With the start of another academic year, seminary students around the country are preparing to continue or begin their studies in preparation for ministry. “Preparation for ministry” implies at least two things: (1) traditionally (and hopefully), seminary students attend seminary because God called them to minister the Word of God to the people of God; and (2) since seminary is a time of academic, spiritual, and vocational preparation for ministry, there are challenges and joys specific to this season of life. This essay is written primarily for new seminary students beginning such a season.
The Call to Ministry of the Word
God calls every Christian to ministry. As Paul explains, the risen and ascended Lord Christ gave the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd teachers to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). The Christian life is a life marked by love for others in the places where they live, work, play, suffer, rejoice and die. We may call such love ministry or service (the same word in Greek). A Christian who is not “in ministry,” then, is not a Christian. God calls some Christians to a particular public ministry of the Word — teaching Scripture, intercessory prayer and ministry of the sacraments. This minister of the Word lives and serves to equip other Christians for “the work of ministry” in the church and world. Educating men and women in the ministry of the Word is the fundamental purpose of a Christian seminary.
If you are beginning seminary, I assume God called you to this ministry of the Word. I assume you intend to give your life to the work of ministry for the church’s ministry in the world. A call to such ministry implies, too, that Christ has gifted you with spiritual gifts such as teaching, encouragement, and leadership that result from and confirm his call. If you are starting seminary, I hope you have taken time to evaluate your gifts and to test your calling. If you have not tested the call with the help of your family, pastor and congregation, I encourage you to do that now, even if it requires you to wait another semester or year to begin seminary.
Christians in America do not lack resources to help discern a call to ministry. Recent resources such as the Call to Ministry Network and Kristen Padilla’s book Now that I’m Called can help. You should consult other resources that can help you learn the nature of the work, such as The Work of the Pastor by Scottish pastor William Still.
Prioritize the Call and Sacrifice Accordingly
If God called you to the ministry of the Word, you must prioritize this call. If you intend to give your life to this ministry, you must order your seminary season of life accordingly. That is, give your life to it now. Evaluate your priorities and commitments in life. Do your work commitments exist, as much as possible, to help you learn the ministry of the Word? Or do you hope to fit the ministry of the Word into an already busy schedule? Do you need to live in a certain place that meets your current or preferred standard of living? Or can you reasonably relocate to facilitate increased learning opportunities in ministry? (If you will not move now to learn the ministry of the Word, why will you move later to do the ministry of the Word?) Do your extracurricular activities support your learning as a minister of the gospel, or do they distract you from eternal things? In order to prioritize the call to ministry, you will need to make sacrifices. Christian pastors, professors, and friends, however, will support you all the more in your effort to grow in the practice of Christian ministry. At Beeson, we try our best to recognize student sacrifices and provide scholarships to support such commitments to Christian ministry.
In this consumer-driven era of seminary education, you will probably read less of this kind of advice. And advice is only advice; it may or may not align with God’s will for you. However, we tend to find that seminary students who prioritize their call to ministry and plan their lives accordingly tend to thrive in seminary. Such persons typically thrive in ministry after graduation. Your time in seminary will be more beneficial now and in the future if you prioritize your call.
Commune with Christ Daily
Seminary is a heady experience. However, it is supposed to be heady, and it is meant to be hard. As my colleague, Mark Gignilliat, often says, “seminary is not church camp.” You will read new ideas, new terms and names (some of them in Latin, German, or French), study Greek and Hebrew (we require four semesters of both at Beeson), stand up in front of professors and peers to preach the Bible and drink a lot of coffee. Seminary is graduate school. It should feel more academically challenging than college.
Yet, seminary is not merely graduate school. Seminary assumes that spiritual, intellectual and emotional transformation takes place while you study theology. (Those of us in seminary education should do more to make these assumptions explicit objectives for our degree programs.) The books you read and the professors and classmates you interact with will make tremendous spiritual, intellectual and emotional impressions upon you. Even so, they cannot commune with Christ for you.
Every person who is a new creation in Christ Jesus can and should commune daily with God by his Word and Spirit. As you begin seminary, then, continue or develop the life-giving spiritual discipline of daily fellowship with Christ. Feed on his words. Confess your sins and ask for grace. Pray for your sanctification. Pray for your family, classmates, professors, church and neighbors. Also, pray through your studies. You plan to spend three or more years studying Scripture and books about Scripture. Imagine your personal growth in Christ if you daily ask God to transform you into the image of his Son by the Spirit as you read those texts and learn from your teachers.