In this final post of the series, I want to address what seminary students can do to succeed in reaching the goals of the accumulation of knowledge, the formation of character, and the development of skills sufficient to equip them for fruitful ministry during their time of study in seminary. Here are four suggestions:
1. Don’t rush your education. Savor it. I know the desire to be out of the “student phase” of life is strong among seminarians (and their spouses!), but what if your original, Herculean plan to finish your degree in three years ends up taking six months or a year longer? What have you really lost? With the rest of your life ahead of you, not much in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, the devotion of a little extra time to this phase of life can pay dividends if that extra time is used to give more reflection and enjoyment to learning, instead of simply pushing yourself to get it done.
2. Stay rooted in a local church. The church is the context of the Christian life. Simply as a Christian believer, you need the means of grace that come to you from your local church. But with regard to your education, you need to keep one foot firmly planted among the “ordinary” people with whom you worship every Sunday, or else you are likely to miss learning how your seminary education connects to the real world. Seminary classrooms are wonderful places, but they are also quite unusual. The vast majority of your life after graduation will be spent in contexts that are not very much like a seminary classroom experience. It is, therefore, imperative that you stay in touch with life outside of the seminary, learning how to love and invest in people who have never heard the name Karl Barth and don’t have the first clue about parsing Greek verbs.
In addition, it is only in the local church that you can gain real practice in the skills of ministry. So make use of your opportunities to preach, teach, visit, and learn under the guidance of your pastors. Internships are golden opportunities here.
3. Read for breadth and depth. Even with the rigorous demands of seminary reading, eager students will seek to read beyond simply what is required of them. Fill the corners of your days and take advantage of breaks by reading books on theological topics that interest you. And do the same with books on topics that may not interest you as much but that you know are still important to learn. Aim to get a broad perspective by reading widely, but also seek to focus on one particular area of study (such as the doctrine of justification, or theories of pastoral counseling, or the theology of John Calvin) and strive to go as deep as you can with it. Train yourself in the habit of being always eager to learn more.
4. Pursue education with joy and gratitude. It is easy, under the pressure of the demands of family, school, and work, to grow weary of the tasks of reading theology, learning biblical languages, writing papers, etc., and to begin to regard them as mere hoops you have to jump through before real life can begin. It is easy to regard these tasks as commonplace duties that you perform simply because you have to. With this mentality in mind, heed the words of B.B. Warfield:
We are frequently told, indeed, that the great danger of the theological student lies precisely in his constant contact with divine things. They may come to seem common to him, because they are customary. As the average man breathes the air and basks in the sunshine without ever a thought that it is God in his goodness who makes his sun to rise on him, though he is evil, and sends rain to him, though he is unjust; so you may come to handle even the furniture of the sanctuary with never a thought above the gross early [sic] materials of which it is made. The words which tell you of God’s terrible majesty or of his glorious goodness may come to be mere words to you— Hebrew and Greek words, with etymologies, and inflections, and connections in sentences. The reasonings which establish to you the mysteries of his saving activities may come to be to you mere logical paradigms, with premises and conclusions, fitly framed, no doubt, and triumphantly cogent, but with no further significance to you than their formal logical conclusiveness. God’s stately stepping in his redemptive processes may become to you a mere series of facts of history, curiously interplaying to the production of social and religious conditions, and pointing mayhap to an issue which we may shrewdly conjecture: but much like other facts occurring in time and space, which may come to your notice. It is your great danger. But it is your great danger, only because it is your great privilege. Think of what your privilege is when your greatest danger is that the great things of religion may become common to you! Other men, oppressed by the hard conditions of life, sunk in the daily struggle for bread perhaps, distracted at any rate by the dreadful drag of the world upon them and the awful rush of the world’s work, find it hard to get time and opportunity so much as to pause and consider whether there be such things as God, and religion, and salvation from the sin that compasses them about and holds them captive. The very atmosphere of your life is these things; you breathe them in at every pore; they surround you, encompass you, press in upon you from every side. It is all in danger of becoming common to you! God forgive you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God! (The Religious Life of Theological Students)
Seminary affords you the opportunity to take a few years of your life to devote primarily to the study of God. The value of such a privilege is impossible to overstate. Thank God that he has given you such a privilege that most people never receive.
And with your heart full of gratitude…press on!