August 20, 2015

Four prerequisites for success in seminary

by Jesse Johnson

This is the week where new seminary students report for duty—two hundred new students start at The Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles (and five at our Washington DC campus!), and as a pastor I watch new students leave for seminary every year.

Here is the advice I give them:   

Be Teachable

Don’t look for professors that simply reinforce the doctrine you already have. Assuming you chose a strong seminary, trust that your professors are there to teach the truth, and learn from them. Don’t be the obnoxious student that finds every small area of doctrine that the professor doesn’t line-up with you on, but rather go to class humbly. Allow yourself to be challenged, and to learn.

Before I went to seminary, I believed in the pre-wrath rapture. The professor for my eschatology class asked to speak with me, and I came ready to rumble. I had all my cross references lined up and memorized, and I wanted to debate. Instead he simply asked me this question: “Are you coming to class to learn?” That is one of the questions that changed my life.

Students too often short their educational process by only looking for academics that reinforce their beliefs, rather than viewing seminary as education. Leave your pride at your home church (your pastor will watch it for you while you are gone), and instead pack a teachable spirit.

Watch your life and your doctrine

I know many people whose spiritual lives grew cold in school. You’ve heard the joke: “Is it seminary or cemetery?” Well, the coolest part of seminary is that it should feed you spiritually. The things you are learning in class should have spiritual power to them. Does the post-positive de sound dry to you? Then find a verse where it brings a spiritual truth to life, and mediate on that truth (hint: 1 Cor 3:9, or Eph 2:4).

I never bought the advice that a student should keep their academics separate from their devotional life. If you want to do that, go to law school. The point in seminary is that you are learning about God and his word, and it should stoke your spiritual life.

With that said, you must be disciplined to guard your prayer life. Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees, or the trinity for Tertullian. Keep the big view. Sometimes your studies may slide for prayer time, and that’s good. Better to have practical godliness and fail the quiz, than an A in the class. The two things you should take seriously are the gospel and sin. Love one, flee the other, and let seminary fill the gap in between. When you graduate, no church is going to care about your GPA—but they will definitely sense either an air of godliness or a stench of worldliness.

Serve the church—emphasis on church

If you are in seminary for the right reasons (you do want to be a pastor, right?), then you need to be involved in the church. This brings your education to life. When you learn something practical in class, you can do it that week. Don’t make a list of things you’ll do as a pastor when you graduate, as if that list will have value in four years. Rather, put it into practice at your small group tomorrow. Find a church that encourages your growth, confronts your sin, and knows how to handle seminary students. Find elders that will help you grow, and prepare you for a life of vocational ministry.

Don’t be content with membership at a church, but be involved, and demonstrate leadership. Let those around you see if you are called to the ministry. Succeed and fail, and do it all while you are going to seminary.

Serve the church—emphasis on serve

I know you know this now, but occasionally seminary students forget this by year 2: the church does not exist to prepare you for ministry. That is certainly one function of a church, but for the most part, the church exists to express the glory of God in a corporate sense on earth. In other words, serve the church. Don’t be on the prowl for constant ministry. Don’t attend a bible study on the condition that you teach it. Attend to be a servant, and let your service be the expression of maturity that others see.

Obviously you should teach, and find opportunities to do that (jails, rehab ministries, youth ministries, street corners, be creative). Be willing to disciple one person, and be faithful at it. Serve the church by discipling those that are difficult, and by being discipled by the elders. You are in this for the long term, so remember that the one who is faithful with little will soon be entrusted with much.

For other seminary grads: use the comment thread to give your own prerequisites for success:

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Greg Pickle

    I remember Rick Holland’s words to our table at lunch during orientation: take your TV, unplug it, and put it in the closet until you graduate.

    Besides what you have listed above, I would also add that it’s extremely easy to think that seminary is more important than your job (assuming you are working through seminary). Yes, you are there for seminary. But faithfulness in your job is massively important. The most faithful people I have seen in ministry are the ones who have learned this lesson.

    • pearlbaker

      “take your TV, unplug it, and put it in the closet until you graduate.” 🙂 Best advice ever! Can we just extend that to “until the Lord takes you home”?

  • Karl Heitman

    The wise words of Dr. Irv Busenitz will be forever etched in my mind…no matter what line of work I’m in. In orientation, he told the story of a very (very) hard working sem student who earned a high GPA, but neglected his wife throughout the entire duration of seminary. At graduation, he noticed his wife’s absence. He went home after graduation only to find a mountain of books piled on his bed with a note which read, “You went to bed with these the past three years, and you can continue to do so” (I’m paraphrasing). The takeaway: men, do NOT sacrifice your wife and children for the sake of being summa cum laude. Be willing to take a ‘B,’ if necessary, on the Greek quiz to spend some quality time with your family.

  • Thankful for you and for this encouraging counsel, brother…Ready and excited to begin this journey under your leadership!

  • Jason

    The general slant of your “Be Teachable” section I can heartily agree with. A person definitely needs to be respectful of a teacher. If you’re willing to pay them money to teach you, the least you can do is listen to what they have to say.

    On the other hand, if seminary is taking students with Biblical explainations for what they believe and spitting out graduates parroting what the course aimed to prove it’s doing the exact opposite of what it ought to be doing: teaching people how to best grow up to the image of Christ in accordance to the Word of God.

    As long as you’re not going into a discussion with the intent of destroying a professor it’s important for them to also be humble enough to at least take the time to answer disagreements. I assume “Are you coming to class to learn?” wasn’t all you got for your cross-references.

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