How to Stay Christian in Seminary: Juggling Multiple Callings

“You have a lifetime of ministry, but only three or four years to become a specialist in God’s Word,” Dr. Strimple told me. “Think of the health of those you’ll be serving—they deserve your best now, which is to be a student.”

Dr. Horton wrote this post in relation to a series done over at the Desiring God blog

“How to Stay Christian in Seminary”

Any seminary worth its salt is going to demand focused labor, time, and interest. In other words, it’s going to be a calling. That’s as it should be. After all, you’re going to be an undershepherd of Christ and you have to be a specialist in his Word.

When I hear folks slight seminary education or suggest that it can be substituted with informal and mostly independent approaches, I ask them if they’d choose a brain surgeon who received his medical training in a similar manner. Do we really want our medical physicians operating on us while they are teaching themselves the taxonomy of pathologies? We are relieved to imagine that our doctors spent a lot of late nights preparing for the next day’s class, writing papers, reading journals, attending lectures, and observing veterans on their rounds.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well and lives are at stake. What may seem like a routine paper you never would have written unless some rather uncharismatic neurologist assigned texts you never would have read for yourself might turn out to be “just what the doctor ordered” in an emergency room someday.

As important as our physical health is, we’re all going to die. In preparing for the holy ministry, we are preparing to prepare others for death and the life everlasting. Martha was a busy bee in the Lord’s work—”anxious about many things,” but her sister Mary was commended for having “chosen the better part” by sitting at Jesus’s feet for instruction. Disciples have to learn before they leap.

I arrived at seminary with the zeal of a reformer, already engaged in ministry. And it showed. My professors kindly challenged me to slow down. “You have a lifetime of ministry, but only three or four years to become a specialist in God’s Word,” Dr. Strimple told me. “Think of the health of those you’ll be serving—they deserve your best now, which is to be a student.” It was sage counsel.

I have seen a few tragic cases of burnout among students. In almost every one it was due less to the burden of studies than to the challenge of trying to balance multiple callings. I’ve had occasion to offer the same advice Dr. Strimple gave me.

Sometimes, dare I say, it’s the fault of the church leadership. I’ve seen a number of students whose sponsoring church funded their education, but only at the price of demanding unreasonable hours, especially in youth ministry, often requiring students to commute great distances each week. One of the benefits of residential seminary education is that the priorities are already set by sheer distance. You can’t do ministry with seminary on the side. Churches need to have a high enough value of what’s happening here in these few years to pay for seminary without any strings attached—except for regular accountability and encouragement. Being a seminary student isn’t just preparation for a calling, but a calling in its own right.

If you come to seminary married, your first calling is to your wife—and children, if you are blessed with them yet. Luther called the family “my little parish.” Sometimes men leave their wives in the dust. Their furniture is being rearranged. After a week of lectures, reading, and spirited discussions and debates with classmates and professors outside of class, their heads and hearts are spinning. They can’t wait to get onto the next discovery and the material is coming at them from all directions like baseballs. Then there are the daily chapels and prayer groups.

It’s easy to assume that because you are immersed in the Word and prayer every day, that is all you—and your family—need. It’s easy to hang out more with fellow students sometimes than to teach the faith to those closest to you. Certainly there is the importance of daily devotions together as a family, but you need also to consistently unpack what you’re learning in seminary so that your first ministerial call—your own “little parish”—is well-fed. Your calling is to be a disciple and to make disciples, so start at home. When they are part of your trials and wonderful insights, they will also be your cheerleaders and constructive critics for the rest of your ministry. Don’t leave them behind.

We also have a calling as church members. Where I teach, all full-time faculty members have to be involved in pastoral ministry in a local church as teaching elders/ministers and students are expected to be rooted in a local church where they and their families are served. Consistent involvement in a local church is key for keeping our priorities in check. Seminary is a servant of, not substitute for, actual churches.

Juggling these callings can be exhausting. That’s why, at every point along the way, it is so crucial to bear in mind that lectures, papers, and exams (and, of course, grades) are not ends in themselves, but means to the end that every believer’s calling shares: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. If that’s true for you and your closest parishioners now, it will be true for many others for the years of fruitful ministry that our gracious Lord is pleased to give us.

Michael S. Horton is Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. This article first appearedon the White Horse Inn Blog and is used with permission.