Given my current love of reading, learning, and teaching, it might seem surprising that when I got the call to ministry during college, I hated the fact that I probably had to go to seminary. At the time I was anxious to do something. As soon as I caught the bug—for preaching, sharing, and leading others into Scripture—a slow burn began in my bones that turned into a flaming ache every week I couldn’t preach.

As much as I loved hearing the Word preached with passion, wisdom, and skill by my pastor—skill and wisdom I knew I didn’t yet possess—it was often painful to sit and listen instead of walk up to the podium myself. Sitting in classrooms and libraries for a few years just to get a shot at it was just much for my 19-year-old soul to handle.

For a time I contemplated simply trying to get hired at a church and diving in. I’d grown up in churches and was a quick read, so why not? Why not jump in headfirst and pick it up on the fly? I had already seen God powerfully use many pastors lacking formal seminary training. Why not me? There was even a brief season some of my friends toyed with the idea of simply beginning a service for others, which might someday turn into a church. That idea fizzled and died, but it still haunted me for a couple of years.

A Dead Russian Convinced Me of Seminary

A turning point came for me during a summer philosophy writing course. Our instructor had us read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, an assignment for which I owe him a lifelong debt. Toward the beginning of the narrative we meet one of the brothers, the main protagonist Alyosha. Alyosha is the youngest and most spiritual of the three brothers. As a young man of 19, he decides to petition his father for permission to leave his current studies and join a monastery to devote himself to the pursuit of God and holiness. In explaining Alyosha’s apparently impulsive decision, Dostoevsky makes this arresting observation:

I will simply repeat what I already said above: he set out upon this path only because at the time it alone struck him and presented him all at once with the whole ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light. Add to this that he was partly a young man of our time—that is, honest by nature, demanding the truth, seeking it and believing in it, and in that belief demanding immediate participation in it with all the strength of his soul, demanding an immediate deed, with an unfailing desire to sacrifice everything for this deed, even life. Although, unfortunately, these young men do not understand that the sacrifice of life is, perhaps, the easiest of all sacrifices in many cases, while to sacrifice, for example, five for six years of their ebulliently youthful life to hard, difficult studies, to learning, in order to increase tenfold their strength to serve the very truth and the very deed that they loved and set out to accomplish—such sacrifice is quite often almost beyond the strength of many of them. (The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 26)

This passage struck me with great force. I felt as if I heard the voice of God speaking through the dead Russian, encouraging me toward patience, resilience, and the courage to sacrifice a few years to learn how to rightly divide God’s Word and shepherd God’s people. Since he’d gifted me with the possibility and capability of pursuing further study, I knew I’d be negligent and, in some ways, selfish in my need for the immediate “deed” if I robbed any future church I served of that “tenfold strength.” I had to die to my own desire to feel justified in my call now so that I’d fully give myself to the church in the future.

So I went to seminary. And I studied in my courses. And I worked a couple of normal jobs. And I got an internship at my old church with a bunch of screwy, magnificent high schoolers that ended up being an immense blessing. And I made it.

Reaping the Harvest

While I can’t say the next few years were the most immediately satisfying in my short ministry career, most of the fruit my church reaped was sown in those early years. The time to consider, learn, and expand my mind theologically and spiritually in the study of Scripture was absolutely necessary. There would’ve simply been too much temptation early on to shortcut the text in my preaching, or to simply rely on whatever persuasive rhetorical style or hip theological fad I’d picked up from whomever I was podcasting. Seminary cut that problem off at the knees.

What’s more, most of seminary was not heroic, brave, or ebullient in the sense many of us want at age 19. In fact, it was fairly plodding and ordinary—which, of course, is like most pastoral ministry, even when things are going well. Beyond the growth in technical and practical knowledge, even the “brakes” seminary applies in our ministry life is formative.

Costly and Worth It

I realize there are many obstacles to pursuing formal theological education. For one, tuition creep has reached Bible colleges and seminaries. Creative thinking is needed in this area from seminaries and denominations—and from churches looking to hire trained pastors. It cannot simply fall on the students to assume crushing debt to work a job that probably won’t contribute much toward paying it off. Indeed, wealthier churches ought to consider providing funds for churches in low-income areas who simply cannot afford to do so themselves.

All the same, for those contemplating entering the pastorate, don’t get swept up in the youthful need to do now in such a way that robs you of the opportunity to be more effective later. Jesus spent decades preparing for his ministry, and three long years of closely training his disciples for theirs. If you have the opportunity, capability, and call, be willing to sacrifice the years to go to seminary. Effectively serving the truth we love is worth it.