May

14

2013

R. J. Voorhees|12:01 AM CT

Dear Seminarian

Editors' Note: This is the first in a series of brief articles from students and graduates answering the question, "What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?"

*************

What do I wish someone had told me before seminary? First, I wish someone had explained that my time would be a season of preparation in the fullest sense. To grasp this concept has taken me a few years. I had little experience with graduate level study, even less experience with writing, but most significantly I was unprepared for the kind of commitment I was making. In an ethereal, almost metaphysical sense, I had a notion that I was entering a season of necessary discipline and diligence. But I failed to grasp what that meant in the everyday grind of theological training.

I attend Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. It's an incredible institution founded on the desire to build up and prepare ministers to proclaim the name of Christ. Their credo is what attracted me first, their high academic standard second. Though I wanted to be challenged in my faith as well as in my studies, I'm not sure I understood what that would actually require. As I'm sure most seminary students would agree, studying theology, philosophy, and the biblical languages takes concerted effort and copious amounts of time. It's truly a time of intentional preparation.

When my classmates and I began seminary, many of us assumed we'd have ample opportunity to use what we were learning in everyday ministry. But this hasn't always been the case. I'm not proud of this fact; I'm just making an observation. Much like other fields of training, in ministry it's wise to build a solid foundation of learning before undertaking your first "real world" assignment. Seminary provides such a foundation. Many students have ministry positions during their time in seminary, to be sure. Even in those situations, though, it's difficult to give your all to a particular ministry while investing in the future. This by no means excuses ministry laziness while in seminary; instead, it calls to attention the need to prioritize. It's a hard choice, but one that ultimately results in a person better equipped to serve in the long run.

I also wish I'd understood before seminary that it's an investment in my future. Not some theoretical "oh that sounds nice" sort of investment, but a literal, determined, hard-fought one. Moreover, I wish someone had made clear that such educational pursuit is okay. Investing through further education is worthwhile, and no one should feel a false sense of guilt for this effort.

I believe seminary should be difficult. Most worthwhile pursuits are. Those in seminary are challenged with the prospect of ministering to others who, like themselves, are broken and need help. Rigorous training, therefore, is necessary. We expect high standards from our physicians, our accountants, and our professors; shouldn't we expect as much—if not more—from our Christian leaders?

Seminary is necessarily a time of foundational training and preparation. It sets the standard for the future. I just wish I'd recognized what it actually would—and should—require before I began.

R. J. Voorhees is a Master of Divinity candidate at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.

Categories: Ministry
  • Jehu Limma

    Wonderful article. It is true that before we enter the ministry field, students should be given solid foundation in learning. This has been my belief. However, people tend to reject, hence they assume that lot of theology and learning are theoretical.

    Thank you Voorhees for the article..

  • Robert Mclachlan

    This is so true. I am 48 years old and have the privilege of doing the Mdiv at Houston Graduate School of Theology. To set aside this time as a period of deep study is a discipline in itself. Letting go of the feelings of guilt that I am neglecting church, counseling, etc etc, requires weekly, sometimes daily reminders that this time is not forever. There will be a time when I will long for the Seminary days again, so for now, I treasure every day of Seminary life.

  • Michael

    Thanks for this! I am attending TEDS part-time and long hours of study seem at times to "take away" from current ministry needs. But, God has been teaching me essentially some of what your article spoke to. It is an investment worth fighting for. May God continue to grant you the determined focus and internal passion as you complete your studies.

  • Simul Justus et Peccator

    Step 1: Read, "Dangerous Calling" by Paul Tripp and "Resilience in Ministry" by Bob Burns and see a biblical counselor/therapist who asks you: "Why do you want to be a pastor? It's not a healthy life for most people..." If you still persist in the desire that you want to "test the call" proceed to next step.

    Step 2: Be a youth pastor at a medium or large church near a TOP academic seminary (TEDS, SBTS, Cov., RTS, WTS). Take 1-2 classes each semester including summers. [Step 2b: enroll in a ministry intern program, but this could slow you down if it is weighted toward "sem-lite" and requiers book work but gives no degree; does not pay you $; or give you real experience. Reading and watching is not learning.]

    Step 3: Ask the church you work for to pay for as much of it as you can. Negotiating point: it will take 6 years or more to finish so their help with school costs doubles the average youth pastor tenure; and it will help them grow a servant leader, for which they will get acclaim in heaven and/or at their denominational schmoozing party: "...our former youth pastor planted a church because we're intentionally training developing leaders..."

