In a recent series over at the Gospel Coalition, a buddy of mine wrote about how he wouldn’t trade his seminary experience for anything. It was a deeply formative experience of learning, joy, life, pain, and spiritual growth. I found myself nodding my head in agreement. I loved my years in seminary, not because they were perfect, but because in God’s purposes they were key for forming my character and ministry instincts.
That said, seminary can be a dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re getting into.
Addressing himself to pastors, seminarians, and professors within the seminary culture at large, Paul David Tripp writes of the attendant dangers when it comes to the way pastoral training is undertaken nowadays. He tells the story of a friend whose passion for gardening his roses led him to become an expert in all things concerning roses. He was technically proficient and knew all kinds of arcana when it came to the care and growth of roses. One day though, as he was working on his garden, he realized that it had been years since he’d actually taken the time to enjoy his roses without working on them. Tripp then asks:
Could it be that this is very close to what a seminary education might do to its students? Is it not possible for seminary students to become experts in a gospel that they are not being exposed and changed by? Is it not dangerous to teach students to be comfortable with the radical content of Scripture while holding it separate from their hearts and lives? Is it not dangerous for students to become comfortable with the message of the Bible while not being broken, grieved, and convicted by it? Is it not important for seminary students to be faced daily with the personal implications of the message that they’re learning to unpack and deliver to others? Is it not vital to hold before students who are investigating the theology of Christ the frequent and consistent call to life-shaping love for Christ? Could it be that many students in seminary are too academically busy to sit before the Rose of Sharon in awe, love, and worship? Could it be that in academizing the faith, we have unwittingly made the means to an end the end? Shouldn’t every Christian institution of higher learning be a warm, nurturing, Christ-centered, gospel-driven community of faith? Could it be that rather than having as our mission students who have mastered the Book, our goal should be graduating students who have been mastered by the God of the Book?
I can attest that in my own years in seminary, one of the greatest challenges was to see the text as something more than a puzzle to be solved, but rather a Word to obeyed. I’d be lying if I didn’t still struggle with having a devotional life that doesn’t immediately slide into some kind of study session. Resist this at all costs.
I don’t for a minute want to discourage an future pastors or current seminarians from digging in to their time at school. What I would urge you is the heed the warning in these questions. Fight to keep a real devotional life. Do not ever see the text simply as a task to be conquered, but strive to be conquered by the text. Open your study sessions with prayer and stop in the middle to pray regularly. Do not leave seminary with a shriveled devotional life.
Pastors, do the same as you prepare for your sermons. If this didn’t happen to you in seminary, it might happen as you enter the professional life. One simple but key question to always ask yourself after all the exegetical research is done is: “How am I putting this into practice?” Not, “how can my people put this into practice?”, but “how can I be engaged with it?” Your studies of the text are not done if you have not gotten to the personal level, and eventually your preaching and pastoring, if not simply your personal holiness, will show the signs of this neglect.
If you’re a seminary prof reading this (which I’d be surprised at because there are much smarter things for you to be reading than this blog), please pastor your students. I loved that a number of my brilliant professors at seminary had also cut their teeth in the pastorate, and that even the ones who hadn’t, still encouraged us to deeper levels of discipleship, not just technical proficiency. Even if they resist you, don’t listen to them. They are the students, you are the professors: assert yourselves here. They need this and so do the congregations they will eventually pastor.
Finally, I’d encourage anybody in formal ministry, connected to it, elders, pastors, or involved parishioners to read this book. If you’re in seminary, it might help you cut off some signs of spiritual disease early. If you’re a pastor, it might save your ministry. If you’re on a search committee, it might help you know how to look for a pastor, not merely a professional. If you’re an elder, it’ll help your congregation care for the pastor you already have.
Soli Deo Gloria