What's Tony Thinking

The Importance of Role Models


A seminary in our region has asked me to work with them on the future of the “field education” component of their program.

For the non-initiated “field education” in seminary means working, while also a student, in the kind of setting where one might serve following completion of studies. Often, of course, that’s a church/ congregational position, but it might also be working in a prison, a hospital, or with a church-related agency that does either social service or advocacy.

In an academic setting, “field education,” is probably looked down upon a bit. But for me my field education experiences as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City were a very vital and central part of my overall preparation for ministry.

I came to Union having recently completed a two-year Master’s in European Cultural and Intellectual History. I considered going on for a PhD in history, but decided that was not the right fit. But with undergraduate work, then the graduate work, I’d been in classrooms a lot already and was eager for something different. Besides that, I went off to seminary quite unsure if pastoral ministry was for me. So I was eager to get out of the classroom and into the field and find out.

Though I didn’t quite know it, I was also looking for role models, people who were doing this thing called ministry that I admired and respected and from whom I could get a sense of how it’s done, and done well.

I was incredibly fortunate in the field work that opened up for me. In my first year of seminary I worked at a small but extremely vital congregation in mid-town Manhattan, Good Shepherd Faith Presbyterian Church. It was a congregation of about equal numbers of black and white folks, which was a blessing. The worship life, led by Dick Symes, as preacher, and Alice Hatt, as musician, was wonderful and so important to my own growth in faith. I’d had no idea worship could be so passionate and powerful.

When I was at GSF it wasn’t too many years since the Attica Prison uprising had focused attention on prisons and penal facilities. So as part of my work at GSF I spent an afternoon a week as a chaplain at the Bronx House of Detention (jail) in the South Bronx. That too was quite an experience. Tom Wolfe, novelist of that era, set a scene in his book, Bonfire of the Vanities, at the Bronx House of Detention, which was both horrifying and entertaining.

During my second, what was then called “middler” year, I took an even deeper plunge into the “field,” by participating in an experimental “field-based studies” venture cooked up by a bunch of Union grads who were serving, mostly smaller churches upstate in the Catskills. These folks, most but not all men, were super committed to ministry, to small congregations, and to a model of ministry that was rabbinic in nature, that is clergy as “field-based” scholars and teachers.

With Union they had developed a continuing education program of their own, which in retrospect was nothing sort of remarkable. It had three components, a “Biblical Preaching” seminar led by the inimitable Phil Swander, a “case-studies” seminar given by John Creswell, who taught Clinical Pastoral Education at the hospital in Binghampton, N. Y., and a local church history seminar for which the distinguished historian Robert Handy of Union came up once a month. So we three students joined area clergy in these seminars and served a small congregation.

This program was actually a fruit of the ferment late 60’s and early 70’s, when for a time all assumptions about how seminary education should be done were open to question. It was perfect for me. It was a bit less perfect for Linda, who was stuck in little house, “shack” wouldn’t be far off, in the cow fields with a one-year-old, Joe. The place we lived was quite picturesque, it had been used to distill maple syrup prior to our residence. But the winterization left something to be desired.

There I had a host of role models to learn from, including Chuck Curley, John Sonnenday, Bob Hammer, Paul Tull and more. It was an amazing group. Several of them wrote poetry. Here’s one titled “On A Call,” that gives a glimpse into ministry there among Scotch-Irish Presbyterian dairy farmers.

The whole family is working in the barn —
Lysol, silage, manure, steam, warmth
And I
Standing on one foot then the other
keep a wary eye on those cows —
those beasts who look and do not see
and would walk right over me.

I don’t trust cows.

Yet I’m comfortable here People
warm, open, and caring.

I’m happy here.
A highly-trained theologian

standing in a barn

Lord, you giggle
over the places you send me.



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