This article may ruffle the feathers of those who teach, attend, or believe in mandated on-campus seminary training, but don’t get too fired up just yet. Let’s start by agreeing on this: physically going to seminary can be vitally important for a ministry leader.
As valuable as physically attending seminary can be, the local church has always proven to be the most ideal breeding and training ground for future leaders. You could say that the church (when fulfilling its task) is the ultimate “Bible institute.” Unfortunately, not every church has the resources to do this. Therefore, seminaries are incredibly valuable to compliment — not supplement — local church training and experience.
Seminaries must exist today to support the local church, not replace it. Even further, seminarians must acknowledge this and realize they are not the end in themselves. Seminaries are merely a means to an end. Al Mohler once wrote, “Seminaries do not call pastors. God does. And seminaries do not make pastors. Churches do. Keeping that straight is important.”
I’ve attended seminary in person (Talbot School of Theology) and on two occasions considered leaving my local church and job as a pastor in order to move my family to Los Angeles and go “all in” at The Master’s Seminary. Eventually, I chose to stay at my church, serve under the elders and be discipled by the lead pastor, and finish my seminary education online through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Here are ten lessons I learned along the way:
1. I learned to rise early and manage my time in the real world
No sleeping in. No hoody and messy hair. No wasted hours. Going to school online as a married man with kids meant that I had to read books, write papers, do my full-time job on the church staff, and win at home all at the same time. More than that, losing control of my body and getting overweight because of stress eating was inexcusable (but tempting!). Therefore, waking up 4am or 5am was something I learned to embrace — and even, love sometimes. As a certified “night owl,” I enjoy staying up late and spending time with people. But if I wanted to study to show myself approved (2 Timothy 2:15), and be sane when it was over, discipline was mandatory. I remember one semester I put on twenty-eight pounds and was a mess from trying to “do it all” and please people. Stress eating and Netflix binging became a dangerously soothing escape. That was a painful but helpful lesson. Soon after, I used my calendar to track nearly every minute of every day, and I learned to only do what was important, no matter what people-pleasing temptations arose.
2. I learned that systematic theology classes don’t teach you how to build teams, created processes, and implement systems
Pastoring seven years is not that long, but it’s long enough to learn a very hard but necessary lesson. If I can write 10,000-word papers on systematic theology but I can’t get a ministry off the ground, there is going to be pastoral pain once on staff. As an online learner, I was able to still get the knowledge I needed, while learning to fail and succeed at what matters most: leading people in ministry and moving them towards a biblical vision. Knowing all your “ologies” can help you answer questions like a sage, but it’s not going to guarantee that you know how to build teams and execute strategic initiatives like Nehemiah. The latter is going to be equally as important for a pastor.
3. I learned that knowing Koine Greek isn’t a superpower
I was sitting my first ever Greek class at Talbot and Doug Geringer stepped up to the front of the class. He was a soft-spoken, caring, and wise professor who started things off in a way that etched in mind forever. He began by saying, “Open up your Bibles.” We did. “The translation you are looking at is incredibly close to the original language it was written in.” We pondered. “Therefore, if you think that taking this class is going to give you superpowers, you will be sincerely disappointed.” We deflated. Professor Geringer began to explain that God chose a simple, commoners language (Koine) to convey divine truths. The lesson that day was clear: We should be humbled, not haughty. We should see that knowing Greek is a tool to preach more faithfully, not a badge of pompous honor to hold above people’s heads. This stuck with me in the years that I continued my education online.
4. I learned that an online seminary wife needs a Titus 2 woman too
One benefit of in-person seminary training is the programs that they have for wives if you’re a married man. What was I to do without this valuable part of seminary life? I was an online student and could easily live and study on an island. I prayed and asked God to provide what was needed and he did. It was that simple. Shortly after I prayed, a 60-year-old woman who was a pastor’s wife and a pastor’s mother approached my wife and offered to disciple her. The rest was history.
