There I went marchin’ off to seminary. New wife in tow and big plans ahead.
Little did I know, the most important things I would learn would be outside the classroom and free.
I prefer to get my caveat out of the way up front: I think seminary can be a good thing. Men need trained, after all. “Who will pastor your grandchildren?” as Jim Renihan (President of IRBS Seminary) keeps saying. So, I am not anti-education. But in opposition to well-intentioned yet tragically dangerous high school teachers, higher education ain’t all ponies and roses. Especially if you’re going to a big name seminary/college.
I write this for young men who may be considering going to seminary or to college-then-seminary. I remember having big dreams and aspirations. I wanted to change the world or at least some suburb or small town somewhere. And I write this now because I still have all those same desires.
But what I failed to realize, and consequently learned the hard way, was that seminary was not, is not the only legitimate way to the pastorate. And, in the current state of things, is the most expensive and least effective way to do it if you pursue it wrongly.
So I want to outline a short list of the things I wish a little birdy had told me before I began making post-secondary plans. Some of these things are direct counsel from others, some are from my own observations, and some are a mixture. In no particular order…
#1 Don’t Let Your Wife Work You Through Seminary
If you can’t support your family and go to seminary, don’t go to seminary. This one is easy because it is a hard and fast rule. There aren’t any exceptions.
Turns out your wife is not a man, she wasn’t designed to protect and provide for her husband much less little children. Yes, she is your helpmate and there to support you in your godly, qualified vocation and calling. But she cannot be what God intended you to be for her. And she is not supposed to be that either.
I find it ironic that conservative seminaries which teach, with passion, the biblical roles for husbands and wives are places where emasculated young husbands feel comfortable abandoning their God-commanded responsibilities for 3 years.
Sound harsh? That’s what it took for me to learn it. I vividly remember the time I heard, “If a man came to me whose wife had just worked him through 3 years of seminary and wanted to be an elder in my church, I would strongly oppose it.”
“Life is simple, son. Your wife shouldn’t work you through seminary.”
#2 Only Pay for Worthwhile Things
One of the wonderful things about seminary is seeing the nice mahogany paneling. The canvas art. The fancy hats and robes. The vaulted ceilings. The Victorian furniture. And the accrued interest column slowly rising higher.
No matter what degree you get, education is always a masterclass in jumping through hoops. Checking off this or that box. There will be classes, professors, and subject matter which are not worth paying for. Not because the knowledge is unimportant, but because the seminary and all its frills are unnecessary to gain that knowledge.
Let me illustrate by way of an example.
Near the time I left seminary, I was sitting in a class listening to the professor lecture. To add some poignancy, this was my favorite class and favorite professor that term. He was lecturing about two Greek words and their importance for a biblical understanding of homosexuality.
Fast forward three weeks and I am sitting in the pew hearing the same lecture (from a non-seminary graduate), but this time I was learning it for free.
The moral of the story is not that you don’t need a seminary education, but that you should pay for things that only a seminary can provide. I’ll summarize with a personal proverb: Better to spend $40 on a copy of Calvin’s Institutes than $50,000 on a B.A. in Biblical Studies.
#3 Think about Making Money
What I assumed, and what I assume many young men assume, is that they will go to college/seminary, get their degree, and hop into a job somewhere. What this produces is a high amount of young men without the skills necessary to provide for their future families.
Young seminarians and Biblical Studies students ought to think about how they are going to provide value, and consequently make money, to society outside of their vocational ministries.
You might ask, “Why? Doesn’t Paul say a pastor deserves to be paid for his labors?”
Why yes he does. But he also suspended his right, so as to not “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:12). A pastor who cannot make his own money outside the church cannot suspend his right in the Church if the need be invoked.
A young man with a passion for gospel proclamation may turn down a calling he is well suited for and also very much needed for if the money isn’t right. If you are unable to make money outside of full-time ministry, you significantly reduce the places and ways which you can be of use. That is not to reduce the power of God, but to point out the “obstacles to the gospel of Christ” which a skill-less young man may make.
I fear the next generation of pastors may become less-than-men by poor preparation. That is, men unable to stand up and declare the truth, not necessarily because they are wimps (though that may be the case as well), but because they have allowed their very livelihood to depend on what they should say, rather than what they can do.
