A reflection on seminary experience

By Jonathan Mollenkopf

M.Div. student, Luther Seminary

This summer I took two fantastic classes and enjoyed life-changing fellowship on the campus of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. As a Distributed Learning (DL) student, it has been refreshing how much community we share. Even though we are only together for brief stays on the campus, my cohort has bonded. The Spirit moves through class discussion, lectures, reading, and relationships.

Congregational Care and a class on Faith, Medicine, and Disability met me on my personal journey. Thanks be to God, I am a cancer survivor; after multiple knee replacements, I ended up as an amputee. Also, my wife is undergoing major health changes. I shed many tears and laughed a lot. There were cathartic moments because these classes helped me process emotions and thoughts about the challenges of life both for me and for others I love. All of this was in the context of daily worship and rich student interaction and mutual support. A personal theology about health and ministry is being developed. Theology does not always give us easy answers, but it reminds us that God’s love is always present and fully seen on the cross.

The history of pastoral care was more interesting than I expected. There were multiple images for a caregiver: shepherd, parent, physician of the soul, and gardener. Several leaders throughout the ages have referred to God as Mother. Chrysostom talked about God as a mother who comes and feeds her children with the eucharist. Hildegard saw God’s love and care like a maternal embrace and that God’s motherly wings help us escape darkness. Julian said that God does not want her children to suffer in fear. Another image that moved me was the gardener. It is less clinical than a doctor and acknowledges that the results are really beyond our control. That and Hildegard’s language of greenness inspires me. God’s presence brings vitality and wholeness and it is the movement of the Holy Spirit that causes growth. God is multi-faceted, like a gem, and we can see God as the great caregiver in all these images.

Philip Culberston wrote in Caring for God’s People that “the source of fine pastoral care is God, and the artistic medium through which the pastor’s skills are offered is the pastor’s own cultivated Christian wholeness.” Our call is to sit before the mystery of another person and attend to her in all her particularity. Like Henri Nouwen emphasizes, we are all beloved children of God. Discernment starts with acknowledging that we do not have the answers; this in turn causes us to seek God’s wisdom. Jesus was not rejecting of others. Compassion starts with embracing our own uniqueness and brokenness.

We have unique gifts as pastoral caregivers, and they are just that: gifts of the Holy Spirit. Prayer and the Holy Spirit are our constant companions. “Pray without ceasing.” It takes humility to admit that we need divine help. Prayer reminds us that we should not attempt to fix anyone but let Christ do the transforming.

May we relish the mystery of life under the Holy Spirit, find wholeness as broken creatures of God, and live humbly in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Amen.

About the author

Jonathan Mollenkopf also serves as Music & Worship director at St. John Lutheran Church, Bellville, Texas. He receives financial aid for his studies from Live On, the Gulf Coast Synod endowment.