What I Learned (and Could Not Learn) in Seminary
by Dave Harvey

July 1, 2021

Pastoral Ministry

What I Learned (and Could Not Learn) in Seminary

By Dave Harvey

July 1, 2021

Shortly after my conversion, I felt called to ministry. But the summons landed on me as less-than-urgent; more eventual, like the aim of a determined tortoise down a winding path. The game plan was that I would work for 25 years in my vocation, retire happily and then dedicate myself to full-time ministry. When the planter who started our church approached me about joining the staff, I was dumbstruck. My “wish-dream,” to borrow a phrase from Bonhoeffer, was coming true at the age of 26. Who knew where calling-train was destined to go!

This much I knew: Though I was college educated, I was also theologically lite and methodologically heavy. Formal training seemed essential if I was going to serve with effectiveness and longevity. Over the next 10 years, I moved in and out of seminary as I stumbled down my academic path. This included Westminster Theological Seminary for a Masters in Missiology; Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary for my M.Div. equivalence classes, and then back to Westminster for my Doctor of Ministry.

Doing seminary while in pastoral ministry was a “best-of-both-worlds” scenario. It allowed me to measure what I was hearing by life in the local church and integrate what was helpful into a working model. I think doing it this way over a decade gave me a sense for where seminaries are helpful and where we must acknowledge their limitations. If you’re considering attending one or serving someone else traveling in that direction, maybe more specifics will help.

What I Learned in Seminary

First, seminary faculties play an important role in protecting the borders of sound doctrine. Doctrine is essential to the life of the church and should be central in the teaching of pastors. It cannot be seen, however, as the exclusive purview of pastors. After all, the one who trains the pastor defines the doctrine. The one who teaches the biblical languages, conveys biblical history, and writes the books used in seminary classes shapes the church. The unique proficiencies of these veterans are necessary, not only to equip others but to detect the threats to the integrity of the gospel. The seminary, therefore, becomes a bulwark against the danger of “being tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14).

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Second, seminary contributes to spiritual formation. Can seminaries be like “cemeteries”? Certainly. Any Christian institution can lose spiritual life and become more of a monument to the past. But good seminaries are populated by godly professors and instructors who become a rich source of wisdom for aspiring pastors and Christian leaders. Don’t buy the caricature that seminary professors are simply bookish ivory tower-dwellers. Most professors have a vast catalog of ministry experiences that informs their pedagogy. I’ll never forget sitting through missiology classes led by Harvie Conn as he told spellbinding stories of gospel advances within the places he served. A self-counseling project in David Powlison’s class surfaced a cesspool of self-righteousness deepening my sense of need for the Savior. Those experiences became shaping moments of soul-formation.

Always keep in mind that seminary jobs are not generally lucrative. There are far more profitable ways for exceptionally bright teachers to spend their time. Gifted educators teach there because they want to shape souls for Jesus through biblical training. Sitting in class, or across from them at a table at a coffee shop, can have an impact that lingers for a lifetime.

Third, the rigor of seminary prepares you for the hard work of ministry. Lazy guys can occasionally find a back door into ministry. It’s hard for a lazy man to proceed through seminary. The rigor of the study smokes out the work ethic of the man. Even exceptionally bright guys have a difficult time coasting down the seminary tracks. In this way seminary prepares you to “gladly spend and be spent for the gospel” (2 Cor. 12: 15).

The Things I Couldn’t Learn in Seminary

As I wrote above, I had the opportunity to attend seminary while already in ministry. I believe this maximized the education by supplying immediate opportunities for application. Guys that simply jump from college into seminary often miss that. For them, there’s a disconnect between seminary and the church. It’s understandable; after all, a seminary is not a church.

Now, I recognize that being in seminary and the pastorate at the same time is not always possible. A number of stars must align including a supportive plurality, a gracious church, and a way to pay for classes. You must also possess the capacity to do more than one job at a time. But if those realities are converging in your world, you’re living in a sweet spot for training.

Why? Because there are a few things seminary can’t teach you.

First, to pastor effectively, you must do ministry. In seminary you can hear the Word taught eloquently. You can experience a lecture on how to preach a wedding or funeral or you can engage in a discussion on discipleship. But it’s in the church—where truth must be applied for the church to be effective—that you meet people in the realities of suffering and sin. It’s in the church that we are pressed to learn how to apply truth in the life of a single mom, an addict, an executive, or overwhelmed parent. And when learning marries doing, it becomes concrete. What we apply, we remember.

