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10 Lessons from Online Seminary

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).

Recommended Reading:

15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (ed. Colin Hansen and Robinson)

Discerning Your Call to Ministry (Jason K. Allen)

Dangerous Calling (Paul Tripp)

Found: God’s Will (Jon MacArthur)

One With a Shepherd (Mary Somerville)

The Character of Leadership (Jeff Iorg)

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey)

Why Biblical Elders Are Vital to Church Health

Church leadership models always seem to be going through a type of cultural renovation. Trying to stay relevant, influential evangelicals try to innovate at every turn; trading in biblical roles like elder and deacon for newer, less biblically stringent leadership positions. Some churches avoid having elders altogether because of bad experiences or horror stories from others who warn, “Don’t have elders, they will control you!”  Other churches have senior pastors with their own agenda in mind who purposely manipulate the system to ensure that only “yes-men”make it into leadership. Still, there are churches who have yet to raise up elders or don’t know how. Whatever the scenario, biblical eldership is not always taken as seriously as it should be, and yet, it is incredibly vital to the health of a church.

Elders are important to the church because, first and foremost, they are the leaders that Christ has appointed to oversee His church. This is not mere suggestion – it is the biblical mandate. A church cannot be a fully healthy church without elders, and a church can most certainly not be a healthy church without qualified elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).  At the very least, there should be elders being raised up where there are no qualified elders yet. Elders are so important that one of Paul’s first apostolic decisions in the churches that he established was to appoint elders there (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).

Besides their biblically mandated presence in a church, there are several specific ways that elders are important to the vitality and health of a church.Here are are six to consider:

1. The church needs elders who are spiritually minded

Far too many elder boards are nothing more than a polity board when instead they should be pastoral. The church doesn’t need corporate shot-callers, it needs shepherds. True elders are ultimately put in their position by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), not by being golfing buddies with the senior pastor or a wealthy influencer in the church. The term elder, in the Bible, is reserved for spiritual men who shepherd the flock. The terms πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros), ποιμήν (poimen), and ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) are all used to describe the same office in the New Testament. Overseers, pastors, shepherds, and elders are all operating as the same kind of servant leader(s) of the church. Therefore, elders are spiritual men who are spiritually minded. They aren’t concerned with holding a position of power, but rather, being a faithful steward of what Christ has entrusted them with.

2. The church needs elders who care for the people

Christ’s people needs care – period. From counseling, to comforting, to correcting, to concern, no body of believers should be without overseers who have a genuine care for their souls (Hebrews 13:17). One of the ways that care is continuous is in the prayer life of an elder. Elders take time to pray fervently for the people. While the people are working, battling sin, and facing another day of challenges, there ought to be elders who are spiritual men going to the throne room of God on behalf of the people. This by no means is to say that the church must have some sort of priestly mediator – for we have Christ and need no other. It is to simply say that shepherds should be praying for the flock; knowing that God uses the power of prayer to preserve people.

3. The church needs elders who model for the people

They don’t need to be perfect or on a pedestal, but elders should be joyfully modeling a commitment to Christ and holiness in their lives. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 lays out qualifications that all Christians should strive for, but specifically, it lays out qualifications that all elders must possess. In fact, one of the responsibilities of an elder is to set an example for the flock (1 Peter 5:3). Elders who are qualified prove to be helpful models for people who need encouragement, discipleship, and a real life example of how sanctification works! Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). That’s the kind of leadership the church needs from elders.

4. The church needs elders who support church discipline

Elders oversee church discipline and support a system of correction, purification, and restoration within the church.  This is a healthy ecosystem in that the elders are often appointed by those within the church based on their qualifications, then serve to support the church through discipline and oversight. What a model of humility by both the congregation and the elders! (Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15; Titus 3:9-11).

5. The church needs elders who teach the Word

While all believers are to be teaching and admonishing one another (Colossians 3:16), elders are specifically called to the ministry of the word (1 Timothy 3:2) and charged with the task of preserving sound doctrine within the church (Acts 20:31; Titus 1:9). No church should ever have to suffer through the burden of not having gifted leaders who guide them in the Scriptures. Elders should be seen as essential to feeding the flock so much so that one of the primary emphasis in a local church is the raising up, and support of, biblical elders.

6. The church needs elders who protect them from deceivers

Elders are essential to a church because their ministry includes an emphasis on protecting the people by using the word to refute those who would harm them. Again, this is something that all Christians can do, but Christ has seen to it that there’s no question of who must do this. Even though people appoint and humbly follow their qualified leaders, it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who “makes” elders the overseers of the church (Acts 20:28) and demands they must protect the people. Elders stand against false doctrines, mark false teachers, and refuse to concede against any wolves that would prey on the flock (Acts 20:28-30; Romans 16:17-18).

Governance models within any given church may vary. Some will opt for elder led, some for congregationalism, and others will mix these two and find a type of balance. No matter the model, biblical elders are critical to the health of a church. Our goal should be to see Christ raise them up in our churches for the good of His people and glory of His name.

Recommended Reading:

Biblical Eldership By Alexander Strauch

The Masters Plan for the Church John MacArthur

Church Elders By Jeramie Rinne

Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology By John S. Hammett