And in today’s secular society and even within Christendom, what you should say ain’t so lucrative.
#4 Churchmanship is the Best Professor
What is discounted, oftentimes, is the usefulness of plain-jane, good ol’ fashioned biblical churchmanship. There is much to be learned from the Church in the way of theology…not just the “Church”, but from your church, and your fellow members.
As it happens, the other members are filled with the Holy Spirit, too. One of my favorite experiences has been teaching through 1 & 2 Kings at our Wednesday evening prayer meetings. Significant things which I did not notice after some hours of preparation and commentary reading, flow rather naturally out of mature saints after their years of Spirit-wrought sanctification. That will teach you humility like no seminary could.
Also, the day-to-day slogging through the murky, muddy waters of the local church with all its imperfections, controversies, and schisms is the seedbed for love. The local church is the garden lattice around, in, and through which spiritual fruit grows. Seminary cannot teach you to love the church—it can teach you that you should love the church. But only the daily bearing of burdens, the sharing of things, the unity in worship, the real-time suppression of personal preferences for the sake of a brother, and the Holy Spirit can teach you to love the church.
The potential danger of seminary is that a man may hold his diploma with his right hand, shake the president’s with his left, all while his love for the church rolls down his robe, hits his ankle, rolls across the stage, and comes to rest inside a latent wastebasket.
During my brief time in seminary, I remember hearing multiple professors say something to the effect of, “If getting an A in my class means getting a B at home, then get a B in my class and an A at home.”
Well, if getting an A in seminary means getting a B at home and a C at your church, get an A at home, an A at your church, and a D in seminary.
#5 Avoid Debt Like the Plague
Debt is the economic engine that runs the post-secondary automobile. Without it, all seminaries would be smaller in size.
Debt can be useful when it is taken on in hopes of financial return later. This is why it makes more financial sense to take on debt for an engineering degree than for an MDiv or BA in Biblical Studies.
When tuition costs $425, $475, and $565 per credit hour at select seminaries, debt could pile up quickly, if you are not careful.
Quick math: tuition per credit hour X 15 credits per semester X 6 semesters.
$425 = $38,250
$475 = $42,750
$565 = $50,850
And don’t forget books and fees!
Debt serves as a ball and chain which will drag along behind a man throughout his career. Like the inability to make money outside the church, debt can severely limit your options in life. For example, Doug Vandermeulen wrote a blog post for the ARBCA Home Missions blog titled “Gospel Opportunities in Rural America” in which he describes the shortage of gospel ministers in rural towns in America.
“For example, in Valley City, North Dakota, there are presently at least three congregations that have no pastor. Speaking recently with a man from one of these churches about their search for a pastor, he said they are having difficulty finding pastoral candidates. This particular congregation is a well-established church from a non-Reformed Baptist denomination. They have a very nice building with easy access to main roads and interstate highways. He said the issue was not simply a lack of qualified candidates, it is a lack of any candidates. No one from that church’s denomination is even interested. Sadly, this situation is not unique. This same scenario is present throughout much of rural America.”
But the saddest part of his article is that this lack of pastors is in some part due to the perception that they will not be able to pay off debt from seminary on a “rural” salary: “Ministers may not be interested in a rural ministry opportunity because they think that they will not be able to support their family or pay off debt from their education.”
If you desire to get seminary training, avoid debt with everything in your power. Do a payment plan, apply for every scholarship, work as much as possible, take out loans and put every cent of your tax return to pay them down, etc. In stark contrast to our culture, debt isn’t worth a higher standard of living. It ain’t saving if it ain’t hurting.
Pay off your debt now so you can live free to do and say as God would have you later.
It is easier to say no to the big donor in your congregation if you don’t have $25,000 in debt looming over your head.
I will conclude by saying this: many young men prepare spiritually for college and seminary. And so they should. But when a young man desires to be trained for gospel ministry, he neglects half of himself if he neglects the practical.
Paul tells Timothy to guard his doctrine and his life. A man must be doctrinally sound, but he also ought to be holy. A holy husband, a holy father, and a holy pastor. The proper practice of these convictions often won’t survive the consequences of poor practical preparation.