How to Make the Most of Your College Education

by Matthew Emerson March 6, 2019

I was saved in the summer between middle school and high school and felt called to ministry in a few years later. I’ve always been a little obsessed with “efficiency” (think the Pete & Pete episode with the Efficiency Expert), and so when I was thinking about college and seminary my goal was to finish as quickly as possible. For a number of reasons, I chose to attend a state school for my undergraduate degree. One of the main reasons I did was because my then-girlfriend-now-wife decided to go there, but there were at least two other motivations for my decision. The first non-dating related rationale was that most of my AP credits would transfer, and so I could be done even faster than if I’d attended a different school (efficiency!). The other was that I followed the advice of one my pastors in high school, who told me to major in something I could “fall back on” if ministry didn’t work out – a different kind of efficiency, but efficiency nonetheless. All that most seminaries require for admission is a bachelor’s degree, and so I thought I was killing two birds with one undergraduate stone: I’d get the diploma I needed for seminary while also making sure I wouldn’t have to go back to school one day if ministry didn’t work out. So, I went to a state school, majored in a professional degree program, and finished as quickly as possible.

When I finished my degree a year early, my girlfriend-soon-to-be-fiancé and I decided I would stay in town while she finished her degree on time. In the meantime, I took twelve hours from a local SBC seminary extension center and worked at Chick-fil-a (praise God). It should have hit me then, but didn’t, that all my “efficiency” wasn’t really all that efficient. In any case, I then went to seminary and onto doctoral work and once again finished as quickly as possible. First, in my M.Div, I packed my schedule and chose the degree with the most elective hours. Then, in Ph.D. work, I chose a dissertation topic in my second semester (?!?!!) and wrote every paper I could in every seminar I could on my topic, barely editing them before dropping them into a “dissertation file” nearly two years later. And so, by the grace of God, I finished three degrees, including a terminal one, at age 27, during which time Alicia and I had our first two daughters, I worked five jobs at once, and we grew in grace and faith.

But if I could do it again, I would approach my education in a completely different way. Here are five things I wish I’d done, and that I recommend to all my students who feel called to ministry before they complete or enter into the curriculum for the major of their bachelor’s degree. One caveat – I know that some of the advice below is dependent on a variety of factors, including finances, marital and family status, employment, location, and the like. So if you can’t do what I advise below, don’t worry – God will equip you for what he’s called you to do, even if it’s not exactly how I lay out my advice that follows.

1. Focus on the basics. You’re not going to go into ministry situations quoting Aristotle or parsing Greek and Hebrew to people. But there’s a reason education has focused on a few key areas and skillsets for so long. Having a good grasp of history, Christian theology, the classical and biblical languages, and philosophy means that you have foundational tools in your toolbox that allow you to build thoughtful and theologically sound philosophies of ministry, preaching, mission, evangelism, and the like. You’ll also regret, as I do, not taking the time to learn those foundational tools in the classroom when you had the chance, because once you’re in the day-to-day of ministry (whatever ministry you’re in), it’s almost impossible to devote the time and attention you need to learn them.

2. Read classic texts and not just the books of the moment. In C.S. Lewis’ preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, he reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of thinkers who have gone before us and that reading ancient and historical texts pushes us to reconsider our own assumptions about God, his Word, and his world. Taking the time in your theological education to read ancient texts means that you’re doing what I recommended in the first point, that you’re hearing from the communion of the saints through the ages, and that you won’t be unduly influenced by only one contemporary author or stream of thought. All of that helps you develop critical thinking skills, too – something that’s too often overlooked in training good ministers of the gospel

3. Work out your classroom learning in ministry training. I took as many practical ministry courses as I could in seminary, and I took lots of language and biblical theology courses in seminary and doctoral work. The classroom environment for learning the content was invaluable, but without working it out in actual ministry it would have remained knowledge that merely puffs up. Love that builds up requires taking that classroom content and applying it to real people’s lives who you really, truly love. You can’t do that if you’re not serving in ministry in some capacity. Find a church where you can serve and make that your first priority after your devotion to Christ and care for your family. It doesn’t have to be vocational or professional service either – I learned so much from teaching Sunday school and serving in other lay capacities for two years before finally officially joining the staff two and a half years later. You also don’t have to serve in a well-known church or one in an urban setting; God is at work in the obscure places and in rural areas as much as he is through popular churches in cities and suburbs. The point is, don’t just be an egghead. Put your knowledge to proper use in Christ’s church. (There’s lots more to say here, like the fact that putting knowledge to use is not spouting #theologyfacts or parsing Greek verbs at people until they bow down to your superior intellect. But that’s for another post.)

4. Get a well-rounded Christian undergraduate education. Many who are reading this either already have an undergraduate degree, are too far along to change tracks or institutions for their undergraduate degree, or are already in seminary. But if you’re reading this and are still deciding on your major and especially if you’re still deciding which institution to attend, let me encourage you to attend a school that provides a robust Christian liberal arts undergraduate program. I went to a state school and majored in something that wasn’t ministry-related. I didn’t care about the core curriculum, either, in part because of #efficiency and in part because the people teaching it were mostly hostile to the Christian worldview. If I could do it again, I’d attend a school with a commitment to the Christian liberal arts vision and major in something ministry-related, especially if it gave me the foundational tools discussed in the first point. Receiving an education from experts in fields in the core curriculum who are teaching their courses from the perspective of the Christian worldview allows you to grasp how the Christian worldview speaks into all of life, from math to English to politics to world history. This is something that will serve you well in ministry, when you won’t just be talking to fellow theology or Bible majors. You’ll be ministering to doctors and teachers and farmers and lawyers and engineers and graphic designers and business women and men. Understanding how to minister to them means, in part, understanding the basics of their fields and how Scripture and the worldview we gain from it speaks to their jobs and outlooks and dreams.

5. Don’t rush. This point will be one of the shortest, but it’s not because I’m rushing through it. It’s because the point is simple – take your time. You’ll likely never again have the time or attention span to devote yourself to learning God’s Word and the attendant disciplines that help you study it and proclaim it and minister it to God’s people. Be thankful that God has given you the time and ability to do so, and be patient so that you can learn what’s required of you in a way that sticks. This isn’t the only thing that will help you finish well, but patience and diligence are two important ingredients in making it to the finish line.

Like I said, you may not be in a situation where you can follow all or any of these pieces of advice. That’s ok. God is faithful, he is with you in your ministry by the power of his Holy Spirit, he loves you in Christ, and he will equip you with what you need to minister to the people he has placed under your care. He equips those he calls, even if it’s not in the way I described above.