Story by Laura Lehman Amstutz
The advent and Christmas season is an especially busy time for pastors – even more so for those who are also in seminary.
Eastern Mennonite Seminary has 26 students who are also pastoring congregations, which means they are involved with special Christmas services and other holiday preparations along with juggling final exams and papers.
While it keeps them busy, students say that having both roles is also valuable.
Kevin Gasser, a third-year student, has been the pastor at Staunton Mennonite Church for the last two-and-a-half years. “You learn what kind of minister you are, and then you can take classes that enhance your strengths or work on your weaknesses,” he said.
These pastor-students have opportunity to apply what they’re learning immediately.
Peggy Packard, associate pastor at Bridgewater United Methodist church said, “I like taking what I learn in class and figuring out how it fits with my congregation.”
Vivian Utz, in her middle year, is pastor for three United Methodist churches – two in Orange and one in Louisa. “I’ve been preaching for 20 years, but this semester I took ‘Interpreting the Biblical Text’ and it completely changed how I preach,” she commented.
The students also get support and counsel from fellow students and faculty.
Utz also appreciates a place to take concerns and questions about her congregations. “We can bring the issues we deal with into the classroom and ask professors and other students what they think,” she said.
Gasser said he doesn’t have to worry about having something to write about for case studies or to talk about in pastoral-care classes. He appreciates having a place to talk about issues he faces in his ministry.
“I could go to an overseer or someone else in the larger church structure, but when you meet every week with a group, it’s just different,” he said.
“The seminary is my Sabbath time,” said Utz. “It gives me space to pray and to be cared for by others.”
When class assignments and ministry overlap, these students have a definite advantage. Packard and Gasser have been able to use sermons they prepared for class in their congregations. Utz has found classes with Wendy Miller, associate professor of spiritual formation, to be “particularly helpful” in her congregations.
Having time to do both is often difficult. “Sometimes something happens in a congregation that demands immediate attention, such as a death,” Packard said. However, the professors at seminary are very understanding when we need to miss class for something like that.”
Laura Lehman Amstutz is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press.