All My Heroes Are Dead

by on November 2, 2015

When I first started seminary and teaching, I often fell into that temptation to try and mimic my heroes. Anyone that knows me well knows this. Especially in college, I always had some new author, preacher, teacher, or friend that I very much enjoyed sitting under the influence of. Maybe you can relate.

This influenced so much about me. Too much. I would daydream about speaking like this leader or writing like that one, comparing my every thought and action to the way they would do things. The people that inspired me and prepared me for seminary have had such an impact on me. Especially as I started seminary, I saw how these men and women had affected the phrases I use, the material I write, the thoughts I have, and sometimes even my mannerisms.

First, for the young seminarians noticing this in themselves, I want to say: this is normal. This is natural. We are made to be shaped by those we immerse ourselves in, and we often don’t get to pick the specific ways in which that shaping occurs.

But especially for future preachers, the problem with this is obvious. We’re forced to wonder where our voice is; where our thoughts are; where our style is. And so when we rise to deliver God’s prophetic voice to his people, we instead give them someone else they probably could have just heard on a podcast.

But there are two correctives that seminary can offer for this.

First, and more obviously, seminary itself is a shaping force. Especially if you go to chapel services, you hear so many different styles and voices; you’re exposed to so many other ways of “being Christian” and leading. If we let ourselves become aware of the ways we are simply mimicking others, and open ourselves up to the myriad influences around us at school, this can help us.

But there’s another, more subtle way, that’s harder to accept for many of us.

For many of us, attending seminary ends up changing our relationship with those people that have shaped and supported us and led us to that moment. For many, they are leaving supportive church families and leaders and doing school elsewhere. I’ve watched many of classmates have to go through a sort of internal “break-up” with their home churches and those pastors with whom they spent so much time. It hurts. They wonder why their pastors “back home” who were so supportive of seminary training won’t return emails. Can’t get together for coffee on school breaks. Won’t talk about possible job opportunities in the future.

For others, they go to a seminary near their home church, but even then, their relationship with their leaders change. They might start taking on more and more responsibilities around the church without being paid. They might wantmore to do, but the church seems disinterested in making it happen. The on-going tension of “will there be a job for me at the end of this?” always hangs in the middle of conversations.

Or maybe your entrance into seminary is accompanied by a growing depth of friendship and closeness with those very leaders you’ve looked up to and often emulate. But over time, you start seeing their own brokenness—what they don’t talk about from behind the pulpit. The doubts. The impatience. The way they can actually be mean at times.

And lastly, you have those heroes of yours that are distant, that you only know through podcasts, books, and conferences. The “celebrity pastors”. And even they are not immune from being un-idealized by seminary. Because as you learn more, you are getting more tools to analyze, understand, pick apart, and really see “behind the curtain” of what they believe, how they conduct themselves, their own influences, the nuances in their theology you never picked up on before, and the people they themselves might be copying.

And again, be encouraged that this is normal; this is natural. Yes, it’s all wrapped up in your own sin as it takes place, but sometimes that inevitably part of the process.

So as you go through seminary, and think about those heroes, don’t be surprised to find yourself thinking things like: Oh, I don’t want their kind of marriage; I don’t want their kind of ministry; I don’t want to lead like that; so and so forth.

Remember, it’s not that what they have is bad or wrong per se, it’s just not who we are. It’s taken years, but I have begun to see that I can’t just place myself into someone else’s pastoral, theological, or ministerial narrative. God has a particular calling for each of us that will look very different from those leaders and we should both rest and rejoice in that.

As these years have gone on, and my disillusionment with these men and women who inspired me earlier has continued, I have found their walls of distinction dissolving in my mind as a synthesis begins to take place. I see a voice of my own emerging from this. I have more ideas for writing and more motivation to do so. I’m finding my own articulations and approaches to things. I feel like I’m coming into my own and it’s exciting.

So though it’s painful, and though it hurts, know that this process is one of the more essential for preparing us as ministers for our people.

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About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.