The Gospel Coalition

During the unholy morning hours of June 6, 1944, U.S. Army paratroopers jumped from their airplanes into the occupied countryside of northern France, miles inland from the beaches at Normandy. My father was one of those soldiers. As a member of the rough and ready 101st Airborne, my dad had the best combat training available in the free world. He had studied in vivid detail the topographical features of the French countryside. Training had coached him on the deadly perils of anti-aircraft fire; the shock of jumping out of an airplane into the yawning darkness; the proper way to land, roll to avoid injury, gather, and engage the enemy; and how to handle hundreds of other battlefield eventualities. Dad had undergone enough drills on weapons and tactics that he could repeat the steps in his sleep for decades to come.

But June 6 was not a drill; it was war. He was not quite prepared for the relentless ferocity of the German machine guns, the exploding mortar shells, or the omnipresent and deadly Bouncing Betty mines. Basic training had given him wonderful training, but it could not have simulated the sights, sounds, smells, and overall horrors of war. Only one thing could acclimate him to the battlefield: war itself.

Ministry, likewise, is war. And only war can prepare you for the heat of battle. Will you fight, or will you run in the face of the menacing realities of ministry? Only the front lines of Christian ministry called the local church will answer that question for you.

My father's son attended one of the finest theological seminaries in the world, the theological-ministerial equivalent of Army Ranger or Navy Seals school. They taught his boy great theology. By God's grace, they lashed his heart and ministry to an inspired, inerrant Bible and centered his eyes on the story of redemption that beats intensely at the Bible's heart. It was rigorous and wonderful preparation for war. But it was not war.

Two years ago, I left that great theological training camp. In the months since, it has been my privilege to serve as pastor of a wonderful, patient group of godly people in Birmingham, Alabama. Together we are learning the difference between life and ministry in theory and life and ministry in reality. I have learned much, and I have much more to learn. Here are 10 things no theological seminary, no matter how faithful and competent, could have prepared me for in real-world ministry:

1. Ministry is war.

There are two theaters of war in ministry: one within and another without. There is an ever-present enemy within, the flesh, which tempts us to run from the battle. I cannot take a minute off from this war, or I will surely perish.

There are also enemies on the outside seeking to defeat me by singing an alluring siren song. They tempt me with a peacetime mentality, a life of ease and earthly prosperity, far from the bad deacons meeting, the church member whose marriage is collapsing, and the family that thinks I am killing the church by teaching sound doctrine.

John Newton knew this struggle all too well, but saw this war as the best place for fallen ministers:

The people of God are sure to meet with enemies—but especially the ministers. Satan bears them a double grudge. The world watches for their halting, and the Lord will allow them to be afflicted, that they may be kept humble, that they may acquire a sympathy with the sufferings of others, that they may be experimentally qualified to advise and help them, and to comfort them with the comforts with which they themselves have been comforted of God. But the Captain of our salvation is with us. His eye is upon us; his everlasting arm beneath us. In his name therefore may we go on, lift up our banners, and say, "If God be for us—who can be against us? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through him who has loved us!" The time is short. In a little while—he will wipe all tears from our eyes, and put a crown of life upon our heads with his own gracious hand!

2. My fictional church was a fictional church.

In seminary, my fictional church adored me. Every person loved the teaching. They loved my personality. They spoke often and gratefully of "all the things I bring to the table." On Monday, they pondered next Sunday's sermon with the giddy anxiousness of a 4-year-old on Christmas Eve. They were ready to carry me out of the pulpit on their shoulders as a theological hero.

My pastoral ministry now plays out in the non-fiction section, and they don't look at me that way. They see my flaws. They feel my inexperience. And rightly so. Most of them love me anyway, and over time, I will come to see how misguided was my desire for that fictional church and how good God is for humbling me through the ministry of his local church.

3. Theological knowledge does not equal pastoral maturity.

My command of Greek or Hebrew or all those Puritans I can quote from memory will not be enough to keep me from blowing my stack when an angry member brings false charges against me to my face. Those things won't provide wise leadership decisions when a deacon meets with me and tells me that the church is rapidly running out of money. Sure, my theological knowledge will go a long way toward helping me make wise decisions, but they won't give me the seasoning I need. I still need to learn many leadership lessons the hard way. I have been trained well on how the right weapon works, but using it accurately will come only with locking, loading, aiming, and firing accurately on the battlefield.

4. Love surpasses knowledge.

This is a necessary logical conclusion to the previous point. The inspired writer warned me about this: "If I have all knowledge and have not love . . . I am nothing."  If I do not love my people, they will not care how much theological talk comes from the pulpit. They will be drawn to follow me only when I prove that I love them and can be trusted as a mature teacher and under-shepherd.

5. If I will become an effective instrument in God's hand, I must suffer.

Sure, I have read lots of books that have taught me how to think well in and through suffering. But I must suffer if I will truly understand Paul's message in 2 Corinthians: it's not about me. A pastor will suffer for two reasons: first, for his own sanctification, and second, so that he is positioned to provide comfort for his suffering congregation (2 Cor. 1).

