Over the years, I have been most embarrassed about the fact that I have not completed my formal ministry and theological training. I began my first pastorate during my senior year in high school. By the time I graduated, I was immersed in my pastoral work. It was not until a year or so later that I continued my studies.
I found a new Christian college in Anaheim (CA) that I attended. During my time there, I learned the principles of inductive Bible study and expository preaching. I studied biblical theology, pastoral leadership, and Christian counseling. It really did lay a good foundation for me. And my professors continued to disciple me outside of class for many years.
I had to quit school when my congregation entered a season of conflict. It lasted for more than four years! But although I did not have the opportunity to attend school during this period, I was still studying. I would even go to local seminaries and pick up the textbooks from the various classes and read them. And little did I know that the beat down I was taking in my church was actually my very own, God-designed seminary training!
When the conflict finally ended, it was my task to lead the congregation through a period of healing and recovery. I married Crystal about the same time. A year later, our son was born. Plus, at this point I had also developed a larger speaking ministry. And my biblical convictions had begun to harden. So I could not attend any school that wavered in its commitment to the Bible.
I later attended The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley (CA). This was a remarkably enriching time in my life. But I made the big mistake of trying to do a full load of work, along with all of my other responsibilities. At the time, I may have been one of the only men at the school who was trying to study full time and pastor a church full time at the same time. I know others have done it. But it was a struggle for me. Then Crystal became pregnant with our daughter. The work at the church began to pick up. And I fell off the wagon and starting traveling to preach again! I had to push pause on my studies again.
One of my goals for 2008 was to resume my studies. But by midyear, I was engaged in the pastoral vacancy here at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church. And by the fall, I was moving to Jacksonville. So here I am again. One of my goals for 2009 is to resume my studies. I am enrolling in a school here that I am very excited about. I am also advising the men here at Shiloh, who are considering formal training for ministry. Moreover, it is important to Crystal and I that we both finish school to set an example for our children.
So I have been thinking a lot about seminary training and Christian ministry lately. Here are some of my thoughts about the matter. Of course, this is not expert analysis. Consider the following to be practical advice about formal training to those who in the ministry or considering the ministry.
If you have the opportunity to go to seminary, by all means, take it. No, this is not a word from on high. And I understand that you must factor in your present family, work, and ministry responsibilities – not to mention the money. But if there seems to be green lights at these intersections, I would encourage you to prayerfully go forward and begin school.
There are some men who are very disciplined Bible students. And they are equipped for ministry through self-education. But most of us need the accountability and experience of actually being in a class, with all that requires. When you go into the pastorate, you become the resident theologian of your local church. You need to be a man of the Book to be a faithful pastor. And you need to learn how to exegete scripture accurately to be a faithful preacher. So by all means, go if you can go. And do it before life, family, and ministry catches up to you.
Remember that seminary does not make pastors and preachers. My father used to say that seminary just shines shoes. Guys who shine shoes do not make shoes. They just shine them. And if you don’t bring a pair of shoes, they don’t have anything to work with. Likewise, seminary does not make preachers. It doesn’t make pastors. School can teach a man the languages, systematic theology, church history, and even principles of Christian ministry. But if the Lord has not call you into his service, these things will not make you a pastor or a preacher.
Make sure you have a clear sense about the call of God on your life first. Get input from your pastor, congregation, family, and godly people you trust. If you not clear about your call, wait. I would not advise you to go to figure out God’s call. You may spend four years and end up even more confused! But if you have clarity about the Lord’s call, go to school and prepare yourself the best you can be for God (2 Timothy 2:15).
Do not go to a school that does not believe and teach the Bible. I know this may be hard for some of you to believe. Unfortunately, it’s true. Some so-called Christian professors and schools do not believe the Bible. They spend more time trying to undermine its authority than teaching its message. So do your homework. And do not waste your time on any school that it not totally committed to the Bible. I don’t care how famous or prestigious that school is. It is better to attend a small school where you will learn the Bible, than to have a degree from some major institution that teaches liberal theology.
On that same note, I would not recommend that a pastor go to school to major in business, economics, computers, or something like that. Of course, this is between you and the Lord. But if the Lord has called you to be a herald of the word, or to shepherd the souls that he has purchased with his own blood, you should use the opportunity you get to study to focus on “the Queen of the sciences” – theology!
Be a student – whether or not you are in school. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, did not have formal training. In fact, he was not even formally ordained. He considered ordination to be empty hands laying hands on empty heads. Yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could name a person who could match Spurgeon’s mind for truth, preaching prowess, and pastoral vision.
True leaders are learners. Even if school is not for you now, keep studying. We really have no excuses these days for ignorance. For my father to learn the languages, systematic theology, and the other disciplines, he had to go to school. But we live in a day where there are so many resources available through various means. One of my favorite Bible teachers and authors admits that he is not a scholar in the languages, but he does know how to use the tools. And that would be my advice to you. You master a trade my learning how to use the tools. Remember, there are no better minds, just better libraries. Study hard and take every opportunity you are given to continue learning.
Do not go to school just because you want to pastor. Many churches require at least a Master’s degree in their pastoral search process. And the priority on having a prepared man is important and commendable. But it cal also be misguided. A degree from a school does not tell you if a man has a godly character, a pastor’s heart, or a gifting to preach and teach. I know men who have finished their formal training, but have been unable to find an opportunity for pastoral ministry. And I know men who have not finished their formal training, but have given opportunities to serve in the pastoral role.
I do not have any academic degrees. But the Lord has opened many great doors of opportunity for me to serve him and minister to others. Some people assume that I have finished my studies. And I take that as a compliment. But I have not. I do not say that as something to be proud of. I do not want to be a poster boy for skipping school. However, my story is a testimony to the fact that the Lord is the sovereign “Booking Agent” for pastors and preachers. He opens doors that no one can close and closes doors that no one can open. Trust the Lord to assign you where he wants you to be at the right time (Isaiah 40:28-31).