How to Stay Christian in Seminary
In June 2002, my wife and I packed our U-Haul and relocated from South Georgia to Louisville, Kentucky. After ten years, two seminaries, and two degrees, I’ve now spent nearly a third of my life as a seminary student, staff member, or professor. I can honestly say that I love God and his church more now than I did this time a decade ago. The Lord has used seminary as a means of sanctifying grace in my life. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.
Unfortunately, I know not everyone shares my experience. For those whom seminary is a spiritual hindrance rather than a means of spiritual maturity, I want to offer my thoughts on how to stay Christian in seminary. This advice is based in part on my own experiences and in part on the experiences of others whom I know share a seminary testimony similar to mine. For the sake of continuity and perhaps as a helpful mnemonic device, I’m couching all of my advice negatively, as a list of things not to do.
1. Don’t make seminary a substitute for your personal devotional life. If you’re a student at a good seminary, you’re going to read loads of edifying books. Of course, in most of your classes you’ll also spend much of your time studying the Scriptures. It’s tempting for the overwhelmed seminarian to allow school assignments to take the place of a vibrant devotional life. Don’t give in to this temptation.
Every student needs to spend regular time in personal Bible study and prayer, not for the sake of a class, but for the sake of the soul. I’d urge every seminarian to read through the Bible every year and to read at least one edifying book each semester in addition to readings related to school work. (For what it’s worth, I’d highly recommend you read everything Jerry Bridges has written.) The importance of maintaining consistency in your devotional habits can’t be exaggerated—this is the single most important means God uses to keep us Christian in seminary.
2. Don’t make seminary a substitute for local church involvement. This is a very close second to devotional consistency; they’re virtually running neck-and-neck. Any seminary worth it’s salt has regular chapel services and a variety of small group ministries through which they minister to the spiritual needs of students. Many professors also do what they can to be mentors and provide pastoral counsel to students. I’m 100% for these ministries, but seminary is no substitute for a local body of believers who’ve covenanted to walk together for the sake of the gospel.
As you look for a local church, I’d highly recommend that students seek out a congregation that takes sound doctrine seriously, is characterized by an expositional pulpit ministry, is committed to life-on-life discipleship through small groups, and prioritizes intentional evangelism and church planting both locally and abroad. When you find such a church, become a real member—someone who is vitally involved, transparent with other members, and ready to serve in any way, including the mundane tasks that are miles away from the limelight of teaching and leading. While I had a great experience at the seminaries I attended, I was shaped even more by two local churches, Ninth and O Baptist Church in Louisville and First Baptist Church of Durham. I’m still a member and one of the pastors of the latter congregation.
3. Don’t make seminary your second spouse. Many seminarians are married; far more on average than other types of graduate students. While it isn’t unusual for both spouses to be students, in most cases one is taking more classes while the other is working more hours to provide for the family’s financial needs. Seminary is hard work, and it’s tempting to get sucked into the vortex of papers and exams and put your spouse on the shelf for three or four years. Tragically, many marriages have been destroyed during seminary studies—this is never necessary and can always be avoided.
Spend a little bit of time every evening just talking and hanging out with your spouse (and any children), preferably around a meal. Talk about things besides all the cool stuff you learned in your seminary classes. Reserve a date night every week, even if you normally have to stick to inexpensive dates. When I was a seminarian, we went through seasons where we couldn’t afford to eat out very much or go to many movies. But even in our poorest of days, we could always come up with four or five dollars to go to a bookstore, buy a couple of cups of coffee, and spend two or three hours hanging out together.
4. Don’t make seminary the bad guy when it comes to all your material hopes and dreams. Seminary students tend to be a bit older than most graduate students. In my experience, the average seminarian is pushing thirty, and some are much older. Many students have at least a couple of years of post-college work experience; some have enjoyed very successful pre-seminary careers. Now they find themselves living in a small apartment, working two part-time jobs, driving a hand-me-down car, with little money to spend on the finer things in life. Oh, and paying for school. Far too many grow bitter.
I’m convinced that the Lord often uses seminary to wean future pastors and other Christian leaders off of the crass materialism that is endemic to American culture. Many families could stand to downsize a bit, live more simply, and trust the Lord to provide for their material needs. Frankly, seminary can help you to learn how to become a better role model in these matters for the sheep you’ll eventually be set apart to shepherd. Don’t get grouchy because seminary has cost you so much—embrace the “poverty” and pray that the Lord will use it to conform you more to the image of Christ.
5. Don’t make seminary about earning a degree or getting credentialed. Many seminary students aren’t concerned with learning so much as they are jumping through some educational hoops so that they can have “better” churches or other ministry opportunities. Others are less crass about this, but they complain about virtually every class. The theological classes aren’t practical enough, and the practical classes aren’t theological enough. They don’t want to prepare sermons or share the gospel for class assignments (how unspiritual), nor do they want to write critical book reviews or research papers (pastors don’t need to think and write clearly). For many folks, seminary is more a stage of life than a place to study.
Seminary isn’t primarily about school and degrees, but education and equipping. It’s about learning certain doctrines, cultivating certain priorities, and developing certain skills that will help you serve in any variety of ministries. It’s also about the atmosphere, including the chapels, the good books, the godly friends, and the professors (they rock). And seminary is about networking—making like-minded friends who you’ll walk with for the remainder of your life. I’m far more thankful for what I learned than the degrees on my wall (though they’re cool too). I’m even more thankful for the friends I made, since with a couple of exceptions my closest friends in the world are folks I met because I was a seminary student (or professor). So slow down a bit and soak it up. You’ll probably stay Christian if you do.