6. Because my Western default definition of success is worldly, it will bother me when attendance is low or they don't respond well to my teaching.

Because I am deeply prideful and filled with self-love, I am often offended when church members see weekends at the beach/lake/mountains as vastly more compelling than hearing me talk about the things of God. Or because I sometimes subtly exchange my confidence in God's Word as the transforming agent for my own ability to change people, I will consider adjusting the message or the methods to make people happy. But if I love them, I must not give in to this desire. I will dance dangerously close to this razor's edge far too often and must rely on Christ to rescue me every time.

7. I will often exhibit an acute fear of man.

All the bravado I spouted to seminary buddies about others "giving in to man-centeredness" has mysteriously dissipated in the face of real people who harbor real issues. Sure, I was correct in saying those things, but only God's grace can create in me a habit of faithfulness even when the stink has hit the fan and has then splattered on me.

8. Many people in my church will not like me, no matter how much I love them or treat them with kindness.

The reasons they do not like me will have nothing to do with anything substantial, and this will frustrate me. They will not like my personality because I am too extroverted/introverted and therefore not like them. Or they will not like me because I talk too fast/slow. Or they will not like me because I cheer for the wrong sports team or attended the wrong university. But even their distaste for me, valid or not, is part of God's good design to cultivate humility in the garden of my foolish, self-loving heart. This is also good for me because, by God's grace, it will remedy, over time, the deadly disease of the fear of man. My Lord promised that if they hated him, they would hate his disciples. This is an opportunity for God to teach me the truth of 1 Peter 2:23 pertaining to our Lord who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return, but kept on entrusting himself to him who judges justly. I will be set free by grace to love them anyway.

9. I will often be mystified and frustrated that my ministerial labors do not yield "product."

This will bother me because in my arrogance, I have forgotten that I am not the Holy Spirit and that only a sovereign, all-powerful God can renovate a broken-down human heart. Yes, I realize that my theology of sovereign grace has always taught me this truth, but my functional theology of self will tell me that all my knowledge, training, and gifts should at least lead to some change in the lives of this people. If I yearn for visible, finished "product," then I must be content to cut my lawn, build a Lincoln Log home with my boys, and let God be God in his church.

10. My theological heroes didn't have it easy either.

From the distance of time, geography, and cultural advances, it is easy to romanticize our heroes. It is easy to think John Calvin snapped his brilliant fingers and transformed Geneva, or that Bunyan leisurely wrote Pilgrim's Progress for a leading evangelical publisher on his laptop while watching cable television in an air-conditioned jail cell, or that Jonathan Edwards spent much of his time talking theology over coffee with David Brainerd.

But they preached and taught and wrote with such profound depth of knowledge because they were soldiers who had been to war. Their writings bristled with the sinfulness of the human heart and the holiness of God because they wrote from the battlefield. My heroes had it hard in the ministry and so will I, because God demonstrates his power and glory through the powerlessness of pathetic clay pots like me—it says so in 2 Corinthians 4:7. And I will learn the truthfulness of God's Word and his love for me, as did my heroes, in the intense war that is Christian ministry.



July 24, 2013 at 10:56 AM

Great Article. Thanks for the words of wisdom and encouragement!

[...] with my experience of a minister for three and a half years now. I am thankful for this post:†Ministry Means War: 10 Lessons Seminary Never Taught Me Like this:Like Loading... This entry was posted in ministry, pastoral ministry and tagged [...]


July 16, 2013 at 08:38 AM

A good reminder indeed...


July 16, 2013 at 08:15 AM

A good reminder here for laity especially to appreciate the stresses that go with the ministry, and to daily pray for their pastor and his family, and also encourage the pastor with a good word from time to time.

[...] check out Jeff Robinson’s blog post, “Ministry Means War: 10 Lessons Seminary Never Taught Me,” at The Gospel Coalition’s [...]

Heath Lloyd

July 15, 2013 at 08:46 AM

Thanks. It is Monday morning. I needed this. Back to the battlefield.

paul Cummings

July 15, 2013 at 03:32 PM

Thanks so much! of the most practical/pertinent things any seminary professor said to me...which at the time I thought was a little sad...but in reality helped me more than I could have ever realized.

Ministry Means War

July 14, 2013 at 11:06 PM

[...] Read More [...]

Michael Snow

July 14, 2013 at 02:10 PM

When using military metaphors and images, a faithful minister gives clarity. From Charles Spurgeon

[...] Jeff Robinson: Ministry Means War: 10 Lessons Seminary Never Taught Me [...]


July 13, 2013 at 10:12 AM

Excellent, brutally honest and timely. But most importantly, hopeful.

[...] [...]

[...] Read the rest of Ministry†Means War: 10 Lessons Seminary Never Taught Me [...]


July 13, 2013 at 02:51 AM

A very honest and helpful article thank you Jeff. I remember it was only 4 months into my first pastorate when one of the deacons stepped into my office and said "Okay, the honeymoon is over, I have some issues with you!"
It is always helpful to be reading some of the faithful old classics on the pastoral ministry. Three of the greats* can be found for free at Search and Trace -

*An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students By Charles Spurgeon
*The Christian Ministry By Charles Bridges
*The Reformed Pastor By Richard Baxter


July 13, 2013 at 01:17 AM

Thank you for this, as it puts a lot of things in perspective, now that I'm entering my second year of ministry...

