I received a lot of good and helpful advice prior to starting seminary. I turned down great ministry opportunities because I was certain God had called me to pastoral ministry. My wife and I knew seminary would be tough. We entered full of realistic expectations and prepared for hard times. But the hard times never came.
The whole experience was wonderful. I loved seminary. I mean, I really loved seminary. The classes were stimulating. The professors were brilliant and caring. My classmates were encouraging. I did well in my classes. I looked forward to school every day. My family even thrived in seminary. But then I graduated. Suddenly there were no more classes, professors, or classmates. Everything I'd grown to love was gone.
I wish someone had looked me in the eye before seminary and told me it's a means to an end, not an end unto itself. The goal of seminary isn't a piece of paper that says Master of Divinity. On the contrary, seminary is simply a conduit through which you reach the goal of the calling God's placed on your life. This fact is likely self-apparent to many. I knew it to be true, but even in my knowledge I didn't truly believe it.
Had I genuinely understood that seminary is a means to an end, I would have spent more time preparing for the calling placed on my life and less time trying to be spectacular at the preparation. Simply excelling at the preparation doesn't prepare you for real life theological crises that come hard and fast in the pastorate.
"My teenager has a gluten allergy. How can she take communion? Does it still count?"
"I just found out my husband has been having an affair. Should I get a divorce?"
"I'm in the ER. I just had a heart attack. I need help."
"I'm pregnant and afraid I'm going to lose the baby."
"My father just died, and I don't know what to do."
I've listened to each of these difficult situations. I've empathized with the individual. And I've thought, Wow, what an incredibly hard situation. You really should talk to your pastor about that. Then I realized I'm their pastor. Their real-life theological crisis had rightfully landed on my desk.
I believe if I'd better realized the calling God had given me, then I would have spent more time in seminary praying for those to whom I would minister. I didn't even know where I would end up. When I daydreamed about the future I didn't necessarily envision my current scenario. But the Lord is sovereign over my life. He knew the where, and he knew the who.
Not a single one of those scenarios caught God off guard. I would have prayed more so that I'd be able to rest in his will for my congregation. I would have prayed for compassion and wisdom for people who hurt and need the gospel. I would have prayed for greater faith to believe the calling God had entrusted to me.
I also would have spent more time with real people in my neighborhood and at my church instead of gravitating toward people who liked to read dead Dutch guys and use phrases like "hypostasis," "hapax legomenon," and "the chthonic thralldom of sin." I need those people too, but in seminary it's entirely too easy to get lost in the academic world and lose contact with why you are there.
Once again, I wish someone had emphasized to me that seminary is a means to an end. I gained all the biblical and theological tools to be able to think through these crises. But real-life theological crises require more airtight theology. Real crises that real people in the real world face need not only good theology, but also one who understands his calling to pastor them. In short, acting like seminary isn't the end would have helped me better prepare to step into the pastoral calling God has graciously given me.