I am a pastor at a small church plant in the north of metro Kansas City. Our geographical location affords our church with much: we are simultaneously close to a couple of very diverse college campuses, to downtown Kansas City and the northern suburbs, we are always within arms reach of the worlds best barbeque, etc. Another fact about the geographical location of our church is that we are nine miles away from a major seminary – Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Due to our proximity to the Seminary, we have many seminary students who attend and are members of our church. I, myself, am a student at Midwestern. Since this is the case I’ve been able to spend much time observing how seminary students engage the local church while the Lord has them where they are for however long they are going to be there. I’ve seen some do this extremely well; they’ve been supreme members of our church and have benefited our plant tremendously. On the other hand, being a highly functioning member of a church didn’t come so easily, and others have come and gone. With that being said, here are some observations and tips for how to be a healthy member of a church while in seminary:
1. The gospel is first
This might seem like an obvious observation, yet the gospel should never be assumed. Hopefully, while you are in seminary, you are preparing for a lifetime of making much of Jesus with the gospel through your ministry. Let that start in the membership of your local church. Be a gospel-drenched seminary student. This means many things and can’t be fully explained in the context of a single blog post. Here is one way to practice this: put others in your church first – serve others as much as you can, love all areas of theology and study them with all of your might, yet be peculiarly interested in gospel matters, leverage your gifts to help fellow members treasure Jesus Christ and his gospel, etc.
2. You are not entitled
You are a seminary student who is well versed in the theology of Calvin, Augustine, Luther, and others - we get it. Yet that alone isn’t enough reason to demand pulpit time on your third week visiting the church. While this may feel like an exaggeration, here is something that is not – you should be marked by humility. The gospel would have you realize that you deserve nothing except for the wrath of God. Therefore, any pulpit time, small group time, leadership opportunity, or anything in between should be understood as gifts of God’s grace – not entitlements because of your status as a student. Pursue leadership in your church, yet do it in a way that is void of entitlement and full of grace and humility.
3. Don’t be “clique-y”
As humans, we are naturally attracted to like-minded people who are in a similar stage of life as us. For you, seminary student, that is going to be other seminary students. We’ve seen this be the case in our church. Young, married with one or no children seminary students flock to others who are in that exact situation. This can end up creating a “student” vs. “non-student” culture that isn’t reflective of the gospel. Since you’ve been united to Jesus Christ you don’t have to have the same class schedule to get along with a fellow Christian. The gospel has brought you and any un-educated single mother who is in your church into the same family. I would strongly advise you to develop life long friendships while in seminary; you will need them. Yet, I would also strongly advise you to allow your time in seminary to be spent in the living rooms of fellow non-student members. Let your time be marked by loving those in the church and this will greatly sharpen and strengthen your ability to “shepherd the flock of God that is amongst you” in the future.
4. Don’t be “weird”
I admit, this last one is a bit of a “catch-all,” yet it still needs to be said. Many times seminary students can be, well, weird. While they might not actually be weird, the other non-seminary members of the church can perceive them that way. Don’t allow this to happen. If you find yourself only surrounded by those who are in your seminary community, or if you’re not able to have “small talk” with non-seminary folk – you are probably already in danger with this one. One day, if God wills and is supremely gracious towards you, you will lead “normal people.” You will never pastor or lead a church that is full of nothing but seminary students (and you never should.) Therefore, you must be able to operate amongst the children of God who operate and function in the everyday, actual world.
As seminary students we must view the local church as grace. When we see her we must see the blood-bought people of Jesus Christ that we are training to give our lives for. You, seminary student, should be a member of a local church while in seminary and moreover, you should be deeply in love with that local church – with all of her blemishes and warts included – give the best few years you’ve got to her.