Formed by the Parish

You never know when one of those phone calls will come. I had just wiped the final traces of the reception’s prime rib dinner from my mouth, when the phone rang. The caller solemnly summoned me from a banquet hall to a valley of death. She sobbed, “He had a heart attack … he was so young … is he really gone?” My pastoral heart quickly cascaded from the joyful atmosphere around me to the sorrowful situation before me. At the end of the day, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, yet gratefully invigorated by work I was privileged to do. I shared living hope in that living room impacted by death. How does a professor teach these experiences in a seminary classroom? 

A visitor showed up for one of our midweek Lenten services. The text that evening addressed the moments leading up to, during, and after Judas’ betrayal. I used a portion of the sermon to touch briefly on suicide and to reflect on the light Christ brings to life’s darkest moments. As I greeted the visitor after worship, she asked if we could talk privately. She unraveled her heart and revealed her struggle. She had been contemplating suicide and was preparing to act. But after driving by our church, she felt prompted to visit. She had come in darkness and rejoiced that she left with the Savior’s light. How does a professor teach these experiences in a seminary classroom? 

For months, we prayed. We planned. We promoted. Now we waited for the students of our new Jesus Cares Bible study to arrive. Did we have enough materials? To be safe, we printed a few last-minute pages. But then the clock ticked uncomfortably past the starting time and only one arrived. Soon a second student wandered in, and we could not help but wonder, “Is that it? Only two?” But any sort of disappointment disappeared as the students exclaimed on their way out, “This was the best! Thank you for teaching us about Jesus!” Any discouragement dissipated as one volunteer declared, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Another reminded, “Labor in the Lord is never in vain.” How does a professor teach these experiences in a seminary classroom? 

It is challenging to teach parish experience in a classroom because it can only be learned in the parish. Parish experience develops while conducting weddings and while comforting at funerals. Parish experience grows in private conversations and during Bible study preparation. Parish experience increases with each challenge faced, each soul served, and each new day of gospel ministry. How does a professor teach these experiences in a seminary classroom? He brings them with him!  

The experience we professors gained, we pass along. The experiences God used to form us as pastors who proclaim God’s praise, we use to form pastors who will also proclaim God’s praise. Parish experience may be difficult to teach in the classroom, but that does not mean it is missing from the classroom. It comes with the professors formed by the parish!

Joel Russow was installed at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in January 2022 to teach systematic theology and counseling.