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.
Love the Church and Your Neighbors
The Bible clearly teaches the integration of doctrine and deeds, gospel and social justice, knowledge and love. That is, Jesus Christ affirmed and expanded the Old Testament commands to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength" and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Seminary provides a unique opportunity for you to grow in the knowledge of God. However, your growth in knowledge will be insufficient and even dangerous if you do not grow in your love for God’s people and your neighbors.
Jesus Christ died for the church, his bride. He came to seek and save the lost. God descends into the sinful pit of humanity to redeem humanity in his Son. If this is true (it is!), then those who know Jesus Christ and are set apart to minister his Word in the church must grow in their love for the church and the lost. In order to grow in love for Christ, his people and your neighbors, you should become an active, humble member of a healthy local church. In that church, you will be blessed to know God’s people and your neighbors. You will learn the daily struggles and joys of the church and your neighbors. You will learn to pray for them. You will also learn to receive their love, hospitality and prayers. You will receive spiritual food in Word and Sacrament. You will learn to love your neighbors well. As you grow in love, you will grow in your knowledge of God and the wisdom required for Christian ministry.
God's Providence Requires Your Patience
God may desire for you to become a famous blogger in your first year of seminary. However, that is unlikely. God may desire for you to know with absolute certainty what your life and ministry will look like three or four years from now. That, too, is unlikely. As I learned during my time in seminary, I wanted foreknowledge about my path. I wanted to know what was ahead of me so that I could decide what to do during and after seminary. Through the love of a local church and the counsel of wise Christian professors and friends, I began to see my wrongheaded, unbiblical thinking.
I learned that only God has foreknowledge. He gives his people faith. I learned that God reigns over and in history; therefore, his providence is real. He gives his people patience. I learned this in hindsight. I could not have predicted, much less planned, the path God had in store for me during and after seminary. In no way did I think I would return to my seminary as a professor and associate dean. God’s providence worked out in my life — as it does still — so that I would learn to grow in faith. Growth in faith bears fruit with godly patience. God directs our paths. As Proverbs teaches, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). God’s providence requires your patience. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be a learner and follower. Learn to wait on his timing and his path as you follow him during seminary.
Prepare for Suffering and Embrace Costly Discipleship
Waiting on the Lord often involves suffering. This is because Jesus Christ suffered for us in his ministry. If we are united to him by faith, we will also suffer in ministry in him. As Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave his life for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is a cruciform life. Christian ministry, too, is cruciform.
Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that during your three or more years in seminary you will experience suffering. Yours may seem manageable, or it may nearly kill you. It may involve the death of a loved one or the betrayal of a friend. Whatever the specific type of suffering, you will suffer during seminary.
We live in a Pollyanna society that teaches us to avoid suffering, even inconvenience, at all costs. We drink deeply at the well of American or Western prosperity. Thus, we tend to think that God would not dare allow us to suffer. But this is a false gospel. The gospel declares the resurrection of Jesus Christ through his death, his victory by way of the cross. Learn to become more gospel-centered and less Western by preparing for suffering.
You should prepare now for that possibility by reviewing the realities of Jesus Christ’s cross and the promises of God. Read and pray the Psalms, especially the psalms of lament. Examine the apostles’ plan and pattern of ministry, which was a cruciform ministry. Learn the lives of Christian pastors, missionaries, and families in church history. Develop and deepen friendships with fellow seminarians and professors who will support you during suffering.
Embrace costly discipleship by preparing to suffer in seminary. As you do, you will grow in your love for God and his people. Both God’s love and God’s people will become essential for you during suffering. Thus, costly discipleship makes us more faithful ministers of the gospel. Strangely, but beautifully, suffering works for God’s glory and our good, even during seminary.
Finally, remember that seminary is school. You will be asked to read books, essays and articles. Practice patience in God’s providence (and, perhaps, endure some suffering!) by trusting your administration and professors. Read the books they assign in their courses. As you read, you will learn about the advice I have given above and more. You will grow in your knowledge and love of God, his Son, his church and your neighbors. You will prepare for suffering or endure it well. You will learn to minister the gospel with wisdom and grace as you learn from others who did the same. You will develop the necessary skill of theological reflection for the sake of ministry. As you develop, your skills will develop into habits of the mind and heart. Thus, you will learn how to begin a lifetime of learning that will advance into a lifetime of faithful ministry.
If you do not read books, Scripture or otherwise, you should call into question your “calling.” I do not say this because God only wants heady intellectuals for pastors. Instead, I urge you to recognize that you may think Christian ministry amounts to zeal without knowledge. It does not. Even worse, your refusal to read may reveal a refusal to learn from others that demonstrates a hubris and ignorance that will harm God’s people.
If, however, you commune daily with Christ and prioritize God’s call on your life, you will want to read God’s Word and many other books. You will enjoy the labor of learning biblical languages, theology, history and preaching. You will grow in your enjoyment of God. This will be a good and fruitful way to live the Christian life. It will be a good and fruitful way to prepare for seminary.
Contact us if we at Beeson Divinity School can help you discern your call to ministry or prepare for seminary.