There are things you cannot know without suffering. So writes John Piper in his foreword to How to Stay Christian in Seminary.
This is true, and yet those are the very things pastors must know, in some sense, as they seek to shepherd their people. Seminary is a place to be instructed and equipped, even though the vital experiences can’t all be simulated. Pastors must understand pain, even when they can’t understand every pain from the inside.
This is why us non-seminarians should care about and pray for those in ministry training and their places of study and professors. Someday soon, these seminarians will be our pastors.
The Kind of Pastors We Need
On the other side of seminary training, we need a shepherd not mainly with a big head stocked with endless knowledge about this and that, but a pastor with a big heart, especially for the suffering. Here are three characteristics that we need in our pastors:
1. We need pastors who love and trust God more than their academic credentials.
As David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell point out in How to Stay Christian, the intellectual activities of seminary can turn a heart away from intimacy with God if academic achievement becomes more important than knowing God. Much of the great learning is going to be inadequate as he walks into that hospital room where a young couple has learned their newborn baby has lifelong disabilities. Sure, that dad might once have been impressed at the ability to read a passage in the original Greek, but in that moment he’ll need to know if his pastor trusts the God he has preached from Scripture. And if pastors neglect these affections for God in ministry training, they won’t just magically appear after the degree is finished.
2. We need pastors who spot the wolves, and remove them.
Suffering people want answers. We are vulnerable to wolves who come in with clever words and enticing ways to think about God that remove his glorious sovereignty and explain away the circumstances in our lives. Pastors are called to help us see the wolves and protect us from them.
And that requires pastors-in-training to spend time in seminary giving it their intellectual best. Like the bank teller who can sense a counterfeit bill because he spends so much time with real currency, a pastor is trained to see the lies disguised in soft language. God himself and his truth are so much more beautiful and desirable than the cleverest arguments contrary to God’s word. As Calvin says of the theologian, so it goes for the pastor, “[His duty] is not to tickle the ear, but confirm the conscience, by teaching what is true, certain, and useful” (Institutes I, xiv, 4).
As Parnell writes in his opening chapter,
The great foundation and goal of the universe is the glory of God. The foundation and goal of your studies and ministry should be no different. More than anything else, energized by grace, you want our triune God to be high and lifted up. (25)
Wolves masquerade as shepherds, and they will even try to infiltrate seminaries. Pastors-in-training must prepare themselves in seminary to fight the wolves and to help us to hear and love the voice of the Great Shepherd.
3. We need pastors to show us that they are glad to be saved!
Suffering can rob hope. I want — need — to live with hope. Pastors who are happy and filled up with hope in Jesus will be evident to those like me. Pastors with hope help their people find happiness by pointing them to the Author of their hope.
We need pastors who are like John Newton. Newton was influential and accomplished, but he never got over what God had done for him:
His influence grew wide and deep, but for him it all came back to grace — amazing grace. God had saved him. He was a miracle. He knew that whatever good would come from his life, it was because of God’s greatness, not his. (51)
Dear seminarian, live right now with wonder at how God took you as a dead man and gave you life! Let your weakness in fighting sin, loving your wife, and studying the Scriptures serve to make God look even bigger and stronger. Seminary can provide you good practice at being weak when everything in you is tempting you to appear strong and smart before your colleagues and your faculty.
Pray for Tomorrow’s Leaders
Join me in praying for those in seminary and the faculty who lead them, that they would not lose the affections for God that first made them consider pursuing a theological education. Seminary isn’t just about seminarians as they prepare for leadership. It’s also about how those of us in the pews will one day be shepherded. We want men to whom we can respond in faith:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)