In the next few weeks, a number of United Methodist seminarians will sit before their respective Board of Ordained Ministry to determine whether or not they are prepared for, or effective in, ministry. The interviews can be a terrifying process; for years these students have studied diligently and now they are being asked to demonstrate their ability to articulate their theology. After going before the Virginia Conference’s Board last year, I have been asked by a number of friends/peers to reflect on the journey and offer advice. Below I have copied my response to one such friend. Though the the reflections are largely geared toward those interested in ministry, I believe they also function to help encourage theological reflection in all forms of Christian discipleship.
1) Prepare yourself to be surprised. For as much as our fellow peers have gone through the ringer of these interviews, you can never prepare yourself for EVERY question. There will come a moment that you are asked to respond and you will be completely lost for a moment because you never though they would have asked that question. So, (heres the advice part) do NOT try to just memorize particular answers to particular questions. Most of these people have read through more papers than they can count and they’ve heard all the same answers over and over. Calm yourself and let your answers be more organic than regimented. Instead of answering everything in three points (or through every avenue of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”) try instead to relate it to YOUR experience of God in the world. The committee will then know that you are answering from Truth rather than truth. Be God’s Yes and No to the world at the same time. (which is to say: be dialectical, without confusing the committee members)
2) Scripture scripture scripture. If there is any technique or trick to help with the interviews, its to read the bible before you go. It will rest in the fabric of your being as a well from which you can draw the living water of theological and liturgical reflection. When possible, use examples from scripture to answer any of the questions you are asked. Not only will it demonstrate your commitment to the Word, but it will also show how you have a scripturally shaped imagination. For example: you might not be familiar with terrible suffering in your own life, but the lives remembered from the biblical corpus certainly have and they can be your examples to answer the questions.
3) Be Methodist (but not too Methodist). Use Wesley’s life and teaching to inform your answers, but don’t isolate yourself to ONLY thinking in a Wesleyan way. We have all been trained by a wide variety of theologians, we’ve read from the greats in church history, and we’ve experienced churches beyond the UMC. Ecumenism is not just some idealistic practice, but should instead be one of the great aims of the church. Use sources outside of your church family to answer questions, yet make sure they match up with the Theological and Doctrinal Standards of our faith.
4) Baptism, Eucharist, Sacraments (Oh MY!) – Sacramental theology is at the heart of what it means to be Christian (particularly United Methodist). Though some sacramental functions have been downplayed in the contemporary church they were CENTRAL to Wesley’s approach. Also, sacraments are what separates the laity from the clergy; they are our responsibility to maintain and provide for the people.
5) Remember: you are intimidating. (I mean this as a compliment) Most of the people in your interviews (in fact, probably all of them) will be older than you, and have a lesser theological education. You will do well to remember this. As a young and confident person, you will be viewed with suspicion by some members of the committee (I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is). Show a command of the material, but don’t overdo it. One of the things I’ve heard from a lot of our peers in different conferences was that the committees were bothered with their lack of translation between seminary and the normalcy of church life. They want to hear what you have to say IN A WAY THAT THEY CAN UNDERSTAND. For example: for as much as I love Barth, be very careful with his language and conceptions of God. They will mean little to the members on the committees.
6) Pray. Seriously. Pray before you interview. Pray between each committee room. Remember why you’re doing this and for whom (The answer is God)
7) Materials can be important. Bring your papers with you, but don’t anchor yourself to them. You might be asked to clarify a specific response that you wrote. If this is the case, don’t worry about what you wrote, but carefully respond to their question in the moment. They want to give you as many chances as they can to clarify what you mean.
8) Take your time. Before jumping to answer their questions, make sure you know what they’re asking. If they’re unclear, ask them to rephrase. Better for you to get the question right before you give a wrong answer.
9) Be humble. I know you will have an answer to every question, but showing that you still have room for growth will go a long way in reaching the hearts of the committee members. I remember being asked about death and instead of just throwing out a response I said something to the effect of “You know, thats a really difficult question. Death is one of those many things that we do not have a black and white answer to, death is something caught up in the mystery of God. Its hard for me to respond to hypothetical responses regarding death, but I can tell you that scripture says…” Owning up to the fact that you don’t have all the answers reinforces the reasons that Jesus had to come in the first place. If we had it all figured out, we never would’ve needed God to come in flesh to die, and live, for us.
10) Be yourself. Be authentic to who you are. If you’re pushed out of your comfort zone by a question, make them know they have done so. If you feel like your integrity might be compromised by giving them the answer they want to hear, rather than the one you believe, I say be true to yourself more than them. (this is debatable regarding the question) However, in my experience, they would rather see YOU answer the question as YOU perceive and understand rather than handing them over the perfectly crafted three sentence response they have been hearing all day. Theology is alive. New ideas and concepts and faith-struggles occur everyday. If we only reuse the same theologies over and over than we will never grow as a church, and the kingdom of God will remain tacit, fruitless, and stale. The Church needs imagination now, perhaps more than ever before.