Second, it’s really hard for the seminary to stoke love for the church. It’s very hard for a parachurch organization to inspire a deep love for the local church. When your life and sacrifices are organized around something that supplements church life—that is not within it, but alongside of it—it’s difficult to transfer a passion for the church’s primacy. After all, like begetting like is hard-wired into the genetics of organizations—they instinctively promote, recruit, and reproduce their DNA in what they do. That’s one reason why some seminaries are wisely intentional about pulling in pastors as adjunct teachers.

Third, seminary culture—which necessarily emphasizes grades and performance—can’t prepare you for the reality that ministry is a way of weakness.

One of the most surprising things about pastoral ministry is how God takes strong people and pulverizes them until they are convinced of something He already knows—we are weak. Yet it’s in our weakness that we experience the power of God (2 Cor. 12:9). Whether it’s suffering, betrayal, or shame, God breaks the clay pot “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4: 7).

It’s really hard for seminaries to demonstrate how ministry means being “always given over to death for Jesus sake” (2 Cor. 4:11). In fact, the secret sauce of pastoring does not flow through our ability, but our inability. This means it’s hard for seminaries, where the environment is regimented around formal education, to disciple guys into those lessons of humility, dependence, and trust.  

Finally, the seminary can’t discern a call to ministry. If we think of calling as having two parts—the internal call (desire) and the external call (affirmation)—then no man should arrive at seminary without a pastor and local church saying, “This is a wise and suitable next step.” A young person’s call doesn’t need to be decisive for him to begin studies at seminary, but there should be, at the very least, clear evidence that the Spirit is inspiring the character and capacity for some kind of church leadership. Usually, such formation is discerned as a man first serves in some ministry role—teaching a youth Sunday school class or leading a small group—at his local church. This supplies the context for church leaders to observe and confirm his sense of calling.

I think guys get into trouble when they lack external confirmation and just begin attending seminary on the impulse of only an internal sense of direction or accomplishment. From the seminary’s standpoint, they depend upon the church to bear the burden of that up-front evaluation. Most seminaries know their role in discerning calling is more narrow and confined to confirming their aptitude for doctrinal understanding, their work ethic, and perhaps their ability to communicate in speech and writing. But only the local church can confirm a call to pastoral ministry.

What If I’m Already in Seminary?

Don’t use the busyness of seminary as a reason not to press into your devotional life. Seminary mirrors pastoral ministry in its rigor. If you don’t spend time with the Lord there, you’re less likely to do it when you’re a pastor. Pick up the two little books The Religious Life of Theological Students by B. B. Warfield and Exercises for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke. Let these old lights encourage you to have a deep faith that’s rooted in God and the local church, even as you press into the difficulty of your studies. Think of your devotional time as an investment into your ministry resilience and longevity.

Next, get involved in a church. Serve, get to know the pastor, and get connected in the community. Not only will this church allow you to apply what you’re learning, but they could become a commending voice for you after you graduate. Guys need this.

Recently I was talking to a man asking advice about whether his son—a recent college graduate—should jump immediately into seminary. I invited him to think out three years to the end of seminary. Very few churches are actually looking to fill ministry roles with guys who went from college, to seminary, to the application process. Many churches looking to hire would rather have guys who have displayed some success in another vocational track while serving as leaders in a local church. Honestly, churches are just not looking for 26-year-old guys who have spent their last few years in the library. They’re looking for the wisdom that comes from life and ministry experience.

Third, encourage your seminary professors. It’s probably not as true over the pandemic, but many pastors get more than their share of encouragement. Seminary leaders? Not so much. So, if they are impacting you, tell them. And be specific. Give honor to whom honor is due.

Finally, if you are married, keep your wife as your first priority. Conduct your time at seminary in a way that clearly communicates that she will remain first in your life once you are in ministry. It not only makes a loud statement to her, but it forges the right rhythms for life as a pastor. Recently, I spoke to a pastor’s wife who told me that during seminary, her husband would get up at 3:30 every morning so he could study for three hours so he could be available once she woke up.He now leads an influential church and she treasures the memories of their time at seminary. At great sacrifice, this pastor made his wife the priority. Now she has memories of a wonderful time at seminary. And he has no regrets.

Seminary training can be extremely beneficial for men entering pastoral ministry, but it isn’t everything and it shouldn’t be the only thing. Local church ministry even as a volunteer, combined with seminary, makes a potent combination for the soon-to-be lead pastor or staff member. The practical outworking in the lab of life of the theology gleaned in the academy makes for a wise, experienced local church leader.

Featured image is Gateway Seminary’s San Francisco Campus.

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