Monday, March 11, 2013


I spent some time with my Uncle Chris, Aunt Tay (yes, she has the same name as me), and my cousin Kate today. This is a rare treat as I drifted quite far from that part of my family until recently. As a kid I always loved my scientist-aunt/uncle and had many long talks about explosives and others boyhood wonders of Chemistry. Kate was here in town for an Art History conference (yep, same discipline as my wife, but different subject area), so Tay and Chris came up as well. They wanted a real Toronto Chinatown experience--so we ended up at Mother's Dumplings, which is a well-known place for homemade dumplings. They had no less that eight staff members just stuffing dumplings the whole time we were there! I remember when Mother's was in the basement of a place on Huron Street--the new digs (2010) on Spadina are amazing. Yummy food and a long, meandering talk. Since all five grown ups are teachers in one capacity or another, where was a lot of talk about those realities. I particularly enjoyed my cousin's critique of Wikipedia, which was highly nuanced and researched--she has obviously thought a lot about the issue. It's true, now, that students are constantly trying to use Wikipedia has a source, which in limited circumstances it can be.

My uncle, a chemist who has made most of his career studying issues related to art conservation, is also very interested in questions of craft and material culture. I remember as a kid that their house was filled with antique clocks and looms that he had restored or were works in progress. He has a fantastic collection of traditional hand tools, he tells me. We see eye-to-eye on these issues (like how shameful it is that many high schools have dismantled their shop programs). As we were talking about teaching he asked whether priests in training go through any kind of mentorship programme. So I explained how the field-education system works in Toronto (which is virtually the same from New Haven where I went to seminary).

Basically, to get a Master of Divinity you have to satisfy a field education requirement. The most common way to do this is to spend one academic year as a student in a church placement. The student and the Field Ed. Supervisor (I know two of them: Andrew Sheldon for Wycliffe/Trinity and Natalie Wigg-Stevenson for Emmanuel) decide on possible placements that look like a good match for what the student needs to learn and the priest at that parish is asked whether they are willing to take on that particular student. If student and priest are agreed that it is a good match, the student develops a series of learning goals and we are off to the races.

To be honest, I was never a fan of the whole student-developed learning goal system--especially when I was a student myself. The problem is that you don't know what you don't know. In other words, I think it is problematic to expect a student to be able to identify their own blindspots. The better approach, in my humble opinion, is at least to have them shadow a priest for a few weeks and then ask them where they feel they want to focus their learning.

I suppose that part of the problem is that one year is not much time. At my seminary it was expected that you would do two academic years of field ed. plus a CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) unit one summer. CPE is usually done in a hospital setting--it's a very particular pedagogical paradigm but it has much merit. If you want to learn pastoral care skills in a hurry, CPE is a good place to start. It's kind of like boot camp for pastors--you might hate it, but it could save your life someday.

I love having students. I try to give them all the time, attention, and opportunities that I didn't get when I was a seminarian. If a student were to come to asking to learn how to preach, I would probably put them on the preaching rota (schedule) every other week. If they say they want to learn liturgy I was involve them in the nitty gritty details of planning the Easter Vigil. When it comes to students I say "Bring it on!" Often students come wanting to know about liturgy, which is, indeed, a fundamental skill. We (as Pastors) are asked again and again to plan and preside over meaningful moments in the life of the communities we serve, and that means doing good worship.

Two years ago a student came to me from Wycliffe that wanted to learn liturgy and general priest-craft. So I asked her to show up the next Sunday with a borrow cassock and shadow me through the service. I took mental notes. Even though she didn't actually do anything, I noticed a lot of problems right away that needed correcting. For example, her manner of walking through the space was entirely wrong. Arms waving by her side, constantly shifting this way and that, it was all wrong for worship. I told her afterwards: "you must move like ninja ghost-walker samurai priest." In one of our first "real" one-on-one sessions I asked her to walk with me up and down the liturgical space. I told her to keep her hands together in front of her as she walked (not stiffly, but naturally). I taught her to walk with simple, intentional direction. As little noise as possible. Think of the angels in heaven. Think of the attendants to the Queen. Never walk backwards. Always know where you will be going before you go there.

Any craft can go very deep. I could write many paragraphs about the proper shoes and how to wear them (seriously), but I'm aware that any carpenter would say the same about hammers or screwdrivers. An accountant could wax eloquent about Reverse Polish Notation and spread sheet programmes. But the young ones never listen to us. Interestingly, advice about material culture (like what shoes to wear, how to choose a cassock, etc.) is usually received much more readily than something like preaching advice. Which is weird, because preaching is much more difficult than selecting shoes. Many of my students have resisted my advice or even downright instruction when it comes to preaching. I'm very gentle with newbie preachers, but most aren't ready to take my softest hint, anyway.

Funny, because I would say that I still have a tonne to learn about preaching myself. The general feeling I get, preaching, is that I'm a bone in the mouth of a dog. The dog is the Holy Spirit and She just shakes, shakes, shakes. I envy preachers that get to spend hours and hours preparing. On a really good week I get to spend maybe four or five hours preparing to preach. Meanwhile, a magazine article I read recently simply said that one should spend about 10 hours on their sermon. Really? That must be nice. And, in truth, there are some weeks like that for me still. But the reality of preaching is that the number of hours spent preparing has very little to do with the outcome. Many of of best sermons came from the least preparation--and many of my worst came from the most. The truth is, there is definitely a diminishing return on sermon research--after a while you are just distracting yourself from making up your own mind about what the text has to say that week. For many people that's a disappointing reality to discover. Focusing on "delivery" has a similar limitation. So once you know enough and have a descent delivery, what's left?

That's the kind of deep mystery that one encounters in a craft that is difficult to teach in only one academic year. I love students. I long for students, because when I'm teaching them these mysteries I feel like I'm relearning something myself.


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