As a seminary survivor, I have been mulling over any wise words to pass on to those who also brave the experience. Four years ago I hated everything about it. Today, I love it. It’s not so much that seminary redeemed itself, but more so that God began pounding out my youthful, extremist heart. Take David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell‘s solid guide on the matter to be foundational, but here’s a little commentary of my own.
Don’t go to seminary. Avoid it unless God won’t let you. There is no clear biblical model for seminary as we know it today. That doesn’t make it bad, just dangerous. These musings aren’t about how seminary may need to change, but how seminarians may need to change. It’s an amazing opportunity. That’s why so many enroll. Yet the model even as it exists today isn’t for everyone. Many of my classmates didn’t need to be there. How do you know if it’s for you? Keep reading.
Be an active member of a local church. Contrary to popular belief, seminary is not the place to explore your calling–the local church is. When a person’s giftedness and calling is affirmed by the body of Christ as he or she is actively engaging in the mission of the church, then they might be considered a seminary candidate. If it’s agreed that he or she needs the tools of a lifelong learner and equipper of others, then they may be sent by the church. The church should never outsource it’s discipleship, especially to an institution. That kind of weeding isn’t good for business, but it’s good for biblically multiplying leaders.
Fill your passport. That’s right, make it a goal to graduate with a full passport. That means two things: go and slow. Go to nations throughout seminary. Preferably, serve for 1-2 years overseas before you ever enroll. Without your eyes opened and your heart broken, the knowledge you gain more easily puffs you up. And when the subculture becomes too formative, your fountain pen, theological jargon, and affinity for many leather bound books can be like amnesia toward the nations. Yes, that will mean you have to slow down. Let others brag about their degree in three years while you put one hand on the books and one hand on the plow, putting the theories to work.
It’s enough to pass. There’s something about working for an A that defeats the purpose. That’s why students clamor at the end of class to find out exactly what’s going to be on the test. Don’t take this as an excuse for not doing your best, but hear it as a finger in the chest of how we define “best”. Study to be affected, not just to regurgitate. There’s enough overlap there to get a passing grade.
Never get too smart to tell a story. Some of the worst missionaries I’ve ever met were those straight out of seminary. Among other peculiarities, they had gotten too smart to tell a Bible story. The very concept was an exegetical crime to them. But most of the world has been mostly illiterate for most of history. And even among the literate, we are consumed with stories. No wonder God fashioned his words into a grand narrative with a bajillion little stories! So learn Greek and Hebrew and hermeneutical prowess, but at the end of the day, can you tell a child a Bible story and still be faithful to the text?
Stay off campus. John Piper dropped the mic on this one in a seminary chapel address:
This is a dangerous place to go to seminary because everything is so nice. If you get used to this niceness, you’re gonna be useless…so don’t get used to it. This is a foretaste of heaven that is so incredibly dangerous that you’ll never go back to the cities, you’ll never go back to North Africa, you’ll never go where it’s hard.
Go to class, and then get back to the real world.
Have sex with your spouse, not your computer. Seminary is going to mean a lot of late nights. There’s always more pages to read and more papers to write. What could be a worse combination than students burdened by the fatigue of academia using their computers long after everyone in their household has gone to sleep? How easily we can go from holy studies to dark secrets! And how easily the intimate pursuit of a spouse is sacrificed not just to porn, but on the altar of busyness. If you can trust God with your eternity, you can also trust him to provide the time to somehow satisfy your spouse and your homework.
Develop a relationship with a pastoral professor. Get to know a professor well enough to share some (not all) of your journey with him and he with you. Talk not theory or practice, but heart-level struggles. This will help debunk the glory you’re unconsciously giving to him and to yourself.
Keep an image before you of those whom your education will benefit. Seminary isn’t about you. Not when there are billions of people who’ve never heard the gospel, and billions of Christians who’ve never been discipled. The tools you’re gaining are to be multiplied to those who’d never have a shot at such training. So keep something before you as a constant reminder of why you’re studying so hard. You’ll need it to keep you motivated, and to keep you humble.
If there’s a covenant, keep it. Seminaries often have their students sign a covenant or ethical agreement. Sometimes parts of them seem pretty lame. For example, they may ask you not to drink alcohol. Though you could rage against the machine with a beer in one hand and Colossians 2:16 in the other, keep your promises. God honors integrity. If you’re unwilling to let go something as small as that, then why are you considering a mission field that will demand far, far more?
Know your limitations. Paul David Tripp, author of Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, definitely deserves the final word. After recounting several stunning confessions from seminary students while he was a professor, Tripp offers some tough thoughts:
I am convinced that the crisis of pastoral culture often begins in the seminary class. It begins with a distant, impersonal, information-based handling of the Word of God. It begins with pastors who, in their seminary years, became quite comfortable with holding God’s Word distant from their own hearts. It begins with classrooms that are academic without being pastoral. It begins with brains becoming more important than hearts. It begins with test scores being more important than character. The problem with these things is that they’re subtle and deceptive…Academized Christianity, which is not constantly connected to the heart and puts its hope in knowledge and skill, can actually make students dangerous. It arms them with powerful knowledge and skills that can make the students think that they are more mature and godly than they actually are.
Beware of yourself and the inclinations of your heart. As Tripp concludes, may “every course of study hold before [you] a beautiful Savior, whose beauty alone has the power to overwhelm any other beauty that could capture [your] heart.”
What would you add?