Monday, February 08, 2016
When I started seminary almost forty years ago, I had no idea what to expect, and probably had not really thought about it. I had just graduated from college (having crammed my four years into six) and most likely considered seminary as just another three years of college. The church I attended was in transition, and I did not know the pastor very well. He told me nothing about seminary. The candidates committee of my presbytery was also mum on what to expect from seminary. I have the distinct impression that most students attending seminary today are in the same boat. They have vague ideas about classes, and being prepared to be pastors, but beyond that, they are clueless about seminary. As a result, many find themselves feeling overwhelmed in their first pastorate, and blame their seminary for not properly preparing them for the rigors (or even the day to day trials) of pastoral work.
My first recommendation on what to expect from seminary is to keep your expectations low. No seminary can possibly prepare you for pastoral work. All that most seminary curricula do is to give the student an introduction to basic tools and skills necessary for pastoral work. The student will need some knowledge of the biblical languages and principles of interpretation in order to prepare sermons that are actually based on the text of Scripture, and are not just flights of fancy. Some knowledge of church history, including denominational history, is also necessary. Systematic theology is needed to help men differentiate between truth and error. Instruction in preaching and counseling and education and missions also form part of the curriculum. And there you have three years of seminary. Most seminaries also require an internship in a local church. This is ostensibly where the student learns to use the tools that the classes have given him. Whether it does or not is another issue and that is usually out of the hands of the seminary and in the hands of the session of the church where the internship is done. Some internships are very good; some are not.
My second recommendation is that you use seminary to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not a self-starter, you probably will not do well as a solo pastor. Are you thin-skinned? You won’t do well in the pastorate because Christians can be astonishingly hateful. Intellectual ability and an interest in theology will not necessarily make you a good pastor. Make use of your professors, fellow students, spouse, and pastor in figuring out whether you really are gifted for pastoral ministry.
My third recommendation is that you be generous to your professors. Recognize that some of them will be very able, others will be merely competent, and some (hopefully few) will be borderline incompetent. Most seminaries try to hire faculty who have spent some time in pastoral work so that they can bring some practical considerations into their lectures and assignments. But just because they spent some time in the pastorate doesn’t necessarily mean they were very good at it. Their interests and aptitudes may be more scholarly or esoteric than pastoral.
Fourth, don’t be in a big hurry. Make good use of your classes, especially those you despise or think lightly of. You’ll be surprised how often that knowledge will later come in handy. It may be that due to family pressures, financial considerations and other factors, you have to take an extra year or two to finish. That’s part of God’s providence. Your being “late” to the pastorate is not going to delay the coming of the kingdom, and it may save you some heartache later on.
Finally, “Be humble, carry low sails, walk softly all your years. Be not proud of your gifts, graces, privileges, or attainments: but remember ye were children of wrath, even as others.” (Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.)
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Some men, thankfully not many, do not come to seminary to learn. They already know everything. Of these, there are two types: loud and quiet. The loud ones make their presence known in every class (and outside of class). They regularly question/correct their professors. They frequently are busy “teaching” and correcting other students. They make it clear that they resent having their pet theological theories questioned. Usually these men are bright (though not as bright as they think), but not nearly as well-read as they seem to think they are. They present themselves as authorities on everything, but generally have one special area that they have “mastered.” This area has become the center of their theology, and they are unhappy with anyone thinking that it might not be, or might not need to be, the center of everyone else’s theology. For the most part, they do well academically, but no one is really sorry when they graduate. Professors tend to refuse writing recommendations for these men because the perception is that they will be a disaster in pastoral work. They lack two chief characteristics that are necessary not only for being a good student but also a good pastor. They are neither teachable nor humble. Most of these men, if they remain in pastoral work, generally do so by taking small churches that eventually become populated by a group of folks who simply agree with the pastor on everything.
The quiet ones are harder to identify. They share the lack of humility and lack of teachability that is characteristic of the loud ones, but they hide it by simply keeping their heads down. They work diligently, and do well academically, but they never really learn anything. They leave seminary with the same ideas they had when they began. I suspect that often these quiet ones have chosen a seminary that is really not in tune with their basic theological convictions and they decide simply to wait it out. When they graduate and take a call to a church, they pastor the way they would have had they never been to seminary.
Sometimes, these non-learners (both the loud and the quiet) get educated in the school of hard knocks, when ruling elders and church members refuse to put up with their arrogance. Eventually, they begin to grow and occasionally even prosper as pastors. But the road would have been less difficult had they come to seminary to learn.
Why do these folks go to seminary? Probably because their denomination requires them to have an M.Div. They come for credentials, not for learning.
Why do churches and presbyteries (and other church bodies) send these men to seminary? I suspect that sometimes it is just a way for a church to get rid of someone who has become obnoxious to the church. Sometimes, the church hopes that seminary will indeed teach them something and make them useful in gospel work. Often, presbyteries do not really know the men well. It has become something of a habit in the PCA that men do not come under care of their presbytery until they are already most of the way through seminary. But that is a discussion for another day.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
I realized at the end of the 2015 Fall Semester that I had completed twenty-five years of teaching at GPTS (I began in the Spring Semester of 1991). There are many seminary professors who have been teaching loner than I, at larger schools, who therefore have more experience than I do. But I intend to put down some of my reflections based on the last twenty-five years.
