The following article is Part Three in a series written by Rusty McKie and Ryan Williams.
In this series, we’ve been looking at two different paths to pastoral ministry: seminary and local church training. In the last two posts (Part 1 & Part 2), Rusty and Ryan shared their views on why they did or didn’t choose seminary and the strengths and weaknesses of those choices. Like a great chef who either attends culinary school or learns by experience, a pastor may choose to be trained in seminary or the local church. This post discusses lessons learned from both choices.
Culinary School/Seminary Trained: Rusty McKie – Mdiv Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY), Lead Pastor Sojourn Chattanooga, TN
Kitchen Trained/Local Church Trained: Ryan Williams – No degree, Lead Pastor North Church, Albuquerque, NM
If you could go back to before you started training for vocational ministry, what would you do differently?
Rusty: I wouldn’t do anything different for seminary because I learned my lesson the hard way from college. In college, I prioritized my Christian college community above the local church and graduated feeling estranged from Jesus. The experience of unwisely disconnecting myself from Christ’s body etched new convictions in me for seminary. I committed to putting my local church before seminary. If there was a choice between helping out in my church or focusing on a paper or project, I’d prioritize the church of Jesus. I decided to pour myself out as others poured into me.
My seminary experience was a transformative season of my life and marriage because I determined myself not to repeat my college mistakes.
Ryan: I look at the path I took and for all of the challenges, failure on my part, and the difficulties involved, the Lord was so faithful to grow me, develop me, and keep my focus on the people of the local church that I feel really blessed to have taken the path I did.
If I had to do something different, I would have picked up a really low class load in a formal theological education program, designed for pastors who are already serving in the local church, to keep being challenged in my thinking and development. I often found myself in a bit of an echo chamber since I was trained in a local church with folks I agreed with theologically. A program that introduced me to new authors and perspectives would have been helpful.
I also would have prayed more. Doing the work of ministry often leaves no time for prayer (which is stupid, but it happens). Carving out time for individual prayer would have saved much heartache in the mistakes I rushed into.
What do you want to tell AIC’s readers about seminary/local church training as they consider vocational ministry?
Rusty: Beware of treating your seminary like it’s your church. Prioritize a local church during your education, no matter how hard it is to keep all the plates spinning. When you feel like you can’t do it all, lean into God’s grace and make sacrificial choices for the love of Jesus and others. Because here’s reality: ministry is a lifestyle of spinning plates and feeling too weak to keep up with it all. Also, leaders are learners. Just because you graduate from school doesn’t mean you stop learning. The skills of endurance you pick up as you strive toward faithfulness in learning and serving a local church assists you in ministry.
Finally, humble yourself in the local church during your seminary experience. Park cars. Serve in kid’s ministry. Serve in areas of obscurity. The knowledge you gain in seminary can puff you up. Temper the temptation to gush what you learned in class on the single mom overwhelmed by her kids by serving the single mom overwhelmed by her kids — putting others before yourself is the way of Jesus. We are nothing if we gain knowledge without love. We gain nothing if we obtain training without compassion. Earn your degree in such a way that you acquire a heart of compassion for those the Lord calls you to lead.
Ryan: Don’t neglect the value of being stretched in your theological and intellectual development as you train for ministry in your local church. I had a great Lead Pastor as I was training who made me read widely and pressed me to grow.
Make sure you ask questions of your leaders like, “Where am I weak in my knowledge? Where do I need to develop in my gifts? What do I need to do to best fulfill my calling?”
Also, be willing to do the tasks required with joy in your heart. That might look like scrubbing toilets, manual labor, meeting again and again with someone who is struggling with a point of theology or practice. This is ministry and it shouldn’t change as you take more senior positions in the church. You might do less lifting and more reading, but we serve the Servant King who washed the feet of his disciples. Scrubbing a dirty toilet or two is a good way to grow to be more like Jesus.
A Final Thought
Whether you feel compelled toward seminary or local-church training in your pursuit of ministry, as in anything, petition the Lord in prayer, seek wise counsel, and hold the path you wish to take with an open hand. Ministry is full of “funny” things God chooses to do with plans you think you’ve made. Trust him ultimately, and know your heart-attitude toward him and his people is more important than the track you take to get where he’s leading you.
Do you think that you might be called to vocational ministry in a local church? Take the Am I Called Assessment to help you discern your calling.