I wrote this to a seminary student who was offended by a remark I made that it was a heresy for the church to require pastors to attend seminary. Unfortunately, he never left me an email or anything for me to contact him back. So I am going to inflict my letter on you. Hopefully somebody gets something out of it.
I am sorry if you were offended at my comments about the requirements for seminary. It is not that I think a seminary is a bad place to be, I just think that there is much in it that shouldn’t be requirements for ministry. Yet most denominations require seminary for their pastors to be ordained. In fact, for some denominations, a seminary education almost guarantees you a place in ministry. This situation causes many of us—whether in or out of pastoral ministry—to think more highly of those who are educated than the Bible says we ought.
It says in Scripture that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In other words, we often get an education to prove our self worth. This is why we get degrees and want to get good grades, to prove that we have accomplished our tasks of learning and obtaining knowledge. But that is not the basis of ministry. The basis of ministry is self-sacrifice, the giving of who we are into people’s needs, action based on compassion.
This does not mean that an education is wrong. It’s fine. It is especially helpful in our society when people respect those who have knowledge. But we must set aside the unspoken assumptions about this education: that seminary will prepare us to do ministry, which is based on love, not knowledge. An education is an aide for some, but it is not a requirement for a ministry of love. Knowledge is an assistant in preaching and in understanding both doctrine and the history of doctrine. But this is all background, not the real thing.
When I was striving after my degrees in order to be ready for ministry, there are certain things that I wish someone would have told me, to put things in perspective, as I was in my studies. Some of them I learned in school, some of them I learned later. I am going to share them with you now, even though you didn’t ask. Perhaps they will be helpful to you, perhaps not. But since I’ve been a pastor for some ten years, I’ve learned some stuff and yet I still remember what it was to be a student. So, here’s the advice that I would give myself as a divinity student:
a. It’s all about Jesus. The history of doctrine and the various arguments about Bible passages is significant, but if we lose sight of Jesus—His life, His ministry, His death and resurrection, all for us to imitate—then we have lost what is most important. In the midst of our discussions about the rapture or the nature of the soul, we must not get distracted from the One whom we are to serve and the One whom we are to be. Ministry isn’t about knowing about Jesus, but living Him out.
b. My knowledge is as apt to be a distraction as a boon. Just as the man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, so the man with book knowledge assumes every problem can be fixed with facts. This is rarely true. If we were engineers or mechanics, then the facts are all important. But when working with people, it is most important that we communicate the truth, not have it. And to communicate we need to listen more than talk. We need to know the one to whom we are communicating, and only then will we succeed in communicating successfully. Thus, we must know people more than we know facts. Facts are easy, people are hard.
c. The end of our schooling is the beginning of our education. Part of a seminary education is to help us understand the gospel in a deep way. However, the best that seminary does is give us the tools to learn. It is the Spirit that leads us, after the schooling, to use our skills learned to understand the Truths that will be significant for us. Graduation is our entrance into the School of the Spirit.
d. Ministry is not based on what we know, how much money we have or the position we hold. Ministry is sourced by the Spirit of Jesus. Note that when Jesus was preparing for ministry, he didn’t go to school, but to the wilderness. The only knowledge he obtained is how to trust the Lord. To heal others, he did not need theology, but dependence. This does not mean that He did not have knowledge, as He did. But the key to his ministry was power and knowledge from the Father, not the power or knowledge from humanity.
e. The goal of education is not good grades or even graduation. It is to learn what Jesus wants us to learn. This may mean that Jesus will want us to not spend so much time on grades as people. Or He may want us to share the time of learning with those in need we could assist. The time of learning is in God’s hands, not the educators.
f. Seminaries are based on the Platonic model of universities. The assumption in that model is that if one has knowledge, then one will act on that knowledge. However, we know that the Pharisees had knowledge, but the didn’t act rightly on that knowledge. Jesus’ method of education is based on some teaching and some modeling. Most seminaries give an opportunity for practicum, but it may be difficult to find a model. Look for someone to model yourself after, who is already doing the ministry you think you might do—and so this would likely not be a professor. Ask if you could spend time with them, just observing. This may seem weird, but it is how we learn, by imitation, not conceptually.
g. Remember this: our time in seminary does not make us ministers. And a true minister is not a professional. There are people who have never had a college class who will be better ministers in some ways than we will ever be. We must remain humble, not seeking the better salary, not seeking recognition, not seeking the larger church, but instead only seeking the will of God. We need to remember that Jesus will laud the ministers without titles, without a salary, without glory, without any recognition whatsoever, but have been faithful, than the ministers who have all of that. So let us seek the praise of Jesus, not the things of the world.
h. A minister is not just a servant, but a slave. The term Jesus uses for his most honored leaders is slave, the least, the insignificant. So Jesus’ plan for us, if we are truly to obtain His greatness in ministry, is to do the dirtiest tasks, hang with the nastiest people, live in the worst parts of town in order to accomplish the greatest work. We may never get anything for it—in fact, our only reward may be rejection by all whom we hold important in our lives—but it is what Jesus seeks for us that is most important. Perhaps we will also get a good salary, perhaps we will also get a large church. SOMEBODY’S got to do those ministries. But even if we do, we must remain real—still hang with the lowly, still do the nasty tasks. Still be the slave.
In order to make our time in seminary preparation for our life in Jesus, we must keep our mind on the goal—being like Jesus at all times, even while we are learning. Pray that we will be Jesus, not just learn about Him.
If you’re still reading, Adam, thanks for listening. Hope I didn’t offend you more, but I hope that you can get something from what I have learned.
May the Lord grant you to obtain and make peace,