I haven’t missed a single fall or spring semester of “school” since I was five years old. I’m now 30 years old, and I’m not even done with my MDiv yet. And I now intend to complete a PhD! Am I a glutton for punishment? I might be, but I hope not. It’s been a long journey, and it’s not going to stop any time soon. I don’t give you my biographical chronology positively or negatively; I only mention it as a point of fact and to establish that I can speak authoritatively as one painfully acquainted with such things. I have been at this theological education game now for some time.
I started out playing football and getting a Bible college degree right after high school. I eventually transferred to a Southern Baptist liberal arts college in Arkansas where I received a bachelor’s in biblical studies with an emphasis in theology in 2008. It took me five years in all. Some have said I was taking a victory lap, but I prefer to think I just have a healthy propensity for plodding. Two of those five years I was a part-time youth pastor. It was awesome to be able to have live subjects before me to work out my learnings in the classroom.
As soon as I graduated, I went full-time at the church but also entered into an MDiv program where I took courses on Mondays. Mondays were technically my day off at the church. To be honest, it was somewhat of a sacrifice to give that day to study. In all, I pastored 6 years, two of which I was getting a bachelor’s and four of which I took 3-6 hours at a time on the MDiv level. Just slowly marching towards graduation.
Then I moved to Washington D.C. to do a pastoral internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which allowed me to gain 12 more hours of seminary credit. From there I moved to Louisville to do on-campus work and finally finish my MDiv. Or so I thought. You see, ministry kept getting in the way, or so it seemed. I’ve always found that theological education and local church ministry go hand in hand. The one fuels the other, really. I now live in Kansas City, work at Midwestern Seminary, and am still about 15 hours away from finishing my MDiv. Theological education, especially if you are pursuing an MDiv, can be a long, possibly painful, slightly expensive, time consuming, messy, and all around arduous process. It’s a beast of a degree! You can get a bit of vertigo along the way if you’re not careful, but if you steward this gift well it can produce an almost incalculable yield.
Here are a few of the motivations that have fueled me along on the long journey:
1. Never stop doing ministry during your degree:
This implies that you are to join a local church as soon as you are able. With that said, the only way you will both survive and thrive is to reciprocate your learning with other Christians and church members. Teach Sunday school. Take a pastorate at a little struggling church. Lead a small group. Take a part-time youth pastor position and shepherd those teenagers. Teach a children’s class. Oversee Awanas. Meet in one-to-one Bible readings with unbelievers. Do pulpit supply. Doing constant and real ministry is key to your theological degree remaining pertinent and alive. It saves it from becoming merely ethereal and theoretical.
2. Recognize your degree for what it is:
Getting a theological degree is actually not about getting a degree at all. It’s a formalized way of equipping for the calling the Lord has placed on one’s life. Theological education doesn’t click you in to some higher level in heaven or on earth; it’s merely a tool, a stepping stone to get your head, heart, and perseverance prepped for ministry in the real, not the abstract.
3. Take professors not just classes:
To keep up your stamina, your passion for the work will need to remain stoked. Nothing does this like a man who has been caught afire by what he believes and teaches. Take professors who have bent their entire life around their discipline.
4. Cultivate a taste for it:
I started out pretty much hating reading, writing, and hard thinking. I just wanted to preach. But somewhere along the way, this great crowd of witnesses - these scholars, pastors, professors, preachers, writers, and teachers - got to me. They got to my affections. I wanted to know God the way they knew him. I still do. I wanted to know and understand the Bible the way they know it. There is a proper place for romance in this thing. Yes, knowledge can puff up (1 Corinthians 8:1), but that is not an imperative to be stupid or to neglect the life of the mind. You can’t love in God what you don’t know about him. Discipleship is certainly more than mind work, but it is not less!
5. Recognize seminary is a practice field:
If you don’t have an eschatological position nailed down, write a paper on it. Figure it out. Structure your papers and assignments in such a way as to fill the holes in your thinking. This is a concentrated time where you get to smooth out the rough spots and get the answers that you don’t have. Because, trust me, when you are sitting across the way from a young, now widowed woman, you’ll need the answers to the questions circling around in her head about the goodness and sovereignty of God.
Reading and writing are the friction points of your thinking: It’s really basic, but reading and writing are germane to thinking. These two tools operate as fodder for your evangelism, discipleship, sermon preparation, and conversations. It is a gift and a delight to write academic papers at a high level—even the footnotes part. Reading and writing is the playing field upon which God tests, concretizes, and charges you up for the work of ministry.
I don’t regret embarking on this long journey one bit. In fact theological training has been as important to my call to ministry as the call itself. I challenge you to do the harder thing and start your own theological journey of education. Come and be shaped by the rigor and the process. I think you won’t regret it.