Full-grown oaks are not produced in three years …
“They never taught us that in seminary,” a well-respected minister lamented to his colleagues. They shook their heads in knowing commiseration.
“They never taught me that in seminary,” the frustrated young pastor confessed to the committee.
“No one trained me in seminary for all the leadership predicaments I face. I was trained in theology and philosophy, but I’m hitting ambition, sensuality, greed, and competition,” responded one pastor when asked about the ministry and his preparation for it.
These comments, by no means rare, force all of us, lay and clergy alike, to examine the place of seminary training. What can we expect of seminary graduates? Let’s begin by considering two factors: the purpose of seminary and the student’s priorities.
A seminary must be more than an academic institution. It should equip the whole person for the ministry of the whole counsel of God. Of course, the responsibility for an effective theological education is also the student’s, who should enter seminary with a set of priorities. I suggest five.
The Purpose Of Seminary Education
The purpose of seminary training is to lay the foundation foc a lifetime of ministry. Let me stress that it is the foundation—that is, training in the basics. The foundation of a building gives stability to the entire structure. It is so even in education for the ministry. The seminary course cannot build the entire temple of ministry, but it can lay the primary foundation stones.
There are many aspects to building the foundation. To explore these, consider a different metaphor. Seminary is appropriately named; the word is derived from the Latin word for “seedbed.” A seminary program is like a horticultural nursery in that it is a place of beginnings, a setting for careful cultivation of the tender seedlings. Full-grown oaks are not produced in three years; neither are servants of God.
There is a tendency on the part of students to be impatient during their three or four years of seminary education. They feel guilt and anxiety because they aren’t “out there serving the Lord.” Such feelings can be greatly relieved when it is understood that a lasting work requires extensive preparation. An architect studies the land, the materials, the needs of the people, and the elements of form and function in order to prepare a blueprint. All that work for nothing but a piece of paper! But after that, construction can begin and move on to completion. The time of preparation was worth it.
We need only think of the “schooling” of Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus himself. God’s message to us time and again is that the shaping and molding of a servant takes time.
The purpose of the years in seminary is to plant and nurture the essential seeds of ministry. The student focuses on the learning of basic principles, precepts, and skills in such areas as biblical knowledge, theology, preaching, pastoral counseling, education, and administration. None of these areas will be thoroughly mastered, but the student should gain a general overview of them. He or she should also accumulate resources to develop later as God directs.
Priorities For Training
A seminary education provides an invaluable opportunity for growing in five high priority areas. These are: (1) growth in one’s relationship with the Lord God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; (2) growth in godly character; (3) understanding of the role concept as Christ’s servant; (4) development of skills for ministry; (5) growth in vision and godly imagination. By the way, an assessment of a seminary graduate in these areas will reveal a great deal about his or her fitness for ministry.
First, and most obviously, the seminary years are a time for cultivation of one’s relationship with God. This can be an intensive experience as the student enters the heady areas of systematic and biblical theology. Paul exhorts us to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The renewal comes from diligent study of the Scriptures and the implications of such study as they are perceived through theological reflection. The student has the opportunity to love God more fully with his mind. Our knowledge about God must lead to a more intimate relationship with him, or we run the risk of becoming Pharisees. One of my professors demonstrated his love for God in an unforgettable way. He was so moved by the study of God’s omnipotence that he interrupted his lecture to have us all stand and sing the Gloria Patri.
Seminary training provides unequaled opportunity for exploration of personal insights. Daily contact with mature minds and interaction with fellow students in experimental stages of their spiritual formation present crucial times for learning and development of life patterns for future walk with God. Good habits learned early become “ruts of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3) that stand the future minister in good stead.
The second personal priority tor seminary training is the cultivation of godly character. As we grow in our understanding and love for God, our lives will be molded by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ. God calls his servants to godliness. Paul boldly challenged others to imitate him as a model of Christian maturity. The seminary years are a time when the student can begin the great experiment of structuring his life according to God’s purposes. But it is often true that the spiritual growth of a student is eclipsed by the demands of academic pursuit, field education, family, and personal concerns. But if this tendency is checked and corrected, it will be valuable preparation for resisting the manifold pressures of the ministry. Phillips Brooks said that preaching is the work of conveying God’s truth through human personality. As we acquire the truth of God, so must we acquire the character of God. In the final analysis, it is not so much what we do as it is who we are as persons that matters most. If our lives don’t testify to the reality of our faith, then our other efforts are in vain.
