“This is what I’m going to be seeing. This is it.”
That’s what Ryan Schnake has to say about the year he spent in Resident Field Education (RFE) and how it cemented his commitment to full-time pastoral ministry.
“It showed me the end goal of my commitment, helping bring people to the Gospel,” said Schnake, who just completed his first year at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. “It is a good feeling knowing you can make a difference. It makes the commitment worthwhile.”
RFE, commonly referred to by students as fieldwork, is the time Seminary students spend learning outside the classroom through observing and participating in ministry.
Much of this time is spent at local churches but students also engage in ministry at institutions such as prisons, hospitals or mental health facilities.
They also may elect to participate in short-term mission trips or spend a summer or a quarter at a church in another area of the country while completing their course work. A one-year vicarage or internship also is a part of every pastor or deaconess student’s Seminary experience.
All residential formation students participate in the fieldwork program, which demonstrates the Seminary’s commitment to experiential learning, said Rev. Todd Jones, director of RFE.
“The Resident Field Education program provides students the opportunity to synthesize the cerebral content of the classroom to the practical realities of a community of faith,” he said. “The experiences and conversations that occur in the parish are educational, in addition to sparking greater discussion in the classrooms on campus.”
Even though he’s fairly new to the Seminary, Schnake has already experienced a wide variety of ministry environments. A mission trip to Guatemala was particularly eye-opening.
“I saw the most intense poverty I’ve ever seen in my life, being endured by the most faithful people,” Schnake said.
“We feel like we deserve what we have because we’re such ‘good Christians.’ Not the case. It made me want to be a missionary more.”
Visits to a prison also surprised Schnake after he saw the Holy Spirit working in powerful ways in the lives of hardened career criminals.
“My initial reaction was, holy smokes, no way,” he recalled.
Schnake became even more motivated to return to the prison. He witnessed men expressing interest in Baptism not long after being sentenced.
Schnake had to hold back his emotions at the juxtaposition of events in order to keep his composure with the imprisoned men.
Throughout his RFE, Schnake also attended and assisted at three churches over the course of the year. It was a typical first-year experience to diversify the student’s understanding of what church life and operations can be like before the student becomes more deeply involved in a single church the following year.
He rotated through a small rural congregation to a large suburban congregation and then to a moderate-sized congregation in a suburban area. Schnake found the rural congregation to be especially warm, welcoming and supportive of its leaders.
He felt he fit most naturally there. It was in this congregation that he had some of his first opportunities to lead liturgy and read Scripture during services.
The congregation encouraged him and Schnake said he became a more proficient speaker. He has since sought more opportunities to practice this skill set.
Another Seminary student, Andrew Coop, also rotated to these three congregations over the course of his first
year. Coop, by contrast, found the moderate-sized suburban congregation to be the most natural fit for him. He said the pastors really cared that he and Schnake were there and wanted to get them involved. Coop
will be returning to this church for his second-year RFE.
Coop also spent time in a hospital and at multiple churches in other states. The hands-on hospital visits were completely new to him. He shadowed a chaplain for about two weeks, the chaplain shadowed him and Coop eventually made visits to patients and their loved ones on his own.
Coop said he appreciated the experience because he knows hospital visits are a necessary part of ministry for most pastors. Coop’s visits to New York, Phoenix and Los Angeles broadened his understanding of church ministry since he hadn’t previously visited any churches outside the Midwest.
“I got to be with people in their everyday lives,” said Coop. His most significant takeaway from RFE? Building relationships and seeing their relevance to ministry.
For both Coop and Schnake, more ministry practice through RFE lies ahead, and with it new challenges.
They look forward to continuing to apply what they learn in the classroom to the lives of real people. Both men said they have found a new kind of energy for ministry by getting to practice it along the way to ordination.
“Relationships really do matter,” Coop said. “It’s not just about you and the Bible. It’s about you and the people you minister to and how you can bring them that Word. If they know you really care about them, the doorways are really open and a lot of ministry can happen there.”