Straining at the Oars: Case Studies in Pastoral Leadership, by H. Dana Fearon III with Gordon S. Mikoski (Eerdmans, 2013, 138 pp., $18). 

If someone can graduate from seminary without a long list of things the place failed to teach, they shouldn’t be granted the degree. Perhaps degree granters and degree recipients can trade on the dais: a piece of stenciled lambskin for a list of curricular omissions.

Seminaries are brief, intensive periods in which a faculty has to transmit all the treasures of erudition that thousands of years of Israel and church have curated. These include scripture, biblical languages and history, theology and philosophy, pastoral care in all manner of practical fields, and a taste of community living to boot. Three years is not just impossible for such handing on of tradition. It’s a joke. Better to think of seminary as a sort of liberal arts education. It doesn’t teach everything you need to know, but it does teach you how to learn what you’ll need to know. That’s a sufficient hope.


Dana Fearon’s book Straining at the Oars continues a venerable tradition of lamenting the seminary’s inability or refusal to teach the right stuff. He’s kind about it — he’s had a hand in teaching at Princeton Seminary for decades, so in a sense he’s part of the problem. But every pastoral vignette he presents is one for which school left him ill-prepared, despite a formidable academic resume. 


Should you baptize a dead baby when the parents don’t buy your rationale for not doing it? Should you return the American flag to a place of display in the sanctuary when a family donates the flag and stand? (At times at Duke under Stanley Hauerwas it seemed like this question was all we talked about, but never mind.) Should you offer to house a local synagogue that needs worship space, and needs to remove your cross? Should you engage in community development in a distressed minority neighborhood nearby when powerful parishioners wish you wouldn’t?


I remember Mike Krzyzewski, the great Duke basketball coach, being asked how he thinks about substituting the right combination of five players throughout the game. “I just sort of do it by feel,” he said, somewhat sheepishly. Fearon also suggests that we ministers go by feel. In some cases, he forcibly interjected himself into church disputes. 


In others, he had the pastoral sensitivity to hold back. In all he felt inadequate, in many he found unexpected success, and often he found himself sustained by a “surprising presence.” He hopes whatever else we teach future ministers, we will teach them to seek that presence.


Readers of In Trust can surely affirm that no seminary can teach all a graduate needs to know. Seminary presidents, executives, board members, and other administrators usually did not plan to be doing what they are doing. We go to the preacher factory to become preachers, not fundraisers, strategic planners, HR heads, building builders, or community cheerleaders. Yet we are those things now — and a good deal more besides. Would we want to break the curricular mold we now curate for future generations to enable the school to produce people to do our particular jobs? Of course not. We expect the seminary to teach us to think about God with all God’s people around the world, on the way to loving God and all God’s people around the world. We don’t need so many of the technical skills we once thought crucial and sweated out C’s over. 


Sure, seminaries could do more to teach us to be savvy, wise, self-aware, humble. But so too could churches and every other institution working with human beings on our planet. Reading Dana Fearon’s book is a way for us all to take another step toward that great end.


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