In recent months I’ve had the joy of talking to a few young men who are thinking about seminary. With that in mind, I want to share seven words of advice that come from my own experience, which includes choosing a seminary, going through seminary, helping found a seminary, and now teaching at that seminary—Indianapolis Theological Seminary.
These words of counsel are not foolproof, but hopefully, you will find them faithful.
- Your church, more than your seminary, will shape the formation of your theology.
When I went to seminary, it became immediately apparent who the most mature students were—they were the ones who had gone through a pastoral internship at church just down the street from our nation’s capitol. Immersed for a semester or more in this church, these brothers had thought deeply about the church and had been shaped by the pastors and the community found therein. As a result, they came to seminary with a great understanding of the church and pastoral ministry. Moreover, their theological training built on a solid foundation of practical and practiced church ministry.
At the same time, other students sat in the same classes and believed the same doctrines but whose experience in the local church differed. As a result, this second group tended to maintain the pragmatism of their churches, even when their theology, defended in class, did not match the church’s methodology.
Certainly, there are other healthy churches besides the one highlighted above, but the point remains: Where you go to church matters. And, in my limited experience, where you go to church will shape your views of ministry more than the classes you take in seminary. So, as you go to seminary, do not forsake the local church or ignore how your local church will confirm or deny the faith you profess.
- Your peers, more than your professors, will shape your ministry.
As an extension of the last point: who you spend your time with in seminary will shape a lifetime of ministry. This is true in at least two ways. First, as a seminarian, you will have questions—lots of them—and insights, challenges, and so on. And in your day-to-day life, you will not always be able to bounce those questions or concerns off of your professor—unless your professor is also your pastor, Sunday School teacher, etc. More likely, you will be learning with your peers—peers who will become some of your closest friends. These friends will inform the way you think, who you read, what you value, what you reject, and what you might reconsider. In short, who you spend time with in seminary will have far-reaching implications.
This leads to the second point. Your fellow seminary sojourners will be the ones you stay in touch with throughout your ministry. Today, there are a handful of seminary friends who I phone or text every week or two, and there is a slightly larger circle whom I consult for various decisions monthly. These friendships have had a massive impact on how I see life, ministry, and the Bible. They introduce me to ideas, authors, conferences, and other resources for doing ministry. And frankly, they are a lifeline for me in the difficulties of ministry. So cultivate friendships as you go to seminary, for they will have a major impact on your growth as a Christian—pastor or otherwise.
- Your personal connections, more than your accumulated degrees, will decide the direction of your future ministry.
Closely connected to the friends you make in seminary are the acquaintances you make. These connections are often the means by which pastoral positions and/or ministerial opportunities open up. This reality comes with wisdom and warning.
The warning is that you can go to seminary only to make connections, climb the ladder, and find a position after seminary. I remember hearing about one student who came to seminary to make close acquaintances with a certain seminary leader. I can’t say what his real intentions were, but from the first day he stepped on campus, he found his way into this leader’s inner circle, and his path towards ministry was set after that.
Such an approach can be mixed with good intentions or disguised in all sorts of ways, but ultimately it makes seminary a time of politicking that is unhealthy for life and ministry. That’s the warning: don’t make networking the ultimate goal of seminary.
At the same time, there are others who so isolate themselves in study, such that they make none of the relationships that they will need to sustain a healthy ministry. When you look at Paul, he was constantly surrounded by others. And it is not too much to say that who we connect with in seminary will have a significant impact for years to come.
We must remember ministry is more than data-gathering and information dissemination. Ministry is relational, and connections in ministry often come through personal knowledge. Paul himself says at the end of 2 Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” Wouldn’t it be better to be called to a place of ministry because someone personally recommended you for service based upon their personal knowledge of you and the church to whom they direct you? Paul knew Mark because John Mark had previously withdrawn from service (Acts 13:13). But now, Paul knew he had matured and was useful for ministry, and so he called him.
It is very possible to spend all your time in the library, with family, or by yourself in seminary. Every person is different. But at some point, there should be a discipline of making time for others, especially those in your local church. Again, your life and ministry in the local church is the place where your gifts should be tried and tested, and it should be in the local church where your gifts are used to build up the body non-vocationally so that it might become clear to others that your gifts would qualify for vocational service. But this only happens when you build a relationship with others.
- Build a library of books that you have not read, as well as books you have.
In addition to building relationships, seminary is a time to read books, especially the Book, and if possible, so far as your resources permit, to begin building a personal library. Truth be told, the best theologians (e.g., Augustine, Calvin, Edwards) had fewer books than most pastors today. That said, they had the right books and made use of them as they studied, preached, and wrote about the Bible.
