Monday, February 08, 2016

Twenty-five Years in the Seminary Business, Part 3: What to Expect From Seminary

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.)