I can hardly believe it’s already been 17 years since I started seminary. I remember feeling nervous, excited, and far from home. Those three years were wonderful–filled with good friends and good classes. I strongly believe that any man wanting to prepare for a lifetime of pastoral ministry should make every effort to matriculate (yes, in person) to a good evangelical seminary and commit to several years of serious study and ministry formation.
If that’s you, or will be you someday, I’m really excited for you.
I also have some advice. Here are ten things every incoming seminary student should know, consider, and keep in mind over the next few years.
1. Get involved in the local church. Star this one. Underline it. Put it in italics and don’t forget. The seminary exists to serve the church. You are in seminary, presumably, because you desire to be a servant in the church. So don’t neglect the very reason you are where you are. Find a good church. Get plugged in. Get mentored. Volunteer (and not just for teaching and preaching). If you go through seminary without pursuing deep relationships and practical ministry opportunities in the local church you are doing it wrong.
2. Take advantage of what’s there. A good seminary is an amazing place. You have experts in Bible, theology, history, languages, counseling, and preaching. Learn from them. Go to chapel. Attend special seminars and lectures. It may all feel like too much at the moment, but soon you’ll be in a church, on your own, and your weekly routine will be almost all output and very little input. Be an engaged, grateful, hungry member of your seminary community.
3. Don’t forget about relationships. One of the best parts about seminary is the people you’ll meet. You’ll labor with some of these brothers in the same network or in the same denomination for the rest of your life. Take time to get to know people. Have fun. Go out to dinner. Pray together. Make friends.
4. Have a hobby. Trust me: you’ll get more seminary work done if you don’t try to do seminary 16 hours a day. If you like running or swimming or biking of fishing or hunting or even fantasy football, don’t quit now. You need an outlet. Man does not live by Greek flashcards alone. Even Spurgeon tells us to go take a walk on the beach. Don’t be too spiritual for your own good.
5. Take a Sabbath. Is it wrong to study Calvin and read about the Great Awakening and write about the meaning of pistou Christou on Sunday? No. Is it unbiblical to think seminary students don’t need a day for rest and worship? Yes. Plan ahead. Guard your Sundays.
6. Remember, it’s just a grade. I know how important it is to you to get an A instead of an A- or, heaven forbid, something in the B range. Grades were important to me too. But they are not the measure of your worth as a Christian, or even the best predictor of what kind of pastor you will be. A higher grade is not worth ruining your family or bankrupting your personal devotional life. Work hard. Know your limits. Don’t freak out if you don’t get the highest grade in the class.
7. Your life is not on hold. This may be a season of training and preparation, but it doesn’t mean you should wait three more years to be a serious Christian or a valuable member of the church. There are good works God has for you today. There is ministry he has called you to right now. Don’t think real life starts later.
8. Be careful, you know more than most everyone in the church. If you are enrolled at seminary, you likely already know more about formal systematic theology and church history and exegesis than 90% of the people in the pews. In another few years, especially if you are at a rigorous school (like you should be!), you will have more biblical, historical, and theological knowledge than 99% of the Christians on the planet. Your job is not to impress people with your learning. You must learn to communicate in a way that is open and accessible. Stay humble. Keep it simple. The best teachers make the hard stuff easy to understand.
9. Be careful, you know much less than you think. You may have more knowledge than ever before, but that doesn’t mean your discernment, your maturity, and your real world experience have caught up with your formal training. And even your formal training is less than you think. Anyone four weeks into a doctoral program knows more than you do about a given topic. Keep reading. Keep growing. Listen to your elders. Learn from older Christians. Don’t be haughty.
10. Find your identity in Christ. When I was in college I was the guitar playing, Calvin quoting, Greek and Hebrew studying, ministry minded, theology guy. That’s who I was. I thought I was special. Until I got to seminary and realized that my supposedly unique identity now described every single person around me. It’s easy to compare ourselves with others, especially when the others are doing the same things and pursuing the same ends. Don’t forget: we are not justified by preaching (or by our knowledge of Turretin or the size of our church or the grade we get in personal evangelism). We are called to be sheep before we are called to be shepherds. You are who you are in Christ. That’s special enough for all of us.