By Scott Klepach, Jr. | Student Pastor, Yakima: Wesley UMC
“Come on, dad!” I forced myself out of my respite and resumed my running pace. Spring weather had finally broken through with clear skies and dry roads, which meant my kids could finally test out their new bikes – relics of gift exchanges from a Christmas seemingly long past but actually only a few months ago. The bikes had been assembled, the helmet straps adjusted, and the path was before them.
In their excitement, they asked me to join them, but since my bicycle was not in working condition, I tried to keep up on foot as they ventured out. On that first Saturday, I hastily took to the street without proper clothing or running shoes, and I felt the ache for days afterward. The next day, I dug out my running shoes and kept better pace with them.
This bicycle/running experience invited me to reflect on what it means to be a seminary student, and someone who is working in ministry at the same time. I am a second-year Master of Divinity student, enrolled in Claremont School of Theology’s hybrid/online program, a three-year (full-time) low-residency model of education that requires students to be present for intensive weeks throughout different times of the year. The rest of the semester’s work unfolds through online work, which includes an online learning management system for communicating and learning, as well as Zoom technology.
I’ve been told serving in a life of ministry can be lonely, and sometimes the distance-learning program – as fortunate as it is to have such an option for people who could otherwise not enter or complete seminary – can make for lonely and silent stretches of time and study. However, something unexpected has emerged along the way. A few students in the same program have created makeshift covenant groups over the past couple of years. These groups can partially be credited to the school’s setup of requiring students to form into groups each semester, but the onus is on each student and group to do something more far-reaching. In my experience, a few of us have proceeded with a purposeful outreach to form covenant groups with each other.
I thought of these seminary connections as I journeyed on foot with my kids on their bikes, and began to identify some healthy comparisons. My kids and I set out for the common purpose of exercise, family bonding, and trying something new with the gift of spring weather. The kids and I were heading in the same direction, even as we were not on the same vehicle or going at the same pace. Yet my kids’ exercise reminded me, as we move ahead at our own pace and approach, each with different experiences and perspectives, we have commonalities. My kids kept checking back on me – the lone runner of the bunch – and sometimes I launched ahead on foot to reunite with them.
Likewise, as seminary students, we are there for the common purpose of receiving training and education to become ministry leaders, form bonds with each other (those in the greater connection of The United Methodist Church and many others who are part of other denominations and religions), and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. We drift in and out at times but feel vibrant and connected as we intentionally traverse this path. We could easily lose each other on this journey, but with these covenant groups, we are checking in with each other frequently, oftentimes on a daily basis.
Technology has worked in our favor. As much as we complain about the ills of technology – with all its addictive, distractive powers and lures of click-bait and fake news – it is options like text messaging, Facebook, Zoom, and other avenues that have kept us together. With these options, we can shoot a quick text about something that makes us laugh, cry, or want to shout in anger at a personal plight or national or global injustice. Conversations are rich with personal sharing about our call and vocation and continuing discernment, professional work, prayer, and anything in between.
One Claremont seminary professor talked about how some of the people we are journeying through seminary with will be the people we will stay connected with and look to for conversation, guidance, reflection, and understanding in the many years of life ahead in ministry work. The key, he added, is that we have to take it upon ourselves to reach out and keep these relationships alive. It will not be done for us, not in seminary, and certainly not in ministry beyond the pursuit of a degree.
When I finally dug out my old bicycle this spring, I was surprised by my ability to maintain my balance. I was rusty, and my muscles were not used to being on a bike, but my heart felt full and my smile appeared without effort. As seminarians and ministry leaders, forging and nurturing relationships with colleagues might be like getting out the old bike again. And when we reestablish old connections and maintain news ones, we might find that our hearts will soar.
Scott Klepach, Jr. serves as a student local pastor at Yakima: Wesley UMC as well as the convener for the Communications Commission of the PNWUMC.