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  • What Seminary Missed

    Jim Wallace

    “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” -2 Tim. 3.16-17

    Last week, as I contemplated whether the asbestos tile in our children’s area was hazardous, how to raise money for a new plan for outdoor gathering space behind our church, the limits of zero based budgeting and regression analysis, how to properly honor a departing staff member (this was just a regular Tuesday!), and many other things, I couldn’t help but think “seminary didn’t prepare me for this!” Several things are going on here and should be sorted through a Gospel lens:

    1. Some of that mentality is simply making excuses, skirting responsibility, avoiding God’s charge. You should repent of that now, realizing that excuses and blame-shifting will not lead to fruitful ministry even if its true!
    2. Some of that mentality is expecting too much of seminary. Just as we shouldn’t expect the pastor of our church to do all the leadership, preaching, discipleship, evangelism, training, etc., we shouldn’t expect seminary to fill every gap of preparation. Idolizing seminary as a “god of what shoulda been” will lead to frustration and failure.
    3. Some of that is also a false dichotomy — as if we have Time Period A,  which is preparation for ministry, a clean break, and then Time Period B, when we  actually do ministry. Disciples of Jesus will instead be doing ministry while they are in formal preparation AND will continue to prepare for future ministry after their calling to vocational ministry. Just a cursory reading of the pastoral epistles reveals constant admonition for Timothy and Titus to fan their gifts into flame, to watch their personal character, to be patient in opposition, to study the Word more deeply, to run programs of care with greater compassion and efficiency. They are pastors, leaders, preachers, overseers in Jesus’ church, yet they are learning, growing, and preparing still — and Paul puts most of the accountability for that growth (though not all the responsibility) on the minister. If you’re currently in formal training, serve, give, speak the Word in every context and season. If you’re in vocational ministry, grow, get counseling, get a mentor, take a class, create a plan for constructive feedback. Don’t wait on someone else to be responsible for your growth.

    Having said that, there are real deficiencies, too. The passage above led us to believe that classroom teaching on preaching, interpretation, exegesis, and languages would fully prepare a minister to enter vocational ministry in the church. When others suggest that there are other factors necessary to becoming a fruitful minister, they are accused of impugning the sufficiency of Scripture itself. However…

    It is not that the Word of God is insufficient, but the limited application of God’s word.

    It is not only sufficient for preaching but for every aspect of life. After all, Jesus Himself told us that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12.30).

    Seminary taught me to love God with all my mind, but I needed to learn to love Him with my heart, soul, & strength as well.

    Paul says to Timothy that the man of God must be “trained,” made “complete, equipped for every good work.” To be “trained in righteousness” by the Word means to have all of myself devoted to and brought under God’s authority, which includes my leadership, my emotions, my relationships, my background/family of origin, on and on. Preparation for ministry is, in Paul’s terms, a “training” for battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. One of the battles for which I was unprepared was the battle in my own heart, body, and mind as the toll of ministry falls. After all, there’s a reason Paul has to urge Timothy to “remain”! (I Tim. 1.3)

    My time in seminary was absolutely invaluable yet necessarily inadequate preparation for ministry. In seminary, I learned how to love the truth but I did not learn how to discern my motives in presenting the truth. I learned how to interpret Scripture but not how to use it to train others. I learned how to define Biblical terms like pride but not how to mortify the pride in my own life. I learned how to illustrate the spiritual armor in Eph. 6 but not how to use the armor. I learned about loving difficult people but got little chance to practice it.

    One of the most difficult people you must learn to love and pastor is YOU! Much of what is necessary in ministry is learning how to engage again after being hurt, how to deal with wounded pride, how to gain the courage necessary to enter back into people’s lives when fear is prevalent, how to deal with personal betrayal without becoming numb inside, how to repent of your own sin, how to know which conflicts are right and necessary and which are simply “irreverent babble (I Tim. 6.20, 2 Tim. 2.16)” to be avoided, knowing in what situation to admonish, encourage, rebuke, help, or show patience (I Thess. 5.14, Titus 1.13), how to have faith in the purposes of God when you see destructive sin up close and personal, how to avoid fatalism when decisions go against you, how to wrestle with your lack of ability to control others (even when you know you are right), and how to cultivate serious gospel-centered friendships. I have always been impressed with the description of the seminary experience created by Bonhoeffer:

    “The first classes at Zingst were, for the newcomers, a breathtaking experience.  Suddenly the realization burst upon them that they were not there simply to learn new techniques of preaching and instruction, but were to be initiated into something that represented altogether revolutionary prerequisites for those activities.”

    Since you can’t go to Bonhoeffer’s seminary, immerse yourself in community, confess your sin, get counseling, walk through your story/family of origin, and most importantly, learn to hear the beautiful Gospel of grace spoke in abundance over your entire life (Zeph. 3.17) — God loves you and sings over you in Christ, taking away your need to prove yourself, control others, despair over betrayal, protect yourself, or lose heart. Instead you can trust and enjoy the One who lost all, endured all, and paid all for you AND your people.