5. I learned more from doing funerals and weddings than some classes
I can still name them and see their faces in the hospitals and at hospice bedsides. My pastor during the online seminary years often needed to focus on preaching and other hats he wore, and my role was focused mostly on people. Therefore, during any given online semester I found myself praying with dying members and preaching funerals by day, and studying hamartiology and church history by night. There were many failures, but there were many victories. I learned from hospital visits where death filled the room, from funerals that forced me to preach the gospel without fear, and from weddings where unsaved attendees laughed at God’s design for marriage. I could have learned a lot about death and marriage in a classroom, but nothing knocks you around and thickens your skin like the field.
6. I learned that I need my church even more than it needs me
In a book titled, “15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me,” Jeff Robinson Sr. gives a valuable lesson about humility in the chapter titled, “Knowledge and Credentials Aren’t Enough.” As much as pastors can be “gifts” to the local church, the local church is a gift to every pastor. I learned that my knowledge makes me useful when questions arise, and gaining wisdom allows a pastor to serve better. Better is good. But I also learned that I desperately need my church. I need their prayers, their friendships, their encouragement, and even their critiques, rebukes, and complaints. These shaping and sanctifying facets of the local church are good for the soul.
7. I learned that theory and practice are two very different things
You can talk about it, read about it, get straight “A’s” on it, and have fancy letters behind your name because you wrote the papers on it, but can you apply it? Theories and information are great to study and know, but they represent only half of any ministry equation. Can you implement what you know? Does it work? I remember having a “genius” idea during a staff meeting because of something I had heard in a class. I got everybody fired up about my idea, cast a hypothetical vision for it, and we were off to the races! I was certain it would work because I learned about it in a class. After a faceplant, some team drama, and a failed initiative, I realized that theory and practice are two very different things.
8. I learned that getting an “A” was not as important in winning at home and church
In the classroom or online, wise professors will teach the same lesson. A student who passes with flying colors in the classroom but fails at home or in the church has their priorities out of order. Year after year at MBTS I had professors reach out who would push me to make sure family priorities were in balance. Every semester the online professor calls students and quite often they would reiterate the importance of being faithful with home, church, then assignment obligations.
9. I learned that pain, trials, and local church service are the best classroom there is
No amount of classroom learning can replace what trials will do to every seminarian. The pain of loss, failure, pride, and suffering shapes like nothing else can. God uses the classroom to enhance the head knowledge of a pastor, but he uses suffering and trials to shape their holiness. Reading textbooks will never test and train like the school of suffering.
10. I learned that seminary doesn’t make you a pastor
Charles Spurgeon didn’t have one. Martyn-Lloyd Jones didn’t have one. And numerous others throughout church history didn’t have a seminary degree. This is not something to boast about or a reason not to go to seminary, but it is a humbling reminder that a degree doesn’t make the man — God does. He does that through the process of a man studying, serving, and suffering in the local church. At the same time, we wouldn’t want to go to a heart surgeon who hasn’t studied to be one and proven to be a successful one. Similarly, we need pastors who are trained and who have proven to be faithful in their calling. Once more, Al Mohler offers valuable and balanced wisdom as a seminary president explaining,
Though a faithful pastor needs an education in exegesis, he is made in the preparation and delivery of sermons to the people of God. He needs the theological studies gained in seminary, but that theology is eventually hammered out when the pastor is called to preach the funeral of a child. A background in hermeneutics and homiletics is vital, but the preacher discovers his real method of interpretation and his real understanding of preaching when deciding how to preach a specific text to a specific people—and then preaching to the same congregation again and again and again.
So what should you do if you’re trying to decide between going to seminary or completing your seminary degree online? Pray, talk to your spouse, pastor, and even some professors. Make a “T-chart” of pros and cons, analyze your age, current financial reality, current opportunities, elder affirmations (or lack thereof), expenses and revenues, job opportunities, and long-term goals. Then, make your decision and give it all you’ve got with no regrets. Just remember: it’s only a means to an end (Matthew 16:18).