    Step 4: Find a mentor who is an ally on staff and also mentor who is a confidant outside the church (don't confuse an ally for a confidant). Get more biblical counseling because you're a sinner.

    Step 5: Learn everything you can about what they don't teach in seminary on the job.

    Step 6: When you're 30, you will have The 3 M's: maturity, ministry experience and education, mentors you trust. The references and relational network of young adults and their parents that you developed, and the 6-8 years worth of seminary classmats you now know, will be wanting to follow you and will be asking you for a job.

    Without debt, you will be MILES ahead of guys who do the monastic academic route and withdrew from ministry because you will know how to preach, pastor, lead, administrate, etc. But if your EQ, character or vocationally competance are low, you will wash out in your 20's and save yourself money and heartache.

    • Raj

      @Simul Justus ...

      A triple Amen to everything that you say - except maybe not point 2.

      I want to point out that small-sized, less well known seminaries also can be very good in that you can get excellent mentoring and practical hands on experience. You also wont have a massive debt on your back upon graduating. Ultimately you go where God calls.

      In Christ,
      ~ Raj

      • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

        I agree with Simul that an academically excellent seminary is best. That may not require it being large but it usually does as a good library is required for academic excellence, which a smaller seminary probably can't afford (unless it's near another institution that has it). Formerly Fuller Seminary would be on that list of good seminaries. I don't know if that's the case any more.

        • Ryan

          The difficulty lies in squaring your education with your church. Unfortunately, there are very few seminaries that are both intellectually rigorous and theologically evangelical. This is especially true of smaller schools, which are often private and therefore rely on churches for their funding - and as a result, they are often allowed to present theological issues as either uncontested, or at the very least, a heavily one-sided debate, when this is often completely contradictory to reality - and the opinions of the faculty (based on my own seminary experience, I can say that what professors teach in class and what they personally believe behind closed doors are two very different things - I think many would be surprised by the amount of evangelical faculty who do not hold to Biblical inerrancy, for example). To be quite frank, evangelical seminaries do not exist to teach so much as they exist to reinforce the student in what he or she already believes. They may be academically intensive, but they are so within the confines of some fairly stringent dogmatics, leading to an education that is overall inadequate. This is often a goal that the faculty are quite at odds with, which leads to evangelical schools being a bit topsy-turvy and a hotbed of politics.

          Of course, liberal institutions, while certainly more diverse and rigorous academically, still end up falling into a similar trap - only this time, it's anyone who believes that Moses DID exist that's getting chased out of the school.

          This leaves us with a conundrum: Where to go? The answer is, I don't know. More and more young evangelicals seem to be turning to the seminaries of conservative mainstream Protestants - Lutheran and Anglican being the two most prominent. But of course, not every evangelical church is willing to send their student to such a place - sometimes for good reason, as the graduates do have a tendency to jump ship.

          Fortunately, what I have said is mostly generalizations - generalizations with plenty of exceptions. If you are fortunate enough to find one, then rejoice.

          I say this all as a graduate of an evangelical seminary who found myself completely unprepared to deal with the raging storms of contemporary theology - the only experience I'd had with liberal theology was the occasional straw man of the Documentary Hypothesis, so you can imagine that once I got out into the "real world," so to speak, and discovered that non-evangelical theology was far broader, far more sophisticated and most of all, far more meritorious than I had been led to believe, and my education was almost worthless in the face of such a storm.

          I ended up working through it, and I am more mature because of it. However, the point is that likely due to pressure from their supporting churches, evangelical seminaries tend to either pretend liberal theology doesn't exist (it does), or that it is completely laughable (it isn't). This is likely a well-intentioned attempt to shield their flock from what they see as false teachings, but instead it seems to mostly accomplish the opposite as graduates, armed only with ignorance, stride confidently into a theological fray they have no hope of winning, and the ensuing disillusion has resulted in many abandoned ships.

