The Advantages of On-Campus Seminary

by Mike Brooks August 17, 2017

This week is significant for many seminaries across the country. Orientations, student move-ins, and syllabi abound. A year and a half ago, I sat in a banquet hall, hearing the ins and outs of what seminary life would be like, and wondered if I'd made the right decision in uprooting our lives. We'd moved halfway across the country to begin a degree, and left behind a church I'd helped start, a lot of familiarity, both our families, and more than a handful of lifelong friendships.

A few months ago, I reflected on all the things that led us to where we are now - living in Kansas City and attending classes on campus at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It's funny looking back. The same things that were our impetus to pack our belongings are the very same things that keep us tethered to the seminary community here.

I'm writing in hopes this finds its way onto the screen of the man or woman maybe in their late-20's who's gone back to school and is now doubting whether they have made the right decision. Or the man or woman back online again, checking out campus housing and jobs in another city, wondering if they should make the leap. I can't assure you beyond the shadow of a doubt, but here are a few my own motivations for pursuing seminary education "on the ground." I pray they sink deep with you as you wrestle.  

#1 – Discernment + Affirmation
Throughout my time spent on staff, I occasionally felt the rumblings. Perhaps we’re about to move on, maybe something different is coming along. Our Lead Pastor graciously allowed me time to sort out those feelings on a number of occasions and, when the time came that those inklings had substance, he moved in to pray alongside us. As I felt more surety about the decision to move away for seminary, I shared those thoughts with our team of elders and met individually with a couple of them to talk through it more. I cannot explain to you what it meant to have other brothers, who I love and trust, look at me and say, “Do this.” It was a loosening of the fetters and I’m grateful for their gospel-saturated wisdom.

#2 – The barbecue in Kans…
Just kidding. Kind of.

#3 – The vision of Dr. Allen at Midwestern
I had only even heard of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary a handful of times through Jared Wilson’s blog before it was sort of thrust upon us as the only reasonable option for my studies. In fact, I only seriously considered one other school. The kicker here?

Three words: For. The. Church.

Since our move, I’ve become a bit more proficient at poking around on websites to assist with making life-altering decisions, but this was my first foray. I spent hours on the MBTS website and picked my way through Dr. Allen’s blog. I stumbled across a collection of posts he had written to cast the “For the Church” vision and my heart soared.

My deepest fear about tiptoeing anywhere near the academy was the perceived disinterest of schools in the on-the-ground ministry of the local church. Dr. Allen upped the ante. Not only would he lead a school that was for the ministry of the local church, that is all the school would be for. No mixed signals. No smoke and mirrors. MBTS is unashamedly for the church. You shake it, that’s what comes out.

Don’t misunderstand – there is an amazing culture being built here around the more scholarly aspects of ministry. Brilliant minds scaling the heights and plumbing the depths of thoughts surrounding Scripture and ministry. And in many ways, I feel I’m being grafted in. I deeply treasure the scribbles from professors on my papers, the side conversations that are unknowingly helping me flex some badly out-of-shape cognitive muscles, and peers who just refuse to let me off the hook theologically. But the end in mind here sees scholarship and pastoral ministry wed together, existing much more as close friends than bitter enemies. A vision for a resurgence of the pastor-scholar is bubbling up and Midwestern is poised to help toward that end.

#4 – The desire to ensure my doctrine is sound.
Could this be worked out within one’s ministry position at a local church? I’m almost positive it could. Was that the case for me? Seemingly not. And that's no dig on the church I was in. Things were just...busy. To borrow a phrase from the leadership gurus, sometimes it is necessary to work on it, not just in it.

For years I found myself in the thicket of pastoral ministry. In the throes with real people struggling with real problems who needed real help. More than once, I sat on the opposite side of my desk or stood behind the pulpit and doubted seriously that the words spilling from my lips had any real grounding in the truth of Scripture. That singular thought terrifies me even now. Thankfully, the burden on the pulpit was not squarely on me as I wasn’t the main teaching pastor, but I was given enough responsibility in handling the Word that it caused me to shudder.

On the heels of the single most ministry-altering conversation of my life with one of our college students, I made a commitment that I would never again be left doubting if what I said was a.) truthful insofar as it reflected the truth of Scripture and b.) brimming with the gospel to the point of overflowing.

Enter: MBTS.

I’m sure you could skate by and leave a lot on the table if you wanted, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to get things worked out. And my physical presence on campus, re: in the classroom, has already given ample opportunity for that.

Much more than submitting an online quiz or a take-home writing assignment at 11:59pm, I think what I really needed was professors and peers who would poke and prod at my much-maligned theological “understandings.” I didn’t know it yet, but I needed to see the passion of men who’ve dealt with the text for decades, bringing its truth to bear on the hearts and minds of another generation of up-and-coming pastors and ministry leaders. I needed a dear brother to talk me off the ledge of moving back home when it was difficult at first. And again when it was difficult the second and third times, too. I needed to spend time walking in and amongst the rows and stacks of smelly books in the library, awed at all that has been written and sometimes wondering if there is anything left that hasn’t been. And, fittingly, I needed to be reminded that there are still things yet to be put on paper and prodded to get to work. I needed to rub elbows with men who have “platforms” in our Christian sub-culture and who never seem to act as if they do. I needed the three question marks next to a sentence I’d written in full confidence. I needed that short conversation in the hallway on the way to class and another one over a pulled pork sandwich. I needed that chapel sermon from 1 Peter and that one lecture on Edwards’ aesthetic theology. I need it. All of it. And God knew I needed it before I even thought to ask.

All in all, what I mean to say is that what my time on campus at MBTS has afforded me goes above and beyond what I ever could have imagined it would. You might think I’ve over-romanticized this whole ordeal – that it couldn’t possibly mean that much. I can’t really argue from your end, but what I can say is that it has meant that much to me. And, if left to make the decision all over again, knowing what I know now, you should know I’d be turning in my application and renting a moving truck before you finish reading this sentence.

I've got to believe whatever church I end up serving in or leading in the future will be better because of the time I've spent here. It has become cliche to encourage one another to trust the process of things, but it's where I find myself. Ultimately knowing this season of preparation is sending my roots deep, fashioning in me an unwavering commitment to the truth of Scripture and a love for His people that even the worst storms will not undo.