By Jeffry Blair, a Northern Seminary DMin graduate and pastor. He was asked by a group of leaders to advise them on how to finish seminary while in ministry and Jeff puts together a wise presentation for all of us.
I want to encourage you to complete your education. I hope to show you why you should and how you can. Here are six strategies for finishing your studies while you are up to your armpits in ministry.
One - Feel the Weight
I was twenty-three years old in the fall of 1999 when I first stepped foot on the campus of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. Each student received a copy of “The Religious Life of the Theological Student” by the Princeton theologian, B. B. Warfield, who said,
The ministry is a learned profession; and the man without learning, no matter with what other gifts he may be endowed, is unfit for its duties. But learning, though indispensable, is not the most indispensable thing for a minister. ‘Apt to teach’—yes, the minister must be.... Not apt merely to exhort, to beseech, to appeal, to entreat, not even merely to testify… but to teach. And teaching implies knowledge:he who teaches must know… But aptness to teach alone does not make a minister; nor is it his primary qualification… A minister must be learned, on pain of being utterly incompetent for his work. But before and above being learned, a minister must be godly.
Warfield was right, and this is the big idea of his speech: godliness is the indispensable attribute of the pastor. As Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” Warfield was also at great pains, however, to contend that Christian pastors must be capable teachers (1 Timothy 3:2). This is so central to the Christian mission that it is embedded in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) where Jesus commanded the apostles to “make disciples” (mathēteysate) and “teach” (didaskontes) what they had learned from Him. This is a crucial idea in Matthew; notice how the math- root  progresses through the gospel. In 11:28-29 Jesus invites His hearers, “come to Me… and learn (mathete) from Me.” Those who learned from Jesus continued their education until they were fully trained and able to skillfully handle the whole Word of God, “Every scribe who has been trained (mathēteutheis) for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (13:52, ESV). To sum up: in Matthew, Jesus is a teacher who invites disciples (learners) to come to Him and learn (11:28-29) until they are fully trained (learned) (13:52) so that they are able to teach others (28:18-20). This is central to His invitation and His commission.
I hear an objection, “What about Acts 4:13? The Bible says the disciples were ‘unlearned and ignorant men’” (KJV). The authorities in this text did not mean Peter and John were illiterate ignoramuses. Their words mean, rather, that Peter and John were what the rabbis called am ha’aretz, “people of the land.” They were ordinary laymen who had no degrees from accredited schools and no impressive diplomas hanging on their walls. The people said the same thing about the apostles’ Master, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” (John 7:15, RSV). To be under the impression that Peter and John were uneducated is no trivial error. They had, in fact, recently completed the most thorough theological education in history. For the last three years they had been enrolled full-time in the seminary of the Messiah-Savior-Son of God. It took me three years to complete a Master of Divinity degree; the apostles spent three years at the feet of the Divine Master. Here’s the point I’m making: Christian ministers must be pastor-scholar-theologians, and pastors cannot fulfill the Great Commission according to Jesus unless they have first learned.
Moses was a man of remarkable learning, trained as a sage in Egypt. Paul was a certified scholar, instructed at the feet of the illustrious Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and may have, in addition to this, spent the first decade or so of his Christian life in study, reflection, and meditation in preparation for his missionary ministry (Galatians 1:14). Moses and Paul, the most prodigious authors of Old and New Testament books, respectively, were men of exceptional formal education. Still, both felt the great weight of the work God had given them. Moses moaned, “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:11, RSV), and Paul questioned, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16b, RSV). Their competence did not come from their scholarship, just as Warfield argues, but they could not have accomplished their mission without their education.
I will never forget my ordination at Sulphur First Free Will Baptist Church in 1999 when I knelt at the altar, and they laid their hands upon me—Keith Burden, Dr. Thomas Marberry, Dr. Timothy Eaton, Brad Ransom, Darryn McGee and others. I thought I’d be crushed. That moment continually reminds me of the weight of the gospel ministry with which I’ve been entrusted, and I do not want to be weighed and found wanting because of a lack of learning. It is possible, of course, with tremendous discipline in reading and study to learn without getting a degree, and I give thanks to God for those who have; but it’s rare. The pastor today must be prepared to intelligently engage the culture on a bewildering range of issues. Someone in your city may be waiting to hear from a man of God who knows something. If not for the godly scholar, Bishop Ambrose of Milan, there may have been no Augustine.
