My time in seminary was perhaps one of my sweetest moments, yet the hardest time of my life. Seminary isn’t for everyone, but it was crucial for me and was a formative time in my own spiritual journey. It has prepared me tremendously for the calling into full-time ministry.
But seminary didn’t teach me everything. It certainly didn’t fully prepare me for ministry. I realized after going into ministry that some things are just hard to learn in the classroom.
I have learned and grown over the past 9 years in a church ministry context. It has been eye-opening and at the same time a sad reality as I’ve seen many of my friends who’ve been hurt by the church, dropped out of ministry, and left the church altogether.
Here are 10 things I wished I learned in seminary that they never taught me.
1. People really don’t care about theology.
I recall my first year in Bible college where I was excited about all the theology classes I was taking. Going into ministry I soon realized that not everyone was excited and talked about theology as much as my professors and I did in seminary.
In a ministry setting, churches rarely ever split over theological debates. Majority of the time, they care more about their personal preferences such as the genre of music or the color of the carpet. As a pastor, you have to be able to navigate through those gray areas of ministry.
That does not mean throw theology out the window, however, it does mean we should be prepared to go beyond what we’ve learned in a systematic theology class in seminary.
2. Different churches have different expectations.
Since every community is different, it is key to “read” a community. I’ve now worked in three different church settings. Each time I had to change how I viewed organizational structure and administrative tasks.
Find out what your congregation’s expectations of the pastoral role are and do your best to meet the ones that are most important in your ministry.
3. Ministry can be tough.
Ministry is just tough. There were many times I felt like I wanted to simply throw the towel in the ring. call it “quits,” and be done with it all. There are not enough volunteers to fill the gaps, people are not happy with the direction of the church and move to elsewhere, the unspoken expectation of ministry that seemed to never be able to be met, the shiny beautiful picture of church ministry that was once spoken of in seminary is nowhere to be seen.
Trying to lead the congregation and struggling through it was dreadful, but the difficulty was inside the workplace where the leadership culture sucked the life out of me even more. It was within the pastoral staff that there was a higher demand and more requests and suggestions from the deacon board that I was not prepared to deal with.
4. It is difficult for change to take place.
There is no change without conflict… and we must learn how to deal with it when it comes.
Some seminarians think they can just convince others of truth, and they’ll obviously get on board with God. Sadly, I’ve seen how a few fresh seminary graduates who go into ministry and lead can damage the church or cause a split as they divide and conquer with a, “My way or the high way” mentality.
Ministry, though, is about the heart as much as the head. Only God can change both.
5. I ought to pray more.
We talked about prayer, but we didn’t model prayer so that prayer became part of our DNA.
I understand that some say this is not the role of the seminary, but I argue otherwise. We must give attention to this discipline, lest we produce ministers more dependent on their training than on God.
6. People can be very mean.
I can count countless pastor friends who are no longer in pastoral ministry because they were beaten left to right by the church like a punching bag. I mean, yes, these are sinners. But for a fellow brother or sister in Christ to be backstabbed?
There’s nothing as beautiful as the church, but at the same time, there’s nothing as hurtful as the church.
We should expect sinful people to be like that, but somehow, we all leave seminary expecting a perfect church. They are not out there. So, care for people, but also care for yourself with rest and with support so that you can handle it better when your sheep bite.
7. Marriage and ministry fit together.
This is the truth: I can always find another church position. The church, at the end of the day, doesn’t really need me. However, my wife? I don’t get a second chance with her. I had to protect my marriage for life even if it means losing my job.
Seminary never taught me about balancing my marriage and my ministry. I can’t have my marriage on the back burner waiting or ministry will constantly invade that sacred time. At times, it means not answering the phone. People will demand, “It’s an emergency!” No, it’s not. Every “Yes” to ministry is a “No” to your family. Saying no to ministry means saying no to work. It does not mean saying no to God.
God may have called you to ministry, but he’s called you first to your family. Ministry will not stay there whether in sickness or in health. Ministry won’t stick around rich or poor, but you have made the vow to your wife, “till death do us apart.” Cheating your family for the sake of ministry forsakes your ministry.
8. Your degrees really don’t matter much.
I’ve learned for the past several years in ministry that people need to feel my care before they hear my message.
Now, I believe seminary is a wonderful thing that helps train pastors to fulfill their calling as faithful men of God. Thus, I hope all churches will seek seminary trained pastors. However, just because a pastor has an M.Div. degree from a well-known seminary doesn’t make him a good pastor. At least, I’ve learned that being in ministry.
Theodore Roosevelt said it well, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
9. Be a leader more than a preacher.
In seminary, we’ve taken a homiletics class (Biblical exposition) on how to deliver sermons, yet not much on leadership. You may be a solid communicator, but if you can’t lead well you’ll severely cripple your congregation.
You’ll struggle to recruit and keep volunteers, build a healthy staff, and build a healthy church culture. You’ll struggle when the issues you’re brought aren’t black-and-white, and when you can’t simply quote a verse and move on. Leading people through difficulties and change will shape your ministry.
10. How to make disciples.
Seminary never taught me to find disciple-makers or how to make disciples. We weren't training church members how to carry out the Great Commission. True, we had evangelism classes, but nothing like the practical stuff that would come along a few years later in the church to make disciples who make disciples.
My primary role is to make disciples who make disciples.
Welcome to the Real World
Seminary was a bubble. The real world doesn’t think, act, or talk like people do in seminary. If you act like a seminary student the rest of your life, you’ll be pushed to the fringes of real ministry.
Hang in there. Pastors, you are not called to be successful, but you are called to be faithful.
May the Lord grant you strength and wisdom as you lead the change in your local congregation this week.