May 19, 2010
The Hansen Report: Reflections of a Recent Seminary Graduate
Grad school establishes ministry patterns that don’t end on graduation day.
Spring weather means graduation is coming, ushering in a season of new beginnings for students finishing high school, college, and graduate school. After three years of seminary, I’m a master of divinity. At least that’s what the diploma will say. Supposedly I’m now prepared to enter full-time pastoral ministry. If anything, I’m increasingly aware of how much I don’t yet know about God, his Word, and shepherding his flock. Maybe that’s a healthy place to be.
That said, seminary has been an invaluable time of study and reflection. God has laid a foundation of learning that will support me through what I hope will be decades of faithful ministry, if he tarries. At the outset of this adventure, I benefited from the advice of wise pastors and seminarians who counseled me in how to make the most of this time of preparation. I heeded their charge to settle in a local church and invest myself in congregational ministry, immediately applying what I learned. I grew attached to a few professors who made time for students and cared sincerely about my spiritual and academic development. And I resisted the temptation to expect that a few hours of class per week over the course of a semester could teach me everything I needed to know about systematic theology, biblical Hebrew, or counseling.
A new book edited by Andrew J. B. Cameron and Brian S. Rosner, The Trials of Theology: Becoming a ‘Proven’ Worker in a Dangerous Business, captures much of this advice. Both Cameron and Rosner teach at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, where John W. Woodhouse is principal. Woodhouse’s contribution to the book, an essay on “The Trials of Theological College,” elaborates on some of the most important lessons I learned in seminary.
Most importantly, I learned that knowledge about God cannot replace love for God. Nevertheless, learning about God through his Word should lead us to exult in who he is and what he has done.
“Knowing God is real, not abstract; personal, not just intellectual; and will be displayed in your character and conduct, not your cleverness,” Woodhouse writes. “That is why I think it is always helpful to link knowing God with loving God: we seek the kind of knowledge here that changes our affections.”
I sometimes wonder whether churches would be encouraged or discouraged if they sat in on a seminary class and observed us students. No doubt God has encouraged me through the students I’ve spent time getting to know as we shared our fears and dreams for pastoral ministry. At the same time, we graduate students have a fondness for flaunting our knowledge in front of classmates and professors. No one’s impressed, but we offenders probably won’t learn that lesson until confronted by a sweet old lady in our first church.
Even so, seminary provides pastors with a learning experience many Christians would love but could never find the time or money to complete. I have learned that seminary graduates have the privilege of plunging the depths of God’s wisdom so we might share nuggets of gold with fellow believers.
“We know God, not by a mystical experience beyond words, but by hearing the Spirit-breathed word of God,” Woodhouse writes. “This Spirit-breathed word of God is meant to be understood. It tells us the truth, and by his Spirit and through his word, God reveals to us himself, his promises and his purposes. …When the Bible says, ‘Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!’ (Rom. 11:33), we are not being discouraged from seeking to understand. Rather, we are being reminded that we can never think of ourselves as having finished our exploration and our growth in understanding. What happens next is quite striking. Once we grasp just a little of the ‘riches’ and ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ of God, all other thinking about everything is affected.”
Sometimes I wonder, though, how long the current residential model can work for seminaries, which are looking for ways to reach bigger audiences with the riches and wisdom of God. The financial pressures to adapt are extreme. It seems that fewer students today can afford to set aside a few years for full-time coursework. So seminaries expand their online offerings, bolster their satellite locations, and make their courses friendly to commuters.
I share in these financial struggles, but I want to advocate for considerate expansion. A master of divinity is no mere means to the end of pastoral employment. Spiritual formation must accompany this program. How can this happen if we neglect relationships with fellow students and professors and fail to set aside time to reflect on the massive volume of material we’re learning? Busyness is the enemy of meaningful thought and deep faith.
Seminary establishes patterns for ministry that don’t end on graduation day. A student who sees only the immediate becomes a pastor who responds only to the pressing. Churches can help seminaries by requesting pastors who are not merely credentialed and trained in practical ministry but also humble and reflective about how Christ rules his church by means of his timeless Word.