, it is on to his first pastoral placement. I say “placement” because that is really what it is: you are assigned to a congregation. Most likely not in your home state, and most definitely not to the congregation you came from.


But not in my case.



From day one, I knew where I was headed. Not only did our home church send my family and I to Seminary, but they worked closely with our denominational leaders and Seminary administrators to ensure that, when my classwork was done, I would return to our home congregation to serve as one of their pastors.


And that made all the difference in the world.


For me, classwork wasn’t just theory. Every course—even those titled “Exegetical,”

“Historical” or “Systematic” Theology—was practical. When I had to study the gospels or the Torah, I wasn’t just translating ancient texts. I was thinking through how to preach these passages to my people. When we were discussing the role of the sacraments in the life of faith, I was thinking of the parents I was talking to as they prepared to baptize their kids. When we studied the Confessions and the Reformation, I couldn’t help but think about how very little has changed in 500 years. The spiritual confusion that the Reformers faced and the mission they had to proclaim the Gospel was still alive and well in the Chicago suburbs to which we would be returning. My final paper for my Pastoral Leadership class became my leadership playbook for my first year back on the ground. It helped as we navigated change, built a healthier staff culture, and put into place programs to reach unchurched people in our community.


Over my three years of Seminary, I routinely returned to our home congregation to preach, sit on team meetings, and help with leadership training. Those touchpoints kept me grounded and focused on how what I was learning mattered in the day-to-day life of the church and its mission. What made the “gold standard” of Seminary education so golden wasn’t the classroom. It was the context in which I was able to apply it.


As I look back on those years, I’m grateful for my Seminary experience. I learned a ton about the Bible and theology, history, and missions. And I made friends, both on and off-campus, who I continue to be close with to this day.


But there is another side to that coin: Seminary was also painful. It was painful because, in order to become a pastor, I had to uproot my family. There were no other options open to us. Believe me, we asked.




I watched as my wife put her own career on hold for the sake of her husband’s calling to pastoral ministry. We felt the pain of having to leave behind the friends and family who had always been a source of strength for us. We were moving to a new city without jobs, without housing, and without financial stability, all while trying to raise two small kids.


I also experienced the hardship of not being understood by many of my fellow classmates. We had left our mission field to enter a denominational subculture which, for a guy not raised in the church, much less the Lutheran church, was not only disorienting but frustrating and isolating. I spent many angry and tear-filled afternoons in the offices of my professors just struggling to know how to care for my family and do my studies, all while feeling like we had been sucked into a strange world that was increasingly disconnected and out of touch from the society we had been called to reach. Seminary is where I first started seeing a therapist and where my wife and I first attended couples counseling.


Yes, we survived. And yeah, my Seminary education prepared me to be a pastor. But I would argue that what made the Seminary experience worthwhile was that I was able to apply what I was learning to the context in which I would be serving. Some of my fellow students weren’t so lucky. Most of them left their first calls within the first three years. Others left the ministry entirely.



And stories like that leave me saying, “There’s got to be a better way!” What if we could give our future leaders quality theological education without all of the collateral damage? What if we could raise up leaders right within their own congregations to continue to serve even as they learn? What if we could have all the best training while immediately being able to put it into practice on the ground?


After all, that’s how the early church did it. Maybe we could do the same.


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