To those who are embarking on a journey to ministry:
You’ve prayed up. You got the internal calling from God. You got the external confirmation from your mentors and peers. You’re ready to fill out the application, start a sermon file, canvass the local churches, take the plunge. Maybe it’ll be like college, but just Bible stuff. Maybe it’ll be a breeze since you’ve been to Sunday school every weekend of your life. Maybe you’ll get closer to God than you have ever been before, what with all the super-strong Christians at seminary. It’s going to rock.
Ready for the truth?
1) Seminary is hard. Like quantum physics hard. – You’re not just studying the Bible. Get ready for psychology, history, philosophy, ethics, music, business, literature, the Greek and Hebrew languages, and yes, even science. Get ready for thousands of pages of reading, research papers due around the clock, and professors who won’t take it easy on you just because they’re smiley church people. It’s not only academically heavy but since being a pastor is a whole life, it feels like you’re re-learning how to walk.
There’s a huge personal investment that requires sincerity, practical experience, and taking risks. It’s what you signed on for. If you think I’m being corny, wait for the class where you have to go out and find atheists, Muslims, and ex-Christians, then engage with them for a grade. Or the one where you argue against the most brilliant secular writers of our time with your puny Sunday school knowledge. Or where you counsel the most broken people in your church. It’s real, son.
2) The doorways are too small for your head. – Leave ego at the door. These professors are smarter than you. They know more about their area of expertise than any Google search could ever find. And they’re here to equip you. We’re supposed to be humble, teachable, and gracious. The amount of bickering I’ve heard from students who got owned by their professors was sad and laughable: students trying to defend their preaching style, their theological hobbyhorse, their (bad) interpretation of Genesis, any last shred of pride they could seal up in their Alamo.
One of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken was Sermon Delivery with the great Dr. Heisler. More than a few students were quick to defend themselves ungraciously about their own preaching. One guy even criticized the listeners for thinking too slow. I noticed only the most humble actually improved in delivery, content, and clarity. It’s because they took God seriously, so of course they took Dr. Heisler seriously. And hey: they didn’t take themselves too seriously. I only hope I was that humble.
3) Inversely, seminary doesn’t know everything. – Fortunately some professors are quick to admit that their way is not the only way. Methods change, facts remain. I’ve been tempted to tell the professors what they want to hear in papers and presentations, but unlike secular schooling, seminary wants to cultivate our ability to think. We know the basic Gospel — God made provision for His wrath by sending His Son to die for us sinners — but there are many secondary issues up for debate.
I had a professor once who was very adamant in his positions on the secondary issues. He was particular about dispensations, eschatology, hermeneutics, prophecy, and apostolic gifts (don’t worry if you have no clue what that means: you will). There was a paper on the Second Coming of Jesus, which has different views. I was afraid to get a bad grade if I picked a different position. But the professor put us at ease: ultimately none of the views about the Second Coming determined a true faith in God, so long as we held fast to the core faith and knew that Jesus was coming back.
It was the same in Sermon Delivery. If we had a vocal tic or poor content or bad theology, that was minus points. But the prof never marked me down for being Asian, wearing jeans, or having ridiculous hair. Maybe he should have for the hair.
4) Beware the Scholar Syndrome. – You start to learn some factoids about Christian theology and suddenly you’re impressing the ladies with the twelve permutations of epimeno in the original Greek. Or just impressing other nerds. But the danger is that we can rip the wonder of Christ right out of the Bible and turn it into a dry piece of history. The resulting consequence is we turn it into a tool for our own agenda, whether to impress people or to make it say what we want.
I now have a bad habit of reading the Bible while thinking, Oh this will preach real good. This verse will go perfect for that sermon on relationships. I got to exegete the archaeology on this bad boy. I can forget to read it devotionally as God’s loving truth written to me, the very words of God that should wreck me inside-out. Reading it through a scholarly filter can lose the majesty and mission of the Word.
5) Beware the Cloning Complex. – Seminaries aim to channel our core personalities into the pulpit: God has given each one of us a unique skillset, and no professor should beat that out of us. But the whole seminary structure can easily churn out conservative clones with the same Ten-Step Process of How To Make A Megachurch. It can beat us into the same political views, speech patterns, and church methodologies, though we forget that we don’t need to be like every pastor to be a pastor.
I remember listening to two chapel messages from two seminarians who were chosen for Student Preaching Week. They were both incredibly good, but I couldn’t tell the difference between them. They had the exact same speaking style and sermon format: dramatic pauses, rolling fast pace, dynamic boom at key words, three-point outline, an illustration for each point, a propensity for one-liners, and almost identical applications. They both had Southern accents, as if they were parodying a Bible belt preacher (though those accents were probably real). Later I listened to a sermon by the president of the seminary, Dr. Danny Akin, and I discovered the two students had emulated him to perfection.
6) Protect your soul. – Satan loves the rookies. Watch your wallet, pray hard, speak deliberately, read the Bible, and stay away from places you shouldn’t be, particularly with lots of women.
7) Keep it real. – A veteran pastor recommended me a book. I mentioned the seminary I attended didn’t like that author very much. Then the pastor asked: What else did seminary kill in you? In other words, “So what?” I could read the book just to read it. Take in the good, filter the bad. Maybe like, you know, decide and discern for myself.
The underlying lesson in his sharp rebuke was that seminary can throw you into a safety bubble. It can make you feel ashamed to do certain things and forced to do other things. It can turn a people-loving person into a self-righteous snob. It’s not quite the seminary’s fault, but the seminary can’t give you the two things you need: experience and heart. Experience comes when you get out of the bubble into a drowning sinner’s world, and heart gives you the strength to get there. Not any heart, but God’s heart.
We pastors could remain safe in our isolated study space with Bible in hand and coffee in the other, but ministry is unlike any other profession in that people are the point and God is the boss. I’m grateful for what seminary has taught me, but I know it can’t teach me how to do ministry until I just do ministry. When the fifteen year old kid with suicidal thoughts calls you in the middle of the night ready to give up, the anticausative morphology of Greek won’t help you. All the nights spent on researching clever sermon illustrations won’t cut it. Five Points of Calvinism? Out the window. This kid needs God. The kid needs you.
If you want to go to seminary, never forget that kid.
8) Never give up. – You’ll want to, and many do. The seminary drop-out rates are depressing. Don’t do it. Don’t quit. It gets hard: keep going. If you think seminary is hard, wait until your first ministry. Don’t give up.