As our professor went through the syllabus on Day One of class, you could hear the collective weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In addition to exams and papers, we had 2,500 pages of reading and would have to sign a statement indicating what percentage of the reading we had done. If we did not complete all of it, it would have a significant impact on our final grade.
As the semester was winding down, I was predictably behind in my reading. In an afternoon of weakness, I ran my eyes over hundreds of pages so that I could say I had completed the reading
I can still remember thinking ‘this is crazy; there’s no way that this is what seminary is all about.’
Looking back with the perspective of twenty years, it was just one of many things I’d change if I could do seminary all over again. Although God has been incredibly gracious, I could have benefited so much more than I did. And graduated in a place where I was more useful to Christ and the people around me.
Although your time of training probably won’t be perfect either, you don’t have to make all the mistakes I did. In this article, I’d like to share four lessons God taught me so that you can make the most of your own preparation. Doing seminary well will give you a head start in becoming a healthy leader, spouse, and parent who helps others find abundant life in Christ.
If you know someone in theological training, my prayer is that this article will give you a sense of the challenges they’re facing so you can walk alongside them well.
Four Ways To Make The Most Of Your Time In Seminary
1. Make Christ your greatest pursuit.
We all go into our training with the goal of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8) so that we can make him known. But it’s so easy to let other goals subtly eclipse this core passion. Who hasn’t been tempted to pursue grades at any cost so that we can set ourselves up for the best ministry position or doctoral program? Or simply prove our theological or academic chops to our classmates, professors, parents, or ministry leaders at our church.
Like the Philippians, we often need to hear again what we’ve already heard a thousand times. That Christ alone has ‘surpassing worth’ (Philippians 3:8). That only he ‘holds all things together’, has reconciled all things to himself (Colossians 1:15-20), and is our pearl of greatest price (Matthew 13:45-46). So, as we read, study and write papers, we can slow down and savor Christ again and again in a deeply personal way. If we’re reading a book on missions, for example, we might ask God to warm our hearts to his saving work in our lives, and, reignite our passion for the lost.
2. Pursue mentoring.
The collective wisdom and experience among seminary faculty is a vast hidden treasure. Most professors are incredibly busy, but will happily spend time investing in you, particularly if you ask! This requires humility to see our deep need for the wisdom of older saints (see 2 Timothy 2:2), something younger guys often miss. Start small by inviting a professor you connect with to coffee or lunch, and come with a question or two to kick things off.
3. Pursue real, biblical community.
You probably know that there are at least 59 ‘one another’ passages in the New Testament. So much of God’s work happens when God’s people gather. Forgiving and being forgiven (Ephesians 4:32). Sacrificially loving someone who needs to talk even when you have a paper due in two days. And taking the time for leisurely conversations about what’s really going on with our roommates.
It’s so easy to start seminary assuming we are exempt from applying truth because we are so busy studying it.
Halfway during my time at seminary, my roommate told me he was moving out of our townhouse. He was kind, but let me know that he was looking for deeper friendship than what I seemed willing to offer. I was so focused on my schoolwork that I hadn’t left any time for us to connect. Ironically, my idolatry further cut me off from the very thing I needed most, and hurt a good friend.
As I look back, I think a big part of it was my lack of faith. How can I succeed in seminary if I don’t throw all of my time at it? But now I realize I wasn’t trusting God to help me in the things He prioritizes–things like people! Faith helps us see the value of knowing and being known so that we can set our school work aside at appropriate times and trust God with the results.
In fact if you know someone in seminary, don’t underestimate the power of moving toward them. Inviting your friend to take a study break, and simply listening and asking good questions can help him or her overcome the dangers of isolation that often accompany the seminary experience.
4. Be who God has called you to be.
It’s entirely natural to emulate the godly leaders we come across at school and church. And there’s certainly a place to pattern our lives after older, wiser saints.
Paul wasn’t shy about inviting the Corinthians to ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). But despite his status as an apostle, Paul made it clear that he–and other key leaders–were nothing in comparison to Christ. That’s why he declined superstar status and insisted the Corinthians set their sights on Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
But if you are a seminarian, always remember: Examples exist for inspiration, not authority.
Based on the example of two pastor-scholars at my church, I nearly went overseas to pursue a PhD in preparation for pastoral ministry. Part of me really wanted it for my future congregation, but on a much deeper level discovered the PhD was about proving my value as a preacher and pastor.
Finding my value in what–instead of Who–could have led my away from from those I was called to serve and from the God I was preparing to serve. And in coveting others’ gifting, I might have missed my own.
So follow the godly men and women around you as they follow Christ. But remember that they are deeply-flawed, too, and that God’s calling for you is likely to be gloriously different.
The Hope Of Simplicity
As I reflected on what I’d change in Seminary 2.0, I was surprised at how many things I came up with! (Several others are not even included here!) But they really boiled down to just a few core issues.
There’s real hope here because it’s impossible to work on more than a few things at once. We are, after all, creatures ‘made of dust’ (Psalm 103:14).
If we can identify the most important issues and prayerfully work on those, the details will resolve themselves. That’s where we’ll turn our attention next time.
For further reflection: Which of the lessons above might help you (or a friend) as you prepare for, or go through, your own time at seminary? What other lessons would you add to this list?