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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)

3 Takeaways from India 2019

From January 25th – February 3rd I and a brother from our church embarked on a 34-hour journey deep into the heart of India. While it’s not necessary to share our exact location, I can share that we were in the southern half of India. Our objective on this trip was not to convert Hindus, but rather, to strengthen and encourage local pastors who are facing monumental challenges in ministry.

The trip was prompted by a request from our local partner and was spurred on by a zeal to see pastors trained and supported in a region with little opportunities for such training.

Over the course of nine days, we came to learn about local threats to the gospel directly from national pastors and leaders and spent time discussing strategies for the years ahead. We also provided training seminars during the day and expositional sermons at night. In total, I had the privilege of preaching and teaching about a dozen times (sometimes cramming two sermons into 90 straight minutes of preaching at the request of our hosts). We ministered everywhere from a small village church to a crowd of 700+ pastors from all around southern India.

It’s impossible to put into words all the incredible experiences that we had on the trip but I’d be doing my dear brothers from India a great disservice if I didn’t at least boil things down to a few key takeaways. I’m not saying I have the solutions to the challenges contained in some of these takeaways, but it still seemed noteworthy to point them out.

The Prosperity Gospel is the #1 Issue The Global Church is Facing Within Its Own Ranks
One afternoon we sat with approximately 15 pastors for a time of fellowship and discussion. What I came to learn was shocking. Previously, I understood that the prosperity gospel was somewhat of an issue in India. After all, 15 years ago I was in Mumbai for a massive crusade with the “Hinn family entourage” and millions of people attended our crusades where we promised health, wealth, healing, and salvation to the desperate crowd. But this trip was different. As the pastors shared their hearts, I was told that the entire region is seeing a wave of compromise within the church. One pastor confessed that he has “started preaching prosperity theology” because people will leave his church if he doesn’t. Another pastor shared that even in areas where the church appears to be thriving, those churches are not healthy — they preach the prosperity gospel. As men opened up in honesty, the clarion call within the room was that faithfulness was still our mandate.

While religions outside of Christianity (like Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism) still result in great persecution against Christians, nothing seems to be assaulting the church from within like the prosperity gospel and other branches of charismatic extremism.

When you analyze the global church on a macro level; adding in stats from South America, Africa, and even China (yes, China!), the prosperity gospel (and associated movements) is the #1 issue we’re facing. Sound doctrine is in short supply. There is a famine in our land.

Our Brothers and Sisters Are Hungry for More Access to Theological Training
Over and over again the pastors and leaders asked, can you please help us get more resources in our own language and help us access training for ministry? Out of the approximately 1000 pastors I came across, very few had received any formal theological training though they were desperate for it. It’s not as though they could apply for financial aid and simply go to seminary. In the smaller group of pastors that I interacted with, 6 had been to seminary, 5 had finished. Of those 5, at least 3 had to leave the country to acquire their training. While I understand that these numbers cannot accurately represent the entire global picture, they do serve as a wake-up call for the need to train and deploy leaders internationally. People are hungry for theological training so they can be more effective in local ministry.

At one point a pastor shared with me that India has its very own version of “Benny Hinn” and “Joel Osteen.” These local national imitators put on the same ruse that false teachers do in America. I immediately thought, where are the local national theologians who can push back on this threat? Why is it that there are influential false teachers assaulting the church but these local pastors are hard-pressed to find a commentary set or apologetics resource in their own language in order to study and answer the questions of their congregation? I was struck with the conviction that we must be intentional about training nationals to be warriors in their own nation. Furthermore, it seems there are still many places around the world that are not getting the translation support they need to contend for the faith.

How amazing would it be to see countries explode with their own seminaries and their own theologians so that more locals can move more quickly into training opportunities and be unleashed on the local church when ready? It’s hard enough to minister in places around the world where persecution is intense. Without access to theological resources, many leaders are like unarmed soldiers in the middle of a war zone. If we can help them get started, we must.