When you’ve been convinced that you need to continue your education, what next?
Two - Find the Right Fit
Not all schools or programs or professors are created equal, and it’s crucial if you would finally finish to first find the right fit. Here are five areas of consideration.
Find the right fit theologically. There are excellent institutions in our own denomination, and these ought to be considered first. This is especially true for the undergraduate degree. It’s critical to establish a sound foundation at the beginning of your theological education. Also, the younger you are both physically and spiritually, the closer you ought to stay to your own tradition. Countless are the cautionary tales of the forfeited faith of young scholars who’ve gone away to institutions which have strayed away from the truth. It’s always good to ask someone you trust who moves in theological higher education if a particular school is a good fit for you at this point in your journey.
Find the right fit for your purpose. What is your goal? To teach? To enhance ministry skills? What do you want to do with the degree? Make sure the school and the degree you pursue fit with the calling you have received. Verify, and do not assume, that the program you choose will properly equip you and open doors, whether to ministry opportunities or subsequent degrees.
Find the right fit in the professor. For graduate degrees especially, choose to study under somebody. The person is more important than the institution. I chose my DMin program primarily because of the professor. Our first day of class at Northern Seminary, the seventeen doctoral students were asked the reason we chose this program. Every one of us said, “Scot McKnight.” Truth is, I had never heard of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (I later learned it is where F. Leroy Forlines completed his Bachelor of Divinity in 1962), but I knew the concentration, New Testament Context, and, more importantly, the professor, were the perfect fit for me.
Find the right fit financially. Choose a school you can afford. When I attended Southwestern Seminary, the school offered no tuition loans because they did not want their graduates going into ministry saddled with debt. They reasoned that if it was the Lord’s will for you to attend there, He would provide. I’m not exactly advocating that position; education is an investment. I am, however, counseling you to count the cost up front (Luke 14:27-33). The best case scenario is that you find a benefactor, either your church (the church of which I’ve been senior pastor for seventeen years paid for my DMin, for which I’m eternally grateful) or someone else who has both a heart for the Kingdom and the means to do this.
Finally, find the right fit in terms of format. These days there are a myriad of options: online, live stream, cohort, on campus, everything in between, and some combinations of the above. For my MDiv, Jennie and I were like the Clampets: we loaded up and moved everything we had to Fort Worth where we resided for the next three years. For my DMin, I traveled to Chicago twice a year for several years for one-week intensives. The rest of the time I studied at home.
I searched hard for a while before I found the right subject, the right professor, the right school, the right price, and the right format. There is a perfect fit for you, too.
Three - Enlist Optimistic Supporters
When it comes to completing your education, “It is not good that man, or woman, should be alone.” Having cheerleaders and truth-speakers is critically important.
The best-case scenario is to find a friend to go through the program with you, if possible. This is one of the benefits of the cohort model. If you don’t start with an already-known friend, it doesn’t take long to develop deep friendships within the program. My doctoral cohort from Northern is still dear to me, professors and classmates, and the intimacy of our friendships spurred us on to finish together.
Also, be intentional in enlisting some people who will encourage you to keep going. First on the list should be your spouse, if you have one. Mine kept me from quitting. That’s why the top lines of the dedication page of my thesis read:
To Jennie—Your love, patience, and prayers have made this possible. You are the consummate אשה חכמה, “wise woman.”
2 Samuel 14:2, 20:16
The support of numerous other family members was indispensable as well.
If you’re a minister in a church in some capacity, get your leadership involved. The support of your deacons, elders, etc. makes a tremendous difference. Share with them why continuing your training is important to the mission of the Kingdom. The Locust Grove Free Will Baptist Church encouraged me every step of the way, even allowing me to take a 6-week retreat at a critical moment to allow me to finish.
During my doctoral studies, Terri, Kelli, Phil, and Craig were the members of what we called an MSG (Ministry Support Group). They encouraged me and helped me in so many ways and their wisdom was an indispensable resource. One day I met Dr. Craig Shaw for Mexican food to talk about my work. He shared with me the story of how he stayed the course and urged me to do whatever was required to finish my degree because, he reasoned, it was not just for me; the work was a labor of love and service to the denomination and the Kingdom. That conversation came to my mind many times when I wanted to give up.