The third goal of a seminary education is cultivation of a role concept as the servant of Christ. Seminaries provide an exposure to a variety of Christian leaders with different styles of ministry. They are models for the student. The demanding challenge for the student is to evaluate these models, and then proceed to integrate and adapt whatever seems to fit his or her personality and call. This process helps to give a sense of self-confidence and direction as the student graduates and enters a field of service. We need not expect the graduate to have one particular style set in concrete, but rather that he or she will appreciate the multifaceted nature of being Christ’s servant.
The fourth priority of seminary is the cultivation of skills for ministry. Some may question why this was not placed first; but unless seminary students as individuals know who they are and what is their calling in life, they are scarcely able to bring to their preparation either adequate focus in determining what skills are necessary or sufficient motivation to master them.
Seminary curricula traditionally have, with disastrous results for the ministry, divided these skills neatly into two separate compartments: (1) the theoretical, and (2) the practical. Depending upon their individual personality traits, students have tended to look upon the former as inconvenient roadblocks to be circumvented where possible and endured when not, and the latter as frivolous snap courses and a waste of time for all serious students.
But the ministry is a great calling that demands diverse capabilities and skills in many areas. It demands the best our minds have to offer. Academic excellence that strives to glorify God is a tribute to our Lord and an expression of our thanksgiving for his grace in Christ. The seminary student should look upon it as a present ministry to God, not merely as a preparation for future work. But a comprehensive understanding of God’s truth is also essential for the survival, expansion, and maturation of the people of God to whom the seminary student will minister. We have only to think of the devastation the false teachers brought to Israel to see the critical need for a sound understanding of God’s truth. Hosea’s warnings sound in our ears, “A people without understanding will come to ruin” (Hosea 4:14).
The disciplines of theology, church history, and Bible, are therefore essential preparation for the ministerial student. They not only give direction for an entire life’s work, but provide the necessary understanding that will enable a minister to function as a “teacher and ruling Ider” in the church. Even Greek and Hebrew cannot be slighted. Granted, the pastor and church worker may never become a linguistic scholar; but if the individual knows nothing of these tools, he or she is limited to the use of third-rate commentaries, dictionaries, and study helps in preparing for biblically based teaching and preaching. In this case, the theoretical becomes extremely practical for Christian ministry.
But the so-called practical disciplines are equally essential, and they represent the area of their training that seminary graduates feel was most neglected. It is essential, that they be able to apply what they learn.
Seminaries are developing excellent courses to meet the needs of practical training. Students should learn basic steps in spiritual growth. They should get training in evangelism, teaching, discipleship counseling, administration, and handling change and conflict.
The fifth priority is the cultivation of godly vision and imagination. There is a sense in which we should be eagerly anticipating God’s next great work. As seminary students mature in their relationship with God, they should begin to visualize what God could do through them. We are too timid and cautious when it comes to godly imagination. We shy away from the risk of attempting great things for God and expecting great things from him, to echo William Carey’s words. At seminary, a student should begin to dream. What needs to be done in this world? How car God use him or her to do it?
Prayer, meditation, and conversations with professors and other students can, as the Holy Spirit leads, unlock creative powers. Cultivation of godly vision infuses preparation time with vitality and purpose.
Growth and develoment in these five areas during the time of seminary training are essential if we are to achieve the goal of ministry—to present every person mature in Christ. Impatience with theological education will be alleviated as students realize the value and purpose of their preparation. A lasting work requires extensive preparation.
The model of Christ is our authority. Jesus spent much time training his disciples They did not immediately become productive members of the kingdom of God. They had to acquire knowledge and skills as well as the development of character—none of which can be rushed.
Look again at that woeful refrain, “They never taught me that in seminary.” What can be expected of a seminary graduate? I ask, did your education draw you into a relationship with God? Did it stimulate the process of transformation into the likeness of Christ? Did it hold up appropriate models of servanthood in Christ and provide basic tools to pursue your calling? Did it enlarge your vision for the grandeur of God’s work in the world? Did it provide a theological foundation and framework to build upon? If it did, surely God has blessed.
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