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  • David

    In all things, we must remember it is not in seminary training we trust for our effectiveness and equipping for the ministry of the Gospel, but rather God through His Spirit. It was not official training that equipped the apostles, but rather the fact that "they had been with Jesus." We must also be careful associating ourselves with the professional world when it comes to our effectiveness in our profession. They are made effective and qualified for their profession by their schooling, we are made effective and qualified for our ministry by our God. Jesus is a person, not a science or equation. When we start associating our effectiveness with the elements of the flesh, we risk losing site of the Gospel when it comes down to the very elements of how we were trained to preach it. Seminary is good and helpful, but ultimately it is not what makes us called or equipped or sanctified for the work of the Gospel. Only God does those things. Therefore we can conclude it is not necessary for God to do perform His will in His servants. But it is a helpful tool for those whom He desires to use it.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      HI David,

      What do you think the disciples were doing with Jesus if not being trained? The old adage that the apostles didn't get an education (as an excuse for men today to jump into the ministry based merely on their years in Sunday School) is simply false. They got the best education ever offered. Paul's command to Timothy is to "study to show yourself approved to God". Many of those who think they can skip seminary seem to think that means, "study to show yourself approved to yourself." Sure, a seminary can't provide the calling or the power of the Spirit. But if a man is truly called, he should want to get adequately prepared and should have the power of the Spirit to make it through a rigorous course of study.

      • David

        I think I may have come across a bit wrongly - I am not against seminary and I have taken some of it myself. I know there is great value to it. What I am saying is that seminary does not make you qualified for ministry. It does not ordain you. It does not call you. It does not make you good at it. Nor does it make you right. People say in their hearts "I am ready for ministry because I went to seminary." This is anti-Gospel. We are ready for ministry when we have been prepared of the Spirit and ordained by God. Seminary is very helpful training, but it is not what makes us fit for ministry. Just before the "Study to show thyself approved" passage Paul says "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." However we many times bypass the Lord's teaching for the teaching of theologians. We condition ourselves to preaching out of commentaries, masked by the Word of God. This is something that if you're not careful of during seminary, where you gain thousands of hours with your nose in commentaries, you will condition yourself to the point where you don't even know what the Spirit's teaching is, and you ignore it for the sake of agreeing with John Macarthur. Not to mention that "study" in 2 Timothy 2 perhaps is better translated as "do your best" or "put forth effort" which oft times results in commentary study, but sometimes results in some other type of effort, perhaps those efforts listed in verse 22. The disciples were in fact being trained by Jesus, but not through the use of thousands of commmentaries! Training is essential, and all I'm saying is we cannot neglect the direct spiritual training of the Spirit for the sake of a seminary degree! Sometimes training via life (such as was the experience of the disciples) and other influences will prepare a man greater than 6 years in seminary after 4 years of bible college and 12 years of christian high school.

      • David

        John, I don't mean to prolong this but I would be very careful about your statement "But if a man is truly called, he should want to get adequately prepared and should have the power of the Spirit to make it through a rigorous course of study." It presupposes that seminary is the only viable and "adequate" means of training and that the power of the Spirit will take him there if he's really serious about ministering to people because the Spirit must agree that this man-made institution is the only real way for Him to work in His ministers. I hope it was just bad wording and will assume it was because it is all to common in online media. Of course anyone who wants to be an under-shepherd is going to want to be adequate for the position, and Biblically, he will be adequate as he rests in God's Spirit, is humble before His leading and teaching, and will learn lean learn. However, Bruce's comment below addresses this and points out very well that seminary was not God's Biblical institution for this training. Seminaries will probably naturally flow out of some churches efforts to provide quality training for their people. A wise pastor once told me "you can't be everyone's pastor." I believe the Biblical model that has been strayed from is churches training their own people rather than sending everyone out to someone else's teachers. Also, elders are meant to be trained within the church at which a person would be the elder, however this is entirely not the way it is done. Many problems would be avoided if this were done! Many "bad pastors" would not be in the position - instead we hire people we don't know, but they "went to seminary" and they end up being a waste of time and effort and do more harm than good because we hire them based off of "seminary training" and one or two well-prepared sermons and a few smiles. There is a reason companies really only want people with experience, regardless of someone's education. Because those are the people who have been through it and know what it's LIKE. In ministry, those who have been trained through real life stuff know what ministry is LIKE rather than just what someone else has explained it to be. The best advice I've ever received, and the main reason I am not in full-time ministry right now is because I believe that a person should be doing the work of an elder on his own without a position, but rather WITH love and purpose, without knowledge of a paycheck for his work or some other reward, and do it well and faithfully, before ever being called to be an elder. What equips a person? The spirit working through life and study. We CANNOT underestimate the power of the Spirit's working through everyday menial tasks that don't look like ministry or ministry training. Wax on/wax off anyone?

  • Bruce Taylor

    I would have to raise some questions about the Biblical training paradigm and where you find Biblical evidence that supports the current seminary system and its degrees. Don't get me wrong I have a degree and have even taught bachelors and masters students. However I have become convicted that the current educational paradigm is not Biblical in its basis but rather based on the paradigm of western worldly education.

