Guest blogger: Jon Saunders, Assistant Pastor of Campus Ministries at University Reformed Church
I’m finally done. After years of seminary papers and tests, plus a semester of walking through an ordination trial I’m finally done. I’ve graduated from seminary, passed my presbytery exams and have been ordained as an assistant pastor in the PCA. While the process is still fresh in my mind I thought I might write down a few thoughts on the process that might be encouraging to others still in the process.
1) Work Hard
In the preaching of God’s word hangs the eternal reality of heaven and hell. If a person never hears of God’s saving grace, then a person will never believe in God’s saving grace. A pastor’s role is no joke. Or as John Piper would say it is not even just a profession. Pastors serve as undersheperds for God’s flock that has been purchased by the precious blood of Jesus. This calling demands the hard work of preparation. Seminary and the ordination trial is that preparation.
Of course there are some practical limits to the amount of study you can do. I’m married and have four little kids. I couldn’t study as much as my single friends. But I still wanted to study hard. A seminarian who cuts corner in school, will cut corners in the pastorate. An academically lax student will not magically transform once he is ordained. Set patterns of hard work now because those patterns will stay with you for the length of your ministry.
The number of men who downplayed the role of seminary discouraged me. Their attitude seemed to be “do just enough to get by.” C’s may get degrees but don’t generally result in good pastors. The reality of heaven and hell is too great to have pastors who simply get by.
2) Don’t Complain
Complaining is always a sin. It is never allowed. But complaining about your professor who is asking you to exegete the Bible seems exceptionally sinful. Resenting a presbyter who wants to safeguard the church by having a rigorous ordination process is not a reason for complaint. It is a reason for thanksgiving.
Don’t complain how tough the process is. The process needs to be tough to weed out those that are not qualified. Plus, you knew what you signed up for. None of what you are experiencing should be a surprise. Thousands of men have done it before you. Thousands will do it after you. Nobody is bending your arm to make it through.
Whenever I was tempted to complain I thought of my friends in medical school or law school. Pastors aren’t the only ones who are put through a rigorous training regime. Seminary students can act a bit like martyrs—”Woe to us who must learn Hebrew!” Hebrew is tough, but so is nuclear physics, the fine print of law and understanding the complexities of the human body. Seminary students need to get over themselves.
3) Ordination is the starting line, not the finish line.
My first seminary class was a summer systematic class years ago. Ever since that class I’ve anticipated the day when I would be done with school and could minister as an ordained pastor. That day has now come. For so long I held this day out as the end goal. No more papers. No more flash cards. No more late nights.
But what happened was I wanted this day so bad I failed to miss what seminary and ordination were all about. Seminary and ordination are the training to get me to the starting line of the pastoral race. Finishing this race is the goal.
My wife has started the process of training for a marathon. Just to complete the training required for a marathon is quite an accomplishment. The training requires hundreds of miles run. This is no easy task! To complete the required training is a goal, just not the end goal. You don’t get a medal for signing up for a marathon; you get the medal for crossing the finish line. You don’t get the crown of righteousness for completing your M.Div.; you get the crown for finishing the pastoral race.
Seminary and the ordination trial is the training, not the end. Congrats on becoming ordained. You’ve been trained to start the race of a pastor. Now get running!
4) The men who oversee your process love the church and you.
Ordination is intimidating and humbling. Whether you are being examined by presbytery (Reformed churches) or by your elder board (Baptist churches) it is natural for every young man to feel intimidated. Older pastors are smarter and wiser, plus they wrote the test.
The PCA requires exams in Bible, theology, church order, church history and sacraments. I studied hard and did well in each area, but in no way do I feel like I have arrived in any of the above. After each exam the presbyters would give me some feedback in what I did well and a few ways in which I could grow.
At first I wanted to buck up. “Come on! These exams are hard and now you are giving me some growth areas!” But the reality is I need to grow. In the committee there are loads of wisdom that I need to hear. The brothers are not trying to knock me down. Their feedback is an act of love, helping me to grow into a more faithful pastor.
5) Your sufficiency is in Christ.
My seminary/ordination process was a season of pride and despair, self-confidence and despondency. There were classes that I thrived in, professors who affirmed me and classmates that viewed me as a leader in the church. Who knows, maybe I’m the next big thing? I wonder how big a church the Lord will give me?
And the next day I would experience the opposite. I can’t even remember the Hebrew alphabet and now I need to translate all of Jonah! My preaching professors never liked my sermons (they said I sounded like a T4G preacher, which I take as a compliment!). This past fall was exceptionally tough for a number of reasons, one of them being my ordination trial. I came home one night and cried to my wife. “I don’t think I can do this.”
But God helped me. Humble confidence in God is a tough lesson to learn, but a necessary one for young pastors. The reality is that I will not be as great a pastor as I dream of being, nor will be as bad as I fear. My sufficiency is in Christ and that’s enough. I don’t need anymore, nor do I need any less.