Learning Ministry


By Rachel Freeny

We have a favorite quote around here at McAfee, one that serves as an unofficial motto. Professors say it at preview conference, we use it as a prayer and a rallying cry. We like it so much we printed it on the backs of royal blue t-shirts.

When Jesse Mercer first uttered “Lord, save us from an ignorant ministry,” I wonder if he knew how important his words would be for the hundreds of students that would one day study at a little seminary in Atlanta?

These words have been important for me in my seminary journey thus far, though their meaning changes with each semester. As a curious college senior who stumbled into preview day, those words confirmed my call and desire to go to seminary.

As a first semester student, they became a goal to pursue as I waded through hours of class and endless assignments. My second semester, Mercer's quote was an unofficial commission as I boarded a plane to spend the summer in South Asia.

It wasn't until this second year of seminary that Mercer's words took on a life outside of the classroom. I figured avoiding an ignorant ministry meant learning all there was to know about ministry and theology from books and brilliant professors. I assumed the more internships and part-time jobs I got, the better to learn how to do ministry.

Then in the space of eight months I watched as multiple things in my life outside of school fell apart. A beloved family member's tragic death. A loss of personal denominational identity. Losing sight of my once sure calling. A break up.

As I raged against whatever forces in the universe were conspiring to bring about so much pain, I learned more to save me from an ignorant ministry than any book had taught me. For the first time in my life, I let the people closest to me see the messiest parts of what I was going through. I learned how to be ministered to, which for someone who is usually on the ministering end of things was a powerful experience.

My community of family and friends surrounded me and let me have more questions than answers. No one tried to fix me. One dear friend showed me the power of presence by lovingly answering the phone and letting me sob, when I had no words left.

Another friend encouraged me, “let yourself be broken. It's okay to be broken.” As an image conscious perfectionist, I initially reeled against those words. But she gave me permission to be broken and didn't walk away when I was. Other friends made plans and filled my calendar. They made me laugh and let me cry. Every note, call, prayer, and text over the last few months showed me Jesus in ways I had only heard about secondhand.

Maybe today you find yourself in a similar position. You came to seminary expecting your education and experience to go one way, but nothing is as you expected. Rejoice! Because this is exactly how seminary is supposed to go. Every experience in and out of the classroom is an opportunity for God to shape us for God's work in the world. We learn how to listen, how to speak, how to ask for help and how to give it.

Frederick Buechner says it best when he reminds us: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

All moments are key moments, opening our eyes to the depths of God's heart and what it means to live as a redeemed people. All moments are key moments, even when we don't expect them.

I knew seminary would prepare me to be a better minister, but I thought that everything I needed to know could be found in a book or through an internship. I never expected that my most influential ministerial education would come from being ministered to. That I would learn how to serve and love broken people by being broken myself. That God would save me from an ignorant ministry by redeeming the pain that opened my eyes.