For those starting college or seminary education, I know it can sometimes be intimidating or overwhelming. And for those who don’t feel a little intimidated or overwhelmed, you may need to prepare yourselves, lest you get caught off-guard by the challenges of your studies and the seminary culture. Maybe the following few words can serve in this regard. Respectfully submitted:
1. Attend and serve in a local church.
Seminary is not a sabbatical from discipleship. If you’re attending school away from home, the temptation can be great to go on ecclesiological autopilot, and the sad fact is that many Bible college students and seminarians do. So while they spend most of their days for two to four years thinking about theology, worship, discipleship, and church ministry, they do so totally disconnected from the only God-designed context for these things. Don’t let your studies be purely theoretical. Biblical studies are bogus without the spiritual formation they are meant to foment.
Join a church and get involved. Serve in the kids or youth ministry or on the tech team or as an usher or greeter or parking lot attendant. Get your armpits sweaty with regular ol’ church work. It’s good for your heart and can help you stay grounded as your studies alone might keep you wrapped up in your own thoughts. Being involved in church community also helps you learn to love people, which, oddly enough, some seminarians need help with. Remember, the Lord has not called us to build empires, plant cool organizations, or strategize missionally apart from a faithful love and care for the sheep. The church is people, not a Big Idea. If feeding sheep is not your primary motivation, your seminary education will be worthless.
2. Spend 10x as much time listening as speaking.
You’re learning a lot. You’ve got a lot of ideas and strategies. Your theology is getting deeper and stronger. And of course you know exactly how to fix the church’s problems. The only problem is you really have no idea what you’re talking about. There will be plenty of time later to fix everybody. Right now, while you’re young and inexperienced, it’s not time to hand out pastoral advice, write gigantic thinkpieces on The State of the American Church, or argue with every Tom, Dick, and Harry about every strand of theological minutiae you can think of. Just sit there, and open your ears. Don’t stop talking. But don’t talk more than you listen. You don’t have all the answers. You aren’t here to “fix” your church, your pastor, your professors, or anybody or anything else.
3. Chase the right things.
Holy ambition is a good thing. It is sometimes great for young Christians to have “stars in their eyes” as it pertains to following Jesus on mission. But too many young seminarians are thinking more about platforms, fame, notoriety, followers, book deals, speaking gigs, and so on than they ought to. Chances are, you shouldn’t be thinking about these things at all, except to help steer clear of idolatry. “How can seminary help me advance my career?” is not the first question you should be asking. Instead, ask “How can seminary help me be a faithful citizen of God’s kingdom?” How can your studies help you embody John 3:30? How can this special time in your life help you lean into the Lord and pursue personal holiness? Keep your eyes on the right prize. If you will be faithful in little, the Lord may then trust you with much. On that note:
4. Do not despise the day of small things.
The spirit of Zechariah 4:10 will haunt you day by day. Seminary will get old. You will just want to move on, already. You want that ministry position. You want to be selected for that group or team. You are ready to get beyond reading the books you reckon beneath yourself or behind your advanced learning. You want to bite off more than you can chew. One thing you will learn when you serve in a ministry role over time is that a lot of the things you do are things you have to do but don’t want to do. Ministry is unfortunately often driven by the tyranny of the urgent. There are emails to answer, voicemails to return, forms to complete, calendars to organize. In my last pastorate, I had ten books published and a speaking engagement every month, and I still had to photocopy my own handouts, set up tables for deacons’ meetings, and pick up stray bulletins in the sanctuary after services. How does this translate to your seminarian life? How about making sure you turn assignments in on time, keep your room or apartment clean, show up to your appointments, let your “yes be yes” and your “no be no,” and not think yourself as generally above the routine tasks and duties of ordinary life?
The strong seminarian is the one who acknowledges his weakness. If you try to do theological education in your own strength, you fail, no matter how good your grades are. It is more likely, however, that this experience will expose your weaknesses, reveal your idols, exacerbate your insecurities, test your patience, challenge your intellectual and emotional capabilities, and push you way beyond your comfort zone. What a wonderful opportunity, then, to take every little thing to the Lord in prayer! What a great opportunity to embrace the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, upon whom you are always relying anyway. Don’t shrink back from the challenge of your studies or the difficulty of distance from home and family. Press in with the Lord’s help by praying without ceasing.