Today, we have a wealth of books, and we should not discount the blessing and value of acquiring a library. In fact, in a recent post defending the possession of unread books, I came across this gem.
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books) and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an anti-library.
What a glorious concept: the anti-library. A collection of unread books that are still waiting to be explored and by which the child of God, who is a minister of the gospel, continues to grow and learn—even as he continues to learn how much he has yet to learn.
Truly, if seminary is meant to train the pastor for preaching the Word, it is also meant to train him for a lifetime of learning. You will not read in seminary all the books you need for that lifetime, but you can get a head start and begin to master (the literature) of divinity, if not divinity itself. For who is worthy of the title, Master of Divinity (MDiv)? All in all, whether in hard copy or digital form, seminary should be a place where you develop a love of reading and a growing library of resources from which to learn and to share.
- Personal study habits are more important than the location or reputation of your school.
Staying on the theme of study habits, it is important to cultivate good habits while taking seminary classes. This does not mean you need to get straight A’s in seminary to be an effective preacher. One of the most effective preachers of our generation, John Piper, remarked that he was a B-student at Wheaton. So grades are not the point, but study habits are.
In seminary, we not only learn to read, but we must also learn to think. And how we make arguments, defend those arguments, and research those defenses will shape how we preach, teach, write, and counsel. I dare say that those who have been caught plagiarizing sermons picked up their habit in seminary. And just the same, those who model faithful biblical exposition also honed those skills in seminary—or, in some pastoral-training equivalent.
For this reason, I would urge all aspiring seminaries to make the most of their opportunity wherever the Lord places them. This is more important than where that place is. A world-renown school is worthless if habits of study are not cultivated.
Currently, I teach at an unaccredited school, but that does not mean the students are lesser-caliber—(they’re not!) or that the workload is any lighter (it’s not). If you put in the work, you can get an excellent education at ITS or at any other school. Yes, who you study with matters, but there are many examples of faithful servants of God who have gone to less-than-faithful schools. Therefore, you should seek to go to the best school you can, but don’t think that school’s name is what makes one a faithful theologian. In seminary, put the time in to develop good study habits, wherever you are.
- Stress in seminary is as much a part of the training for ministry as any class.
Finally, don’t chafe at the difficulty of seminary. As one of my fellow elders likes to say to parents of young children who are facing sleepless nights and frequent emotional outbursts: “Don’t worry. It only gets harder.” Such counsel is true and loving, and realistic.
The same is true with ministry. The burdens you bear in school will only be matched and then exceeded by what you find in ministry. In a word, pastoral ministry is hard. It is good and grace-filled, but it must be grace-filled to handle the hardships. And therefore, one of the great blessings of seminary—its deadlines, its workload, its assignments on top of assignments, plus all the family matters that pertain to marriage, work, kids, taxes, car repairs, and Covid—is the stress it provides.
Though the spirit of our age invites us to avoid stress and seek comfort, seminary is meant to give the aspiring shepherd an ongoing measured dose of stress. Just as high altitude running makes the body produce more red blood cells to oxygenate the blood, so the mountain top experience of seminary. However, breath-taking in every sense of the word is meant to equip you for future challenges in ministry.
In seminary, one of my professors championed the goodness of baseball for disciplining his boys. Why? Because Little League puts twelve-year-old boys in a safe but stressful environment. Alone on the mound, with three men on base and zero outs, the character of a pre-teen pitcher is going to come out. Will they pout? Will they cry? How will they respond? You cannot know until the stress is applied.
The same is true in seminary. The stress reveals who you are. And for anyone going into ministry, seminary provides a place to see weaknesses in the friendly confines of the seminary community. (Which presupposes a seminary or church community, not just online classes sans community). Admittedly, seminary is not the only place for this. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 require pastors to be proven shepherds of their families. And thus, seminary is not an absolute prerequisite for elders. But for those who can go to seminary, it is essential to remember: The stress is a blessing, not a curse, and the hardships of that time—extended for 3, 4, or 5+ years—are just as much a part of the training as anything found in class.
- Go to seminary.
In the end, if the Lord grants you a desire to study his Word and he opens the door to go to seminary. If nothing providentially hinders you and your pastoral mentors do not advise against it; you should go to seminary. Again, please don’t take my word for it. Seek the counsel of those who know you. But as a general rule of thumb, if you are desirous of shepherding and teaching God’s flock, go to seminary.
I loved my time in seminary. As a pastor and professor, not a day goes by when I do not put to use something I learned in seminary. And not week goes by that I talk to someone I met in seminary. And so I write these six, even seven, perspectives as an encouragement to go to seminary if the Lord provides the opportunity.
May the Lord continue to raise up faithful shepherds, and may he use pastors, churches, and seminaries to train them for a lifetime of ministry.