As a professor in the theology department of a Christian university, I often watch as my graduating students prepare to attend seminary. I am always curious to see how God will shape and direct these men and women during their seminary years; the experience can be exhilarating and chaotic, inspiring and frustrating, and insightful and confusing all at the same time. In my own life, some of my greatest and worst experiences occurred while I was in seminary — and often these were interconnected. For those of you who are just beginning this transformative experience, I offer the following advice.
- Make time for God. This seems rather obvious, and on the surface appears easy to do. After all, you spend your days studying Scripture and the wisdom from great theological minds. But it can be far too easy to consider your academic study of the Bible as the equivalent of spiritual study. After a long day of parsing Greek verbs and summarizing theological treatises, it can be tempting to close your Bible without actively listening for God’s word to speak into your own life. Although God can and does provide spiritual insight through academic study, it is essential to turn to God daily with an attitude of openness and receptivity. It is too easy to slip into the habit of Martha and do work for Jesus, neglecting the need to sit quietly like Mary and receive from Jesus.
- Make time for community. You likely will never again find yourself in a place like seminary, where the vast majority of people are seriously committed Christians who eagerly seek to change the world for the kingdom of God. Hopefully your seminary campus has also brought together people from different states, countries, cultures, and denominational backgrounds. This environment provides a rich opportunity to learn from the experiences of others and to make lifelong friendships. After graduation you might find yourself serving a church in an area isolated from such supportive networks. If you have made solid friendships and formed accountability groups in seminary, these can carry over into your professional life and provide you with a lifeline to sanity.
- Get involved in a ministry. Some of you may already be serving churches, and most of you will participate in internships as part of your coursework. For others of you, family responsibilities and secular employment may engulf so much of your time that you can’t conceive how to add ministry experience to your already full plate. Even if your ministry commitment is simply leading a Bible study for a few hours during the week, this hands-on experience will help to identify your own strengths and weaknesses for ministry. It’s one thing to discuss in class how to offer grace to others as part of your ministry, but it’s something very different to live that out. Starting your ministry now will also give God the opportunity to clarify your calling and affirm your gifts and graces.
- Don’t be impatient. Some of you may already be working in full-time ministry and are only going to seminary because your denomination requires it. You want to get on with “real ministry” rather than just learn “theory.” Although you may not be able to see the benefits now, what you are learning provides strong foundations to handle a variety of difficulties that will arise during your ministry. After all, Jesus’s disciples spent a great deal of time learning from him before they were ever commissioned to do ministry. And even after Jesus sent them out to preach the good news, heal the sick, and cast out demons (Luke 9:1-2), the disciples weren’t done learning. Though they had been successful at first, it wasn’t long before they needed Jesus to give further instruction after they had failed (9:40). Life is messy, which makes ministry complicated. So it takes a great deal of training even to begin to learn the intricate dynamics of preaching, teaching, counseling, and leading. Take time to learn from experts who have walked the ministry road ahead of you.
- Take as many Bible classes as you can. Everything we do in ministry flows out of our understanding of the gospel. Immerse yourself in the narrative of Scripture, learn the tools for biblical interpretation, and discover how to translate the text from the ancient to the modern context. Whether you will serve as a youth pastor, evangelist, Christian education director, pastor, missionary, or chaplain, your message will always be derived from Scripture. Make sure you are being faithful to God’s message, not constructing your own.
I can’t promise that you will be successful if you follow this advice, but I can predict that your struggles will be greater if you don’t. The exhilaration and chaos of seminary are unavoidable; how you approach it is up to you.