I love seminary students. I love the fact that those who populate these institutions will be sent out all over the world to serve as pastors, planters, missionaries, teachers, scholars, and more. Yet, many students find themselves "flaming out" during their time in seminary. I remember some of my classmates crashing and burning emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Now, as a former seminary student and current pastor and professor, I think I can see some of the biggest dangers for seminary students. These are not the only dangers, but some of the most common I've seen.
1. Scripture becomes a textbook to teach from rather than the Word of God
Because you spend so much time in seminary studying the intricacies of the biblical text, there is a tendency to mentally move toward viewing the content of Scripture as something you master for a grade rather than something to be mastered by for increasing Christlikeness. You must make a conscious decision, and a daily purpose, to remain "under" the Word so that you do not elevate yourself "over" the Word.
2. Examining every sermon as a case study to be critiqued rather than being confronted, conformed, and encouraged by the preaching of the Word
When I was in seminary, church life was difficult. Why? I became so arrogant with what I thought I "knew" that I couldn't just sit under the preaching of the Word. I examined everything the pastor said and criticized it for content, flow, and precision. I thought I was being spiritually discerning. I wasn't. Instead, I was arrogant and unteachable. Now, well into pastoral ministry, I think that many of the sermons I criticized the most were actually good sermons. Once you leave the classroom and enter the pulpit, you realize that they are two different animals. If you become so sure of your grasp of how a sermon should be preached that you can no longer sit under someone else's preaching, you need to repent and consider dropping out of seminary life for a while. You are in sin. Period.
3. Thinking that being a seminary student makes you a special class of Christian
This is a subtle sin, but it is a real and destructive sin. There is an urge to feel attending seminary validates one’s faith and spiritual growth. False! This is a form of works based righteousness. You feel that God must view you as more worthy of His love and sacrifice because you are now one of the select few who attend and participate in seminary life. Dear seminarian, examine your heart and kill this sin before it shipwrecks your faith. Too many young believers attend seminary, seeking validation. If that is your goal, you are on an endless journey. Stop. Rest in grace.
4. Substituting the seminary for devotion to the local church
It continues to boggle my mind. Every year, I learn of seminary students who used their pastor's endorsement to get into seminary and then they drop out of church life! Truth: your professors are not elders. Okay, some are likely elders in a local church, but the seminary is not the church. It is a tool of the church to prepare students for ministry. But it is not the church. If you go to seminary and abandon devotion to a local church, you are definitely falling into danger #3 and you are in both rebellion and spiritual danger. There are 59 "one another" commands in the New Testament (come on seminarian, you should know this — and yes, these commands apply to you) and you cannot keep any of them without devotion to other believers in a local church. If you are not devoted to a local church, you shouldn't be in seminary. (Oh, and while I'm at it — using your pastor for a reference only to drop out of the church . . . that's a form of intentional deception. You know he wouldn't endorse you going to seminary if he could foresee that you would drop out of church life.)
5. Wasting the good gift of an education by being lazy
For the record, if you are lazy, you are biblically unqualified to serve as a pastor. So, why are you in seminary again? Students who attend seminary and produce poor grades, due to a lack of effort, are demonstrating themselves to be unqualified for ministry. When I see students with a strong mind producing poorly and failing to meet deadlines, my stomach turns. Why? Because it means that some desperate church will likely hire this man who has poor character to shepherd the souls of that church body. A pastor of poor character will destroy a church. Some students struggle academically. I get it! Some of the best pastors I know struggled in seminary. Their struggle was due to a lack of academic ability, not because of laziness. I think, all churches should require recent seminary graduates to disclose their GPA and to provide letters from seminary professors as to whether or not the student worked hard in their courses. Laziness is a severe character flaw. This can change. Don't be lazy.
6. Assuming that the seminary makes you qualified to be a pastor
The seminary exists to prepare you for ministry. It does not determine your qualification for ministry. We have so corporatized the pastorate that it resembles secular vocations. In secular vocations, you become educationally qualified for a position and you are hired. The local church should not function this way. Scripturally, local church elders determine (after a long period of examination) whether or not a man's aspiration to the office of elder (pastor) is legitimate. This has to be a lengthy process because the biblical qualifications listed in Titus and I Timothy have nothing to do with oratory skill. They have everything to do with character. All Scripture demands for a pastor's skills is that he can teach Scripture. It doesn't dictate how well he can teach, only that he is understandable. However, examining a man's character takes months and years. The seminary does not take the place of biblical examination for eldership qualifications. The seminary equips men to be pastors if the local church (after following a biblical examination process) affirms their aspiration to serve the Body of Christ as a pastor.
7. Ignoring dangers 1-6.