Jesus is Building His Church and the Gates of Hades Cannot Prevail Against It
Even in the darkest corners of the earth, Christ’s light cannot be stopped. India is no exception. One church we visited was located in a village that had been completely Hindu one generation prior. All efforts to evangelize people there had borne no fruit. Then, a family planted a church of 4 people in the village and tried once more. The result? An explosion of conversions and some 80 members now growing in their faith. The locals have threatened them and tried to eradicate their church, but Christ continues to increase their number. One pastor shared how his church started in his living room, then spilled outside his home, only to lead them to erect a church building to meet the growing need for space. Now, 400 members gather each week to hear the preaching of the word, share a meal, and sing for the glory of God together. Without question, in the midst of a spiritual battle between darkness and light, our unstoppable conquering King is building His church.

As generation after generation seeks to be faithful to the Great Commission, God will use them to see great things unfold. It’s easy to get lost in the noise that can is American evangelicalism. Personally, being reminded of what our family in Christ is facing around the world puts many things into perspective. Suddenly, stone throwing over social justice and arguing over politics seems less important. It’s amazing what nine days, less Wi-Fi, and some good old-fashioned Indian food will do. Change of pace and change of place really do equal a change in perspective.

Here’s to more living out the Commission we’ve been called to. Life is short. Let’s stay busy.

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20)

 

8 Ways to Disciple Aspiring Pastors

Knowing God’s word on pastoral qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-7) is essential for aspiring pastors. Equally important to knowing the qualifications for pastoral ministry, is the practical application of those qualifications. Most seminarians understand that aspiring pastors have a long way to go, but they are usually desperate to be discipled in practical ways during their years of ministry training. The fact is, aspiring pastors don’t just need to be told about the high standard for ministry, they need to be coached on how to serve at a high standard in ministry. Sure, it’s easy to say, “If he’s got it, he’s got it,” but most men don’t naturally graduate from a seminary like gracechristian.edu/online as expert financial stewards and super-shepherds who go on to become the next John MacArthur. It takes faithful men who take them under their wing and guide them like a father guides a son – like Paul guided Timothy – for them to become strong leaders.

In this post we’ll consider 8 time-tested strategies that can prove useful in a local church setting. The list is not exhaustive, and not all of these need to (or should) happen simultaneously. Each depends on the stage of pastoral training and can be a starting point for examining how aspiring men can be well supported:

  1. Title Them Appropriately

One of the worst things an aspiring pastor can be given is the title of pastor. I’ll never forget the day I went from being a “pastor” (in my former charismatic life), to being a “pastor-in-training” at a Bible Church. It was humbling, but a great relief. I felt like the kid who just got the rod of correction and was set free from the heavy burden of my sin. Aspiring pastors shouldn’t be acting as something they aren’t. They shouldn’t be staring at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 thinking, “Hmmm…maybe no one has noticed yet.” Give aspiring pastors titles like: associate, coordinator, pastoral intern, or pastor-in-training. Never guarantee anything beyond where God has them right now.

  1. Let Them Preach

Yes, in Reformed circles these days everyone wants a Charles Spurgeon with “(Th.M)” behind his name before he gets to touch the pulpit. This is a good security measure so young men don’t make a mockery of the gospel, but if properly discipled by the pastor-theologians who regularly teach, aspiring pastors who possess giftedness for preaching should be able to preach in some forum within the local church. Options could include: the youth ministry, the Sunday or Wednesday evening service, Sunday school, Children’s ministry, small groups, staff devotionals, ministry events, prison ministry, street preaching, or pulpit supply.

  1. Coach Their Preaching

One of the fondest memories in my young preaching ministry thus far was when our teaching pastor introduced me to something called, “sermon mapping” after one of my pulpit excursions. It should have been called, “sermon shredding.” His sentiments were something like, “For 17 minutes you told us what you were going to preach about, then for 7 minutes you actually preached…it was as though God was speaking to people from His word through you for those few minutes. Then for 11 minutes you repeated yourself…then you circled the runway for a long time on the last section and it was getting about time for you to land that plane.” I’m forever grateful for the brutally honest feedback! It was back to the drawing board. Reading Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students is great, MacArthur’s Expository Preaching is life-changing, but nothing beats personal coaching from gifted, proven mentors. Aspiring pastors need one-on-one feedback, manuscript deadlines, help with formatting their notes, body language coaching, special study assignments, and honesty when it’s clear they aren’t able to teach. Wise elders are the voice of reason for aspiring pastors.

