Four Things I’ve Learned (So Far)

Author: 
Fr. Theophan Whitfield

The Doctor of Ministry Program at St Vladimir’s Seminary: Four Things I’ve Learned (So Far)

The pastor and the triage nurse have much in common.  Both spend significant  time assigning priority among hard cases.  In the parish and in the emergency room, the need for urgent care is often pronounced and pressing.  And the basic fact of life is that time and resources are limited.  “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11) takes on special meaning in parish ministry.

Seminary is of course the place which prepares the Orthodox pastor for ministry in a world of profound suffering.  And this is true regardless of whether one labors in a declining heritage parish in the northeast or a booming mission parish along I-10.  The goal of ministry is neither to keep the doors open, nor is it to multiply the number of new parishes.  The basic goal is to connect the weary and the heavy laden to Christ, so that He might give them rest (Matt 11:28).

And this is what Orthodox pastors do.  Whether you are a priest, youth pastor, prison chaplain, retreat leader, iconographer or missionary, the calling is the same  —  to make the timeless gospel make sense for the person who stands in need before you, right here and right now.

But with so much to do, it is easy to lose sight of the truth that ministry is a blend of calling and skill, and that both of these need nurturing.  We nurture our calling to ministry by taking care of our own relationship with Christ through prayer, fasting, worship, confession, and works of mercy.  But we must pay attention to our pastoral skills as well.  For too many the world is a misery mill that tirelessly churns out creative forms of suffering and alienation.

For me, the Doctor of Ministry program at St Vladimir’s Seminary is proving to be an experience which nurtures both calling and skill.  On the one hand, the D.Min. program is providing an excellent opportunity to pause and learn more about the many and novel pastoral challenges we face in the parish, and a major fruit of coursework so far is that I now bring better skills to the whack-a-mole work of ministry.  But the value of the program for me is not limited to the activity of hands and head.  It has nurtured my heart as well.  The D.Min. experience is strengthening my identity and calling as an Orthodox pastor.

To focus a bit, here are four things I’ve learned so far as a D.Min. student at St. Vladimir’s.

(1)  Pastors have experience, and the Church needs it.  Ministry is not just about coping with the problems of today.  Ministry is also about processing and learning from our pastoral experiences to this point, so that we might be armed to the teeth as we help our people confront the uncertainties of an unfolding future.  Orthodox pastors have an obligation (I would say) to hold up what they have learned through the years, whether by failure or by success, and to offer that experience as a resource for others who are laboring in the vineyard.  The D.Min. program offers such an opportunity.  As a D.Min. student, I am asked to think about ministry in a critical way, both because it makes me a better parish priest, but also because the Church needs me to do it.  The coursework and doctoral projects required along the way will be used by the Holy Spirit to ensure that the gates of hell most certainly will not prevail against the rock of our confession (Matt 16:18).

(2)  I have more time in my schedule than I feared.  One bar to entering the program was a concern about whether “one more thing” (and a big one at that) would dynamite the delicate constellation of work, family, and Netflix that already trembles each time the church phone rings.  Spoiler alert:  the work takes time  —  you cannot dash it off between coffee hour and the post-liturgical nap.  However, the distance-learning nature of the program delivers flexibility to your door  —  or at least to your web browser.  If you like to listen to lectures at a desk, wearing a cassock, with pencil and paper primed for taking notes … then you can certainly do that.  But if learning on the treadmill or train ride works for you, then let the world be your classroom!  Pajamas or pants  —  your wardrobe makes no difference.

(3)  I am not pursuing a doctorate in ministry, but WE are.   For students in the D.Min. program at St Vladimir’s, this statement makes sense.  We are blessed that St Vladimir’s takes the “cohort” vision quite seriously.  I entered the doctoral experience with ten others from eight different jurisdictions across the United States and Canada, and by design there is intimate overlap in our work.  We are proceeding through the program together.  We reflect on each other’s work weekly, and the “onsite intensive” each term is a jewel in the crown of the whole experience.  For a full week each semester we meet at St Vladimir’s and gather critical feedback from the cohort on our developing projects. 

Have you ever shouted your best idea with eloquence and power only to hear crickets in response?  (I’m looking at you, committee meeting.) Or do you from time to time take the Nestea plunge into Facebook and float on the waves stirred up by like-minded voices? In my cohort, there are no crickets, and there are no echo chambers.  Discussions are spirited and informed.  What I find in the cohort is a fellowship of disciples who want to make our common efforts alongside Christ as fruitful as possible.  It is a place where truly the goal is to speak the truth in love so that we may become the mature body of Christ (Eph 4:15).

(4)  There is a difference between being self-emptying and self-draining.  This is a quotation from Fr Nicholas Solak who taught the recent course Pastoral Counseling in the Parish.  If I had to pick a slogan for the D.Min. experience so far, this would be it.  One priceless benefit of my studies to this point is perspective, in a word.  It is easy to lose ourselves in ministry, to erase the good and needed boundaries that protect our authenticity as pastors and guides.  As we deepen our understanding of youth ministry, or advances in medicine and biology, or liturgical practice, we are reminded over and over that what we do, we do for the glory of God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is good to step back and see the wide scope of excellent ministry that is ongoing in the Body of Christ.  For me, this has been a source of encouragement and renewal. I know it has been for others as well.  I look forward to the challenging work that still lies ahead.

 

Rev. Theophan Whitfield is the rector of St Nicholas Orthodox Church in Salem, MA.  With degrees in philosophy from Princeton and Columbia, he was a teacher of mathematics and the history of science before entering St Vladimir’s Seminary, from which he graduated in 2010.  When he is not busy explaining to witches that Christians have been blessing water, homes, and graves for 2000 years, he enjoys exploring the North Shore of Boston with his wife, Matushka Manna, and three daughters.

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