This is the fourth in a series of brief articles from students and graduates answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” Previously:
The funny thing about answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” is that I was often told those things, but I simply didn’t hear them. Which is why I don’t imagine I’m going to tell you anything a good seminary professor hasn’t already attempted to say. If I had to boil down my advice, I’d say that studying doesn’t end when classes are over—it’s only begun. Faithful ministers need to be continual students of the Word and of their people.
Study the Word
I work with college students, and most of them know me to be something of a bookworm—but not all of them appreciate this about me. Upon seeing some of my shelves of books, one of them asked, “So, if you’ve read all these, why do you need to read more? I mean, don’t you know it all already?” Some seminarians go into school with the same idea: they believe that once they’re done with their classes, they’ll know everything they need to know about their job. After enough Greek and Hebrew classes or essays on doctrine, they have arrived—if not spiritually, then intellectually.
I hate to break it to you, but seminary is more about teaching you how to continue to learn, rather than rendering further learning unnecessary. Faithful pastors and elders are perpetual students of the Word, theology, and church history if they are to going to be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2), guard the deposit of the faith (1 Tim 6:20), and keep their congregations rooted in the truth of the gospel. Case in point, the same student who thought I already knew everything went on to ask an important question that required research from me. Fight to give yourself time to be constantly engaged with the Scriptures as well as some studies beyond what you might be currently teaching.
Study Your People
While many might be tempted to think the pastorate releases us from study, others mistake the pastorate for a professorship. I would not have admitted it at the time, but this was my mistake in my early months of college ministry. After getting hired, my first order of business was buying two thick commentaries on Ephesians and spending way too many hours studying that epistle so I could cram way too much of it into a nine-week series. Two years later, I’m convinced my students probably would have profited more by me taking 40 minutes to grab coffee with them that week.
Why? Unless pastors spend a significant amount of time “studying” their congregations through actual time spent with individual members—getting to know their hopes, dreams, and besetting sins—they won’t have a good sense for what the Word of God says specifically to this people. While some New Testament epistles are more general than others, they were written to specific congregations with specific issues and contexts in mind. To preach a text you have to study it, and to preach to a people you have to study them.
Seminary graduates, especially early on in any pastoral position, please spend time with your people. If you’re worried about your content, seminary should teach you enough to prepare you to begin instructing your congregation in the Scriptures so that you don’t spend 40 hours each week in your study. Cut it to 30 and spend 10 with your people. Or more realistically, cut it to 15 and spend 5 with your people, and lobby to get your 20 hours in meetings cut down. (Meetings deserve another article.)
To summarize, then, seminary is not the end of your studies, but the beginning of them.