We Are Soul Surgeons

Why I Would Never Skip Seminary

After nine years of ministry, I walked into the classroom for my first day at Bethlehem College & Seminary. I came from a youth-ministry context that afforded me plenty of opportunities to get my feet wet in pastoral ministry, and yet I still found myself stepping away to go back to school — and for four long years.

As I considered seminary, I had heard over and over again, and in no uncertain terms, that seminary was the place “where faith goes to die.” If Paul instructed the saints of Rome to be fervent, literally “boil,” in Spirit (Romans 12:11), then seminary, it was purported, would be bags of ice that would drop my spiritual temperature.

There may be some merit to such a caricature of seminary. History is littered with seminary casualties. Seminary Cemetery is filled with rows of headstones memorializing the death of faith. This reality fueled the book How to Stay Christian in Seminary. The mere existence of the book highlights the fact that seminary is dangerous. As the authors say, the gospel fragrance of this education proves life-giving to many, but for others — far too many others — its aroma can lead to death.

Now four years out of seminary and into the pastorate, let me add my own encouragement to aspiring shepherds of God’s flock. If you are serious about your joy in God and feel called by God to pastor his people, please consider seminary. The dangers should not keep you from considering a concentrated time of education — for the glory of God, the good of the church, and the fortifying of your own soul.

Who Is Sufficient for This?

The weight of the pastoral office was the impetus for my seminary education. While many souls may have perished in seminary, millions more have died in churches led by pastors without training.

If you and others in your local church sense a pastoral call on your life, consider with much gravity the nature of this ministry. Paul, to his son in the faith, writes, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). The nobility of this task, as a replica, finds its model in Jesus Christ, who is the Chief Shepherd. This Christ-inspired good work underscores the character qualifications necessary for overseers (1 Timothy 3:2–7).

“The weight of this call demands preparation.”

To Titus, Paul highlights an essential identity marker for the overseer. He is “God’s steward” (Titus 1:7). In other words, the overseer’s office is never his own, nor for his own personal benefit. His stewardship has been given to him, and it will be required of him. Each year a man pastors, he is one year closer to the day when he must give an account.

Lemuel Haynes speaks to this reality in his sermon “The Character and Work of a Spiritual Watchmen Required.” He wrote,

The work of a gospel minister has a peculiar relation to the future. . . . Arguments taken from the names given to the ministers of Christ show that they must give account. They are called soldiers, ambassadors, servants, stewards, etc., which points out the relation they and their work stand in to God: they are sent by God and are answerable to him who sent them, just as a servant or steward is to give account to his lord and master with respect to his faithfulness in the trust reposed to him. (The Faithful Preacher)

Pastors are stewards of precious goods. Hebrews 13:17 portrays these precious goods as souls who are to be watched over with deep care and concern. Paul, to the Ephesian elders, reminds them to not only pay attention to themselves but also “to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

The realization of the astounding privilege and responsibility of being a gift given to the church for her edification (Ephesians 4:11–16) ought to call current and future pastors to cry out alongside Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

Physicians of the Soul

The weight of the call demands preparation. This is clear to us in other professions. Consider doctors. At the very least, this much-needed profession requires four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, and three years of residency training before licensing can be acquired. While this is long, and extremely expensive, we understand the importance of this amount of preparation. In fact, as a society we insist on it.

Such is required for the physician of our bodies. How much more should preparation be sought by those who aspire to be physicians of the blood-purchased soul? Seminary carves out a season for this preparation. It creates a uniquely concentrated space to immerse and familiarize yourself with pastoral tools like exegesis, historical theology, biblical theology, systematic theology, and practical theology.

“Each year a man pastors, he is one year closer to the day when he must give an account.”

Seminary affords us an opportunity to rub shoulders with faculty members who stand forth as models and mentors. The sweetest hidden treasures I found at seminary were my pastor-professors who loved Jesus, loved their spouses, loved their children, loved the church, loved their scholarship, loved their students, loved the gospel, and loved the glory of God. The example of their God-centeredness was as important in my pastoral development as the books they assigned.

Seminary also creates connections and interactions among classmates with different backgrounds, giftings, perspectives, and experiences. The ability to interact and learn from other people will pay massive dividends in pastoral ministry. Pastors need friends too. Friendships can be forged in seminary that end up being a lighthouse of hope in the dark pastoral nights of the soul.

Seminary Won’t Teach You Everything

If seminary is an option for you, why not invest in a period of time to develop your proficiency as a pastor for the good of your future flock and the glory of God? The weight of this call demands preparation.

You might be thinking, “Well, you don’t learn everything at seminary.” Well said. A doctor doesn’t learn everything in medical school. John Piper offers wise insight concerning this frequent objection:

Don’t think of your seminary years as the time when you learn what you need to know for ministry. If you do that, you will spend the rest of your life blaming the seminary for what you didn’t get. I get very tired of those complaints. I have never blamed my seminary for anything I had to learn later. Expect that you will leave seminary with much yet to learn. Seminary is a more focused extension of high school and college. The aim of such formal education is to fit you to learn for the next fifty years.

Many pastoral lessons aren’t learned sitting in seminary. Sitting in seminary, however, can form a foundation that hard lessons learned in the field can stand on.

Pastors Must Be Able to Teach

One pastoral responsibility in particular exponentially increased the value of my seminary experience. Pastors are to feed the flock of Christ (John 21:17). They are called to “preach the word,” which is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2).

Pastors must “keep a close watch . . . on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). In their teaching, pastors are to “show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:7–8), and they are to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Overseers are to devote themselves “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Pastors must also protect the church from false teaching without and within. The bulk of their labor must be found “in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Teaching is indispensable for the life, witness, joy, progress, perseverance, and formation of the church.

“Teaching is indispensable for the life, witness, joy, progress, perseverance, and formation of the church.”

To this end, pastors must be able and skillful to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). Aspiring pastor, where will you learn the most important pastoral skill — exegesis of the original meaning of Scripture (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, 85)? How will you become proficient at handling the tools of Greek and Hebrew required to mine the gold that is there in the Scriptures for your people to marvel at Sunday after Sunday? What culinary school will you immerse yourself in to learn how to feed your people soul-satisfying and Christ-glorifying meals week in and week out?

Present Yourself to God

What am I most grateful for from my four years at Bethlehem College & Seminary? The development of this lifelong task of sharpening the most important pastoral skill. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy provides a great ground to pursue a seminary education:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

If the Lord gives you an opportunity to prepare well in seminary, do not count it lightly. Consider it for the good of the church and the glory of God. After almost five years of pastoral ministry — of preparing and preaching sermons, of caring for and maturing souls, of walking with saints through suffering, of stewarding the preciousness of this calling — I am glad I did.