First, in general, students entering seminary today seem to have a weaker grasp of the content of the English Bible than they did when I started teaching. That’s bothersome to me. I remember when I went back to my home church after my first year of seminary. There was an older lady who said to me, “How wonderful it would be to just study the Bible all day.” I didn’t correct her, and perhaps that’s the view many people have of seminary. But English Bible is only part of the curriculum. There are languages to be learned. Church history and theology have much in the way of required reading. Even the English Bible courses are often more concerned with technical issues, than with a mere recitation of content. Then there are the extra-curricular activities that seminary students get drawn into, such as teaching Sunday school, occasional supply preaching, and the demands of family life. So a student who comes to seminary with a weak grasp of English Bible content likely will not leave seminary with his understanding of the English Bible much improved. This is further confirmed by the fact that many men, even after seminary, do not do all that well on presbytery Bible content exams.
So my recommendation is that those who are contemplating attending seminary should work first on their grasp of the English Bible. Read it regularly and carefully. Develop your own outlines of the books. Yes, study Bibles and other books provide such things. But if you spend the time working out your own outlines, they will be more meaningful, and stick with you longer than those pre-digested outlines that have been provided for you.
Second, it might be the impression of many that seminary is where men learn their theology, so that the perspective of the school would naturally have a significant effect on a man’s theological commitments. However, I’ve found that not to be the case. Usually a man comes with his commitments already in place. A man’s commitments generally reflect the commitments of the church or the pastor under whom he began his growth as a Christian. Further, a pastor will generally direct any of his men who are considering seminary to a school that is congenial to his own commitments. So in general, seminary will give a man greater theological sophistication, but rarely will it alter his basic theological commitments. More on this next time.
Saturday, January 02, 2016
At this time of the year, many people are resolved once again to read the Bible through in a year. But there are various hindrances to the fulfilling of that resolution which lead most to leave off the project well before it is finished.
To begin with, I would say that the Christian should feel no compulsion about finishing the Bible in a year. It’s merely a convenient way of thinking about it. There are plans for reading through the Bible in two years (http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/tgc/files/2010/12/TGC-Two-Year-Bible-Reading-Plan1.pdf) or even three years (http://www.moodychurch.org/static/uploads/globaladmin/bible_reading_plans/bible_threeyear.pdf). There is even a Bible reading plan for slackers and shirkers (http://www.ransomfellowship.org/publications/notes_biblereadingprogram.pdf). The point is not necessarily to get through the Bible in a specified period, but rather to be reading regularly in the Word of God. But there are hindrances even to that goal.
First Hindrance: An Inability (or Limited Ability) to read. If the reader is not a reader, there is a simple solution. Get an audio Bible and listen to the Bible. For the person who reads, but not well, I would recommend one of the simple-language translations of the Bible, such as the New Living Translation, the Contemporary English Version, or the New International Reader’s Version. Reading levels of various translations can be found here (http://www.mardel.com/bibleTranslationGuide) and at similar websites. I don’t ordinarily recommend those simple-language translations, but for the reader who does not read well, they are a decent place to start. For those who either don’t read, or don’t read well, I also suggest that you attend regularly a church where the Bible is read and preached from on a weekly basis (this applies more generally to all, regardless of reading ability). That will help you not only to read the Word, but to understand the Word.
Second Hindrance: Parts of the Bible are Boring. Absolutely right. The directions for building the tabernacle in Exodus 25-40; the sacrificial and cleanness regulations in Leviticus; the seemingly endless pronouncements of judgment in Jeremiah, all are places where people suddenly lose interest in reading through the Bible. So skip them. Especially if this is your first time through the Bible, you can glance at the subheadings provided in most modern translations and decide if you want to read, to skim, or to skip. Some parts of the Bible are more important than others. On the other hand, you might at least try reading these sections, going for the big picture and trying not to get lost in the details. After all, most of life itself is boring. Why should the Bible be any different?
Third Hindrance: I Don’t Understand It. Again, absolutely right. The Bible, being the Word of God, is as deep as God himself. I have been studying the Bible since I was converted 42 years ago. I have been studying it in a more professional manner since I began seminary 38 years ago. I have been teaching the Bible at the seminary level for 25 years. Though I understand a great deal more of it than I did when I first started, there is much that I still do not understand. The man who claims to understand all of the Bible is a liar and a fool. So recognize at the outset that there will be much you don’t understand. Pray for grace to understand as much as you can, and pray for patience to struggle through the parts that are completely incomprehensible.
Fourth Hindrance. I don’t have the time. Wrong. How much time do you spend on social media, television, movie streaming services? Surely there are fifteen minutes you can carve out of every day to spend time in the Word of God. Not every day’s reading will be a profound spiritual experience. But a daily dose of the Word of God will, carried out patiently over time, produce the fruit of God in your life. So go ahead. Try it.