  1. Coach Their Priorities

Aspiring pastors may think they know a lot about priorities, but marriage, parenting, and ministry will teach them otherwise. They may have some bad habits (and probably do). If they are a newlywed they’ll need coaching on biblical priorities within a marriage. If single, they’ll need to be taught that playing video games in mom’s basement is not the best way to prepare for marriage and a life in ministry. Most aspiring pastors need help learning how to plan their calendar, how to go about strategizing their workflow and study time, and how to say “no.” Keep them accountable when it comes to spiritual discipline, require prayer reports that show the evidence of their prayer life, and ask them often, “What is God teaching you through His word this week?” Effective prioritization is a make or break quality that a pastor must posses.

  1. Help Them Build a Budget

Ask seminary students what the #1 thing seminary didn’t help them with when they got their first pastoral position. Too many will say, “finances.” Dave Ramsey has made snowball debt pay down popular, but not every aspiring pastor has the “411” on building, balancing, and adjusting a budget. I had no idea how to financially plan my own budget when I first got married, let alone a church budget. It wasn’t until a long-time pastor sat me down with an excel spreadsheet and laid down the law. And that was only the first step! Many aspiring pastors are often unable to handle financial planning because they have never been taught. Insecurity cripples them from being honest because many in the church assume they should know what they’re doing, and the spiral of confusion only gets worse when they have kids. Aspiring pastors need to be coached on how to set financial goals, how to pay off debt, how to ask for a raise if merited, and how to ask for what they actually need when they’re scared of being labeled: “greedy.” They need strategies from wise men who have been where they’ve been so that they can lead the church through time-tested principles – not insecurity and ignorance.

  1. Affirm Their Giftedness

There is no greater disservice to aspiring pastors than to be led on when they are clearly not cut out for pastoral ministry. It’s equally as frustrating when a man is not pointed in the right direction based on his gifting. If young men cannot teach they must be told so. If they are better suited as counselors or deacons, they must be told so. Conversely, if they are a great leader but don’t see it, they must be told so! One of the most challenging aspects to this process is the fact that a man must be observed before his gifts can be affirmed so expectations about length of the observation period must be clear. All of this helps men and the church avoid wasting valuable time. If a man is not called as a pastor, he can readily enter the workforce and excel in his job, while joining a ministry team and building up the body as a valuable member.

  1. Model Pastoral Qualifications

Even the best of men are men at best, but hypocrisy has no place in the training of aspiring pastors. No leader is perfect, but there must still be a model of holiness worth following. Aspiring pastors need discipleship from wiser men in regards to how they function when under stress, how to respond to angry members, or even how to handle children who are disobedient in the face of biblical parenting. How should a pastor respond when offered an alcoholic beverage during a home visit? What should a pastor say to a woman who is crying and pleading for private counsel? How many nights a week out of the house doing ministry is too many when kids are young? Men need help answering these questions and more. One way to help aspiring pastors is to make them a “wing man” for hospital visits, membership classes, mission trips, funerals, and weddings. All of these opportunities help them see how the character qualifications of a pastor are put into practice. Finally, one of the best ministry models for aspiring pastors is the study habits of faithful men. When a young man sees the hours it takes to rightly divide the word of truth, and the hours spent praying and pouring into people, he’ll think long and hard about whether or not that life is for him.

  1. Spend Quality Time with Them

Much of discipleship is caught, not taught. This list would be incomplete without the relational element to pastoral training. Listen to an older pastor preach and it won’t be long before you hear:

  • “I’ll never forget my Systematic Theology professor taking me out for lunch one day and setting me straight…to this day we’re dear friends.”
  • “One day my mentor at the time looked me square in the eye and told me…”
  • “When I was going through one of the toughest seasons in my life it was an elder who invited my wife and I to his house. That evening he and his wife shared wisdom that shaped us forever.”

The ministry that aspiring pastors will go on to build will directly relate to the investment of the men who oversee them. With wives to love, families to raise, and churches to lead, pastor-elders can’t be expected to hold the hand of every young man who comes along. But discipleship can’t occur without some level of life-on-life relational investment. Aspiring pastors will remember the moments that shaped their life forever, and a generation will rise up for the glory of God.