Garrett Kell

July 12, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Excellent word here...thank you for serving us with it.

I'd totally agree that while there's no way to ultimately prepare for ministry before jumping in and doing it, aspiring pastors can be greatly helped by being involved in ministry during seminary in their local church. If they are able to accompany their pastor on visits, observe elder meetings, and be active in discipling in their local can help.

But as a pastor told me before I planted my first church, get your Bible and a cup and get ready. May God give us grace.


July 12, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Perhaps what we need is to give our young High Schoolers more exposure to this war in our own churches before we send them off to Bible College and Seminary? This way they will go to seminary for a reason, to become better equipped for the war!

Ryan Wilder

July 12, 2013 at 10:38 PM

Thanks for the post, definitely one I will be saving to pull out when I need. I graduated with my BA and am spending two years in my church before heading to seminary. I've finding out how true this article really is. My pastors I've looked up to since 10 years old face many hardships that I know I will be facing.

Thanks for the reminders!

Steve Cornell

July 12, 2013 at 09:40 AM

Ah, yes! A ministry training curriculum is needed that centers on these concerns. But would the young and ambitious believe it? The first time I heard the expression "Ministry is war" was from Jay Adams. 30 years in pastoral ministry confirmed it!

Leadership is not a place for people who need the affirmation of others to feel good about themselves. Leaders are often misunderstood, misrepresented and even maligned. It simply goes with the territory. Godly leaders donít look for or enjoy such treatment but they learn to bear misunderstanding with grace and wisdom.

But itís especially difficult when those you have faithfully served question your care and slander your character. More than a few leaders have thought about changing life direction when faced with this kind of unjust scrutiny and attack. I learned this lesson in the earliest days of training for ministry. I am convinced it was a God-ordained experience for my ministry training.

Perhaps you would appreciate the seven principles I shared for responding to misunderstanding and mistreatment:

Curt Day

July 12, 2013 at 06:31 AM

Overall a good article. I would like to comment on the following

#3. Theological knowledge does not equal pastoral maturity.
Nor is theological knowledge equal to spiritually seeking or getting closer to God.

#4. Love surpasses knowledge.
Yes if we realize that both are essential. Love without knowledge can be dangerous

#5. If I will become an effective instrument in God's hand, I must suffer.
Even nonChristians are called to suffer

#7. I will often exhibit an acute fear of man.
a given and a battle for as long as we live. Applies to all

#9. I will often be mystified and frustrated that my ministerial labors do not yield "product."
Joe Paterno said that there are informal as well as formal lessons we learn from education. It is the same for ministry. So celebrate each victory and lesson learned.

Crimson Rambler

July 12, 2013 at 05:29 PM

I have been saying for YEARS, my friends can testify to this with rolling of eyes, that one of the primal texts for ministry ought to be Karl von Clausewitz's "On War." The sheer orneriness of reality never seems to make it into curriculum. If you don't have time to read von Clausewitz (BTW Frau von Clausewitz actually wrote the book, from her husband's lecture notes), it is good to remember Viscount Slim's summary -- that all battles take place uphill, in the rain, at the point where two or more maps meet - always maps on different scales of measurement. SUCH IS LIFE. If we knew it in advance, we would waste less time and strength being surprised.

Mike Glodo

July 12, 2013 at 05:04 PM

As a professor who teaches every one of these lessons and who labors among colleagues who regularly do the same, may I suggest the blog should be retitled "10 Things I Didn't Learn in Seminary." I appreciate the point that some things are very difficult to learn except by experience. I also appreciate the point (or so it would seem from the title) that seminary can't teach everything someone needs to know for ministry. If a seminary did promise that, it would be a sure sign not to go there. But most of us are wise enough not to promise that.

Mark Dunford

July 12, 2013 at 03:53 PM

This is why its so important that seminary students are at the very least involved in their local church, not just attending and dreaming of what they'll do when they "get the keys." Seminary has been incredibly helpful for me as I think out the issues that I'm facing in my ministry context.


July 12, 2013 at 02:06 PM

I had the privilege of 16 years of ministry PRIOR to seminary (same one btw!). I have to admit, when I would overhear conversations between students about "what they were gonna do" once they got a church, I had to take a deep breath and pray for them. There really is no school like experience. I am thankful that you have been a humble student both in the training camp and on the battlefield.


July 12, 2013 at 01:16 PM

I think this is an excellent article.

Not only so, but also I think this article is applicable to all Christians, with perhaps the exception of Number 2.

The reason so is that all Christians are to go forth and make disciples of all nations. When they disciple people and encourage one another, they are ministering to one another with the word.

In conclusion, I believe that what you have shared is not limited to the pulpit but is shared by all Christians. So look forward to the day of Christ's coming, my brother! Look forward for on that day, all the saints will have their rest.