For many pastors, time spent in formal seminary training is one of the most joyful seasons of life. Most seminary students are in their twenties or early thirties, learning not only of God’s word, but also how to walk by faith in all spheres of life. Toward that end, I offer here five steps for maximizing the seminary experience.
Be ready to repent. Seminary brings fleshly thinking and habits to the surface. If it is the case that the Word exposes sin, the more time we are around the Word, the more we are exposed. And this is good news! Can you imagine how fleshly our churches would be if we did not have seminaries as spheres of learning where we might discover and deal with fleshly patterns of thought? Since the Word is central to all courses at MBTS, it follows that a school like ours is a place where students and faculty alike are confronted about all sorts of fleshly living.
It may be that seminary uniquely exposes areas of prideful comparison and competition. When students receive graded papers, they are tempted to ask how fellow students scored; when grading a Hebrew grammar quiz in class, students are tempted to score themselves as highly as possible; when sharing about the number of evangelistic encounters they have had, seminarians want to be sure that their efforts do not go unnoticed. When faculty get noticed for this or that speaking event or publication, they are tempted to use their platform for self-glory or academic posturing. So, the Spirit confronts these fleshly patterns of thought and empowers the seminary community to repent and walk in the humble power of the gospel.
Prepare for financial struggles—and miraculous provision. The records of heaven are filled with accounts of God’s faithfulness to young men and women, sometimes with children tagging along, who step out in faith to attend seminary. Most seminary students begin the journey with little cash to spare, initially seeking God to provide a job. And He does. I meet student after student who note how God provides flexible work through which they can both make it to class and make ends meet. During the seminary years most students run into a financial bind—or two. And this is part of God’s curriculum for pastors: in leading a church post-seminary, men of God will need to personally know of God’s faithfulness if they are going to lead the flock to walk by faith. Upon graduation seminary students, often with tears, detail how God provided through extra work, an anonymous gift, the kindness of their local church, or a generous family member. God has yet to be unfaithful to meet the needs of the church, or her leaders in training.
Take advantage of various learning platforms seminaries provide. MBTS prioritizes residential education and we want students to personally learn from the faculty. There is no substitute for life-on-life learning from men and women who serve also as mentors. Paul’s command that Timothy teach to faithful men what he had heard Paul teach (2 Tim 2:2) has in view face-to-face human relationships. But online education at MBTS, and many seminaries, provides students opportunities for excellent education in a more flexible schedule.
At MBTS, several online classes exactly reflect residential classes: same syllabus, same instructor. Even the most sought after residential teachers also teach online. This ensures that students have the same core learning activities whether at 5001 N. Oak Trafficway or in New Jersey. And MBTS faculty teaching call all of their online students at least once per course. Since a physical classroom environment provides affective educational opportunities, young seminarians should enroll in residential classes with their favorite professors and courses of special interest. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to not take advantage of online course offerings even if these would comprise the bulk of a seminarian’s curriculum.
Prioritize studying the biblical languages. Many of the course subjects offered by seminaries surface also in the breakout sessions of major conferences like T4G, The Gospel Coalition or MBTS’s own For the Church Conference. But I have yet to attend such a conference where breakout sessions included analysis of the seven Hebrew verb stems or the points of commonality and distinction in certain Greek prepositions. Knowledge of Scripture in the original languages provides the highest degree of doctrinal clarity—and opens windows for addressing all sorts of issues in view at major conferences. Since seminaries are the central institutions for researching and teaching the biblical languages, young seminarians do well to get from a seminary what can be acquired most easily at a seminary, i.e. Greek and Hebrew grammar and exegesis classes.
See the local church as a classroom, too. If the hallways and classrooms at MBTS could speak they would speak of students conversing about the happenings of their local church. Midwestern Seminary’s “For the Church” mission compels students to both teach in and learn from a local church to which they belong as a member. So, the experiences students enjoy in a local church are not just sterile performance; students contribute to the family of God as gifted brothers and sisters. Within the local body, seminary students may participate in a scaffolding of opportunities for leading, teaching, and serving in all sorts of capacities: some students are able to complete an internship program that provides a high degree of structured experience; others no less faithfully take advantage of various opportunities the local church might provide them. Whatever level of service a seminary student is able to complete, they find that local church participation coheres seminary coursework with the Great Commission.