Paul always had encouragers close by. In fact, when he was all alone, even he was nearly paralyzed (2 Corinthians 2:12-13). Scores of co-laborers are listed in Acts and in Paul’s letters because he needed encouragement, too.
Find an Aaron and Hur to keep your hands lifted up. Some days may require as many as four friends not just to hold up your hands, but to hold you up and carry you along (Mark 2:3)!
Four - Set your Face like Flint
Luke 9:51 says, “When the days drew near for him to be received up, Jesus set (estērisen) his face to go to Jerusalem.” That’s a Hebrew way of saying that He was absolutely resolved to do it (see Isaiah 50:6-9). “Set” is the word in Luke 16:26 where Abraham tells the rich man in hades that the chasm has been “fixed” and there’s no going from one side to the other. According to Exodus 17:12, “Aaron and Hur held (estērizon) Moses’ hands so that his hands were firm (estērigmenai) until sunset.” We need Aarons and Hurs, but we also must set our own face like flint.
Angela Duckworth’s work has shown that success in life is determined far more by tenacity than talent or intelligence. “Grit” is the word she uses to describe the characteristic necessary for accomplishing hard and worthwhile things. Although Duckworth, herself, earned degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania, and for her research received the MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the “genius grant”, when she was in the third grade she didn’t even “test high enough for the gifted and talented program.” How was this possible? Grit. She says that “Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time.” One of countless illustrations of this in her book is from the world of Microsoft,
Back in the days when he had a more direct role in hiring software programmers at Microsoft, (Bill Gates) would give applicants a programming task he knew would require hours and hours of tedious troubleshooting. This wasn’t an IQ test, or a test of programming skills; it was a test of their ability to muscle through, press on, get to the finish line. He only hired programmers who finished what they began.
Luke 9:51 is a turning point in the gospel. When He set his face and started on His journey to Jerusalem, He sent His disciples ahead of Him into Samaria to prepare for His arrival. “But the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” (Luke 9.53). When He set his face, He hadn’t taken a single step before He faced opposition and rejection. That’s what it can be like when we set our face toward something worthwhile. As Bono sings, “It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain, when we start out the climb” (from U2’s “If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” But you knew that already). Jesus knew a long time before He got to Jerusalem what was waiting for Him there, and it was a long, winding, difficult road. I’m glad He “set his face…” You can, too.
Five - Set aside Seasons for Study
When I received this writing assignment, on our Facebook group (we still stay in contact with one another there) I asked my fellow doctoral students for their thoughts. This was the recurrent theme, and here are some of their responses.
Dr. Kristen Bennett Marble said, “Think about it in terms of seasons. It won’t always be like this in terms of craziness and extra work; it’s for a season and seasons end/change. And Grace. Give yourself grace in the process. Some things are going to have to ‘give’ - you can’t simply add a degree program on top of an already-packed schedule/life. What can you share, delegate, let up on?”
Dr. Doug McPherson advised, “Have a plan to carve out time and space to work. For me, some work was best done in small, steady steps of 1-2 hours at a time. Some tasks really were best done in larger chunks of time away from home or office to minimize interruptions. Know how you work and plan accordingly. I’d tell Rebekah (his wife) what I needed in terms of time, and we would agree on the scheduling of big chunks. And I worked hard to make sure that she wasn’t the only one sacrificing time, that the church had to give some as well.”
Dr. Amanda Hecht counseled, “Plan ahead, carve out space. I always found that if I was reading/researching that I could fit that in in smaller chunks around other things, but when I need to write, I need a longer dedicated space of time. And practice Grace toward yourself, for the things you need to delegate or let go for this season.”
Dr. Scot McKnight, our professor, said simply, “Blocks... of time… Tranquility in your family life permits deeper concentration.”
Finally, and most colorfully, Dr. Ben Tertin recommended, “Take a for-real Sabbath every week. And don’t try to ‘get it done’ ASAP so you can ‘get on with real life’; go slow, like the turtle, who is carefully eating all the nutritious food while the rabbit runs over that food and straight off a cliff...into a lava pit.”
My church gave me weeks off to finish my dissertation and time away from the office to study at home. The deacons and others took up the slack in preaching, visiting, and other pastoral responsibilities, for this season.
