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A while ago here on The Twelve I mentioned Oral Comprehensive Exams at Calvin Seminary. Well, now we are near the end of the semester and my students in the Capstone Integrative Seminar are finishing their Case Study Portfolios–indeed, today I will be sending around these Portfolios to the panelists who will review them ahead of interviewing the students about their work. Each student received a ministry Case Study scenario at the end of March. Since then they have been analyzing the case from every possible biblical, theological, historical, and practical angle in order to come up with a wise, discerning pastoral approach to the situation. It’s basically an answer to the question, “If you were the pastor and this happened in your congregation, what would you do? What resources would help you?”
Having taught this course for about six years now, I have accumulated a file of around 70 case study scenarios–some better for the exercise than others. But one of the things I need to assure my students every year is that they should not come back to me with their assigned case to tell me they find it outlandish, unrealistic, or straining at the limits of credibility. The reason, I assure them, is that every single case I have ever assigned actually happened either to me or to a colleague in ministry. Yes, I mask the situations so they could never be traced back to the real place and the real people involved (even I have forgotten by now where I got some of these originally). And yes, I sometimes add complicating wrinkles to make the case worthy of a nearly five-week exercise. But they are all true to life.
Even so, sometimes students wonder if such a situation could ever arise in the church. And I have had faculty colleagues who review the student Portfolios come to me to say they find the case in question to be a stretch and really quite unrealistic. In at least two such instances in recent years, I have assured my colleagues that not only COULD such a thing happen in ministry, the case in question actually DID happen . . . to me! And (unsurprising to me) I have had quite a few former students go on to become pastors in the church and who at some point Facebook me or email me to say that two or three years into their ministries they had already encountered situations that made even their difficult Case Study for Capstone class pale by comparison.
As a good Calvinist I believe, of course, in Original Sin. Even so, in ministry it’s striking just how very original people can be in their sinful entanglements. Probably in the long run most things pastors encounter boil down to a handful of core sins like the Seven Deadly Sins or the top ten or so sins that the Apostle Paul included in his various vice lists in the New Testament. Pride and Envy account for lots of unhappy scenarios in the life of the church, but no one should underestimate the myriad ways even those two core sins can be applied and wielded within families, among friends, across the life of a congregation. Pastors and other leaders in the church need a lot of wisdom and discernment to pull apart the layers of dysfunction and sinfulness that characterize so many of the situations they face in ministry.
And then there is the need to deal with real people. When prepping students on the Case Study part of the Capstone Course, I use the analogy of how real-life cases have long under-girded the education of also medical students and law students. It’s one thing to learn anatomy and the basics of medicine in the classroom but quite another to apply all that when confronted with actual sick people. Medical students learn soon enough that diseases don’t always present themselves in textbook fashion even as the patients they encounter cannot be relied upon to tell the truth. (As Dr. House from the TV show House knew all-too-well, “Everybody lies.”) Law students engaging in case law study realize soon enough that sometimes very straightforward and well-intentioned laws get invoked (or broken) in ways no one ever saw coming. Real life and real people, it turns out, are endlessly creative, complex, and maddening.
When I was a seminary student, I remember Dr. Neal Plantinga asking in a Systematic Theology course one day why it seems in the Bible that it was so much easier for God to create the universe than it was to save it. In the beginning God spoke and it was. But once sin marred that creation, redemption came across a very long period of time and was finally only accomplished not when God merely spoke a “Let there be . . .” line but when the Word of God in flesh screamed forth his dereliction from a bloody cross. Why did salvation seem tougher for even God to achieve than creation did? Perhaps something of the perilous, prolix, and turgid nature of human sin that pastors still encounter provides a partial answer to Plantinga’s question: sin took deep root in the soil of this world and in the human heart. It could not be waved away or wished away–the wages of sin is death, we are told in Scripture, and death ends up being a formidable enemy.
In this Easteride Season we celebrate God’s final victory over that death but even that celebration cannot forget for a moment what all it cost God to get from Fall to Resurrection. Pastors see some of the reasons for that all the time. May God grant them all the wisdom, discernment, and patience they need to point sinfully messed up people again and again to the cross where forgiveness and reconciliation remain available for us all. Thanks be to God.