    That being said, the reason we are so different than the Biblical model of mentorship training, is our own disregard for following the Word. There are 2 places for Christian training in the Bible. The Family and the Church. The reason we have Bible Schools and Seminaries today is because the Church stopped training people for ministry. This is why there is typically a practical dis-connect and students even though they "learn" a lot they find themselves often ill prepared for Pastoral ministry.

    Models like some of the other comments suggest here like starting as a youth pastor at a Church near a school, would not fit the Biblical model either. This would view youth ministry as a "stepping stone" along the road to your "real" calling.

    The Bible teaches that we are to train up disciples for the work of the ministry. As we do this we are to encourage people to use their gifts and abilities God has given them. Along the way we are to walk with others to help them prayerfully discern if God has called them to a specific ministry role. At the point when such a ministry calling comes to light then we are to focus their training and growth to fit the need. If outside training is needed then the local Church should be taking responsibility to give such direction to the student and the seminary would be answerable to the local Church authority if it indeed was in existence and being used.

    Instead Churches go to the market of seminary grads to see who might be called to them. Not a Biblical model at all. Sure there can be value in education but it is not the primary driver for the ministry. Education is a tool to assist in ministry effectiveness but most ministry training both practical and theological can be obtained in the local Church if the local Church and its leadership embrace the paradigm shift to the Biblical model.

    I am not expert just passionately convicted about this. If you want to learn more about Church Based Theological Education check out sites like http://www.bild.org

    Let us all strive not to grab the latest program or model but to grab hold of the Bible and really embrace Biblical teaching in all areas.

    Bruce

    • http://www.corinthtoday.org paul Cummings

      Bruce,
      I tend to agree with you.
      having been out of seminary 15 years now I still believe the same thing that I did when I first graduated..."I just bought in to the system"
      1. Reality- Most churches will not, dare not, think not about hiring any pastor without at minimum an M. Div
      2. Nothing learned at seminary couldn't be learned equally well in a mentoring-style relationship with an elder Pastor/Minister and I think in less time.
      3. Church has changed...seminary curriculum has not.

      The most valuable thing in my 3 years (including all summer and "J" terms) was working in the local church. It was quickly apparent how much "theoretical" stuff we were learning, not to mention how much "25 years ago" church growth and polity we were learning.

      But...it's the system...and so far, no church with any reputation has opted out of it.
      And what can I say? I bought into it too...

    • David

      Bruce! Your post is beautiful. Completely agree with everything you said. All these things have provided a continual annoyance to me. I think there are very far-reaching negative affects to the seminary culture we westerners have created, but this is not the place for discussing all of them.

    • Ryan

      I think the problem that I see with this approach is that we are several steps removed from the audience of Scripture. We cannot profit from the writings of the authors quite as easily as Timothy or the church in Corinth could because we do not naturally understand the culture, nor the language, nor the theological assumptions of the time. Seminary helps us to bridge these gaps so that we might properly understand the message of Scripture. This is knowledge that not every pastor is able to provide us - how many full-time pastors do you know of that have the spare time to tutor interns in Greek and Hebrew?

      The other important benefit formal education brings is, ideally, divergence of opinion. Groupthink is certainly a problem in contemporary seminaries, but even the most theologically narrow of institutions will still likely end up teaching their students something that conflicts with their currently held beliefs. If we have no outside influences pushing us to constantly re-evaluate our theology and doctrine, it becomes far less likely for churches to become aware of misinterpreted Scripture, practical mistakes, and fallacious theology. Biblical academia serves to challenge and sharpen the doctrines, beliefs and applications of the church.

      Finally, while the Gospel has remained the same, the method in which the Gospel is presented has ever been contextualized to suit the culture that it is facing - and unfortunately, we live in a culture where many people will not take you seriously unless you have formal education. Yes, it is certainly not necessary to faithfully preach the Gospel, but it will help to open ears.

      I agree that there are many things wrong with the current seminary system (to paraphrase the late, great Frank Zappa: "If you want to get a spouse, go to a Bible College. If you want to get an education, go to a library"), and I think there's certainly an over-emphasis on seminary education as something someone HAS to do in order to minister, rather than something a pastor OUGHT to do as a part of furthering their training. However, I'm a little apprehensive that if we slosh around too much bath water, the proverbial baby will perish as well, and we end up with pastors who interpret Scripture as they see fit with no outside guidance - in other words, cults waiting to happen.

      • http://www.corinthtoday.org paul cummings

        Ryan, you make some great points. Thanks.

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