Six - Finish the Race
Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This point is directed toward those who may think it’s too late to start or that at this point it’s not worth it.
Consider Rabbi Aqiva, the first century teacher who is considered the greatest Torah scholar of his day and a sage par excellence. One strand of rabbinic tradition says that Aqiva had been an am ha’ aretz until he was forty years old. Aqiva called himself an “unlettered man” (Pesa. 49b) when he was a shepherd for his landlord. At the age of forty, he finally turned to formal schooling in Torah and tradition, spent the next several years immersed in study in the rabbinic school, became an eminent scholar, and made thousands of disciples. Below is a late narrative of the account:
How did R. Aqiva begin his wonderful career?... It has been said that when he was forty years old he had not learned yet anything. (At that age, however, he conceived the idea of applying himself to study.) It once happened that, standing at a well, he asked: “Who has made that hollow in the stone?” The people whom he asked answered: “The water which continuously, day after day, falls upon it.” They also said (by way of reproach): “O Aqiva, it is strange that thou knowest not the passage in Scripture which reads: ‘Water weareth out stones’” (Job 14:19). Aqiva then drew an a fortiori conclusion. He said: “If the soft has so much power over the hard as to bore it (water over stone), how much more power will the Torah, the words of which are as hard as iron, have over my heart, which is flesh and blood?” He at once turned to the study of the Law. (Tosefta on Avot by Rabbi Nathan)
In my own educational experience, and in our Free Will Baptist movement, a number of the most influential teachers and leaders did not complete their studies until well into their forties or beyond. Keith Burden, my father-in-law, completed his Master of Arts in Ministry when he was 49. Dr. Tim Eaton completed his PhD at 53. Dr. Janice Banks, missionary to Japan from 1972-91 and professor of ethic and missions at Randall University, completed her BA in 1969, her MA in ’89 and her Doctorate of Educational Ministry in ’09!
Before I answered the call to ministry, in 1996 I was studying history at a state school. In the course, Contemporary American History (1945-present), one student was an especially helpful addition to the class, because he was a full-grown adult through that entire period of US history! I believe he was in his 80s at the time, and I’m fairly certain he graduated with this bachelor’s degree. I later discovered when I preached a revival at a local Free Will Baptist church that he was a member there.
As you are deciding what to do about your schooling, whether to take the first step or finish the race, I commend to you a quote by the mother of H. Jackson Brown, who instructed her son with sage counsel,
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Finally, I hope you’ll take to heart what New Testament scholar Nijay Gupta shares at the conclusion of his excellent book, Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond, which applies to every level and aspect of formal education,
Remember the privileges of what you are doing. In broader perspective, only a small percent of the world’s population will have the chance (and honor) to study… In those smaller moments of failure and difficulty, I encourage you to remember the blessing it is to have done the kinds of things you have done and to have the resources and support to participate in the privileges of higher education.
 The manth/math- root has to do with learning, as in “polymath” – one who has learned much, in many areas.
 See Sota 22A, which describes the am ha’ aretz and includes, “Even if one recites Scripture and repeats Mishnah-sayings, but has not attended upon a disciple of sages, such a one is an am ha ares.”
 See Acts 7:22, “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.” Philo says that Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, was “worthy of a royal education… attending diligently to every lesson of every kind which could tend to the improvement of his mind”(Vita Mos. 1.20–24; Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995], 461).
 See Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, vol. 41, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1990), 34, and David A. deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 158. Recall also Agrippa, flummoxed by Paul’s erudition, charging, “Your great learning has made you mad.” (Acts 26:24)
 Augustine confessed to God concerning the role of Ambrose in bringing Augustine to faith, “To him was I led by Thee, unknowing, that by him I might be brought to Thee” (Confessions, 5.13; Augustine of Hippo, St. Augustine’s Confessions, vol.1, The Loeb Classical Library [London; New York: William Heinemann; Macmillan, 1912], 255). See books 5, 6, and 9 for Augustine’s discussion of the influence of Ambrose upon him.
 See Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).
 Robert Goldenberg, “Akiba, Rabbi,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 137.
 H. Jackson Brown, P.S. I Love You (Nashville: Routledge Hill, 1990), 13.
 Gupta, Nijay K.. Prepare, Succeed, Advance, Second Edition: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond (Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition), loc. 3061.