How to Stay Christian in Seminary—And Any Season of Waiting

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

Part 1: Forward-Looking Intentionality (Jonathan Parnell)

The title of this seminar is “How to Stay Christian in Seminary—Or Any Season of Waiting.” And we really mean that last part.

What David and I are going to talk about is inspired by the little book that we wrote for men doing ministry training in confessional seminaries, but the underlying theme of the book — and today’s topic —is one that we think is relevant for anyone in a season of waiting.

Season of Waiting?

“Season of waiting” — now what do I mean by that?

You might call it season of waiting, or mode of anticipation, or vocational pilgrimage. What we mean is that right now you are living in a situation that you don’t plan to stay in.

Maybe it is because you are working at a job that is not your lifelong career. Maybe you are in ministry now but sense a call or see opportunity to move to another ministry. Or maybe you are a student preparing for a future role somewhere out there.

Basically, consider yourself in a season of waiting if what you are doing now, where you are living now, is not where you hope to be in five years.

We Want to Talk to You

So if you are somewhere in this place, you are who we want to talk to.

And what we want to do is hold up two important, let’s call them, postures of the heart.

We want to talk to you about, first, forward-thinking intentionality, and then secondly, everyday simplicity. Remember these phrases — these ways of thinking, of seeing things, of posturing our hearts.

1) Forward-thinking intentionality; and 2) everyday simplicity.

Our plan is to take 10–15 minutes on each one. I’ll take forward-thinking intentionality and David will take everyday simplicity and we’re hoping to leave time for questions at the end.

So let’s start with forward-thinking intentionality.

Forward-Thinking Intentionality

Simply put, this is what I mean: if you are at a place now where you don’t hope be in five years, a forward-thinking intentionality is you looking ahead to the place where you hope to be and then asking the question, “What means might God use to bring me there?”

It may sound more complicated than it is. An example would be — and many of us share this experience — seminary. Most men come to seminary after first sensing a call into vocational ministry. That calling is where they hope to be, and then the theological training is a means of them getting there. It could be other things as well. The idea is that we are looking ahead and then we are prayerfully intentional about how we might get there. [Check on the tracking]

The Hard Part

Now that is all well and good. We look ahead, see where we want to be, and ask questions about how to get there. The hard part is how we actually do that.

The place I want to go for our example is Psalm 143. Let’s look at this psalm, then I’ll draw out some practical homework, and then Mathis will take it away.

Understanding Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a beautiful model of what it means to depend on God. David finds himself in a rocky situation. Verse 3 tells us, “The enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead”

— which is an intensely poetic way of saying he is waiting. He is stuck, actually. David is not where he hopes to be. But now look at his faith. Notice how he prays. Verse 7:

Answer me quickly, O Yahweh!
My spirit fails!
Hide not your face from me, let I be like those who go down to the pit.

Then verse 8 . . .

Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,
for in you I trust. >Make me know the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.

This is the prayer of forward-thinking intentionality.

David hopes to be somewhere else and so he’s looking ahead and saying, “Make me know the way I should go.” Show me where to go.

But this is followed by him first asking, “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust.”

Do you see what he’s doing? He is saying show me where to go, but first, anchor me in the truth of who you are — let me hear of your steadfast love — we would say . . . Ground me in your gospel.

It’s these two things: there’s the anchor of God’s steadfast love, and then there’s the leading forth of God’s faithfulness. It’s the anchor of God’s demonstrated love in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then it’s setting sail with all of his promises because of that love. It’s let me hear and lead me on.

Very Practical

And one of the most practical ways that will help us pray this prayer is to nail down for ourselves what God’s steadfast love means for our lives. That is, based upon this anchor of the gospel, when it gets down to the brass tacks, what is my life about?

What it is about our lives that will never change no matter the circumstance. What is it about our lives that must be the same five years from now and then five years after that and then five years after that.

How does the gospel lead us to answer this question?

When we pray “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love” what does that mean? Don’t let the gospel stay fuzzy. Drill down and know what God has done and why you are here.

The way I would commend in doing this is developing your own mission statement.

Try to write down and capture what your life is all about because of the gospel. Because Jesus saved you, what is your aim? The idea is that this is foundational truth about your life that you’re going to hold up every step along the way. This defines what you’re about and becomes the grid for your future decision-making.

Know it, rest in it, aim for it — that is forward-thinking intentionality in a season of waiting.

Part 2: Everyday Simplicity (David Mathis)

The more I thought about this topic — and the inclusion of “any season of waiting” — the more I realized this goes beyond your transitional circumstances, or your time of preparation for the next thing, and really gets at the very nature of the Christian life in all times and seasons.

I don’t claim to have anything to say that’s profound, perhaps not even anything you didn’t already know. But even when we already know what the preacher is saying, it’s still oh-so-important to hear it said again — and to have it applied specifically to our season and circumstances.

Whether it’s seminary, or whether it’s some vocational transition, or whether it’s some other way in which you’re waiting on your life circumstances to change in the near future, I want to complement, not just rehearse, what counsel we have for seminarians in this book. Because we already took seminarians as our explicit focus there, it made me here want to really keep the other life and vocational transitions in view. I hope what I say here is relevant for seminarians, but also tailored for non-seminarians.

So, again, Jonathan tackled “forward-thinking intentionality” — a vision for your season, big-picture perspective on your station in life — and now I want to aim at “everyday simplicity,” at taking the small steps.

The Main Thing to Say

The main thing I have to say, and then three short points underneath that, is that the secret is that there’s no real secret. The secret to staying Christian in seminary, or in any other season of life — especially seasons of waiting, where some macro circumstance in our lives isn’t yet what we’re feeling called to and trending toward — the secret is not some special piece of advice. There’s no silver bullet; it’s just the unsurprising, but essential, truth that applies to any season. The key to staying a Christian is being one.

When crises come, or seasons of waiting, or transitions, or seasons of theological training, we can be so prone to give ourselves a pass on the normal everyday Christian walk. Many of us, if not most or all of us, have a propensity to think of ourselves as an exception to rules and principles we otherwise believe and teach. We take a pass on the regular feeding of ourselves from God’s word, and daily prayer, because we’re in a season of transition. We keep the local church at arm’s length in just this special season. We don’t really play the man at home, because this or that special preparatory endeavor is on our plate and we think we can really be who God’s called us to be at home once we’re to the next stage.

Perhaps one of the most important things we could say here is that seminary is real life. Your season of waiting is real life. Your transition is real life. For the Christian, there are no interludes, no pauses, no seasons where we put the main things on hold to prepare for the next. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said: “There is no such thing as a holiday in the spiritual realm.” (Which would be bad news if spiritual life was a mere duty or raw commitment. But when it’s a joy, when it’s so essential to life, that it’s like breathing and eating and drinking and sleeping, then it’s not an added-on burden; it’s simply what life is.)

So having said that banner word — the key to staying Christian in any season of life is being a Christian, the key to being a Christian tomorrow is being one today — I’ll offer these three words of counsel for seasons of preparation, waiting, and transition:

1) Look for the joys of this season.

Try to identify what good God is doing for you and in you and through you in this transitory time. Don’t miss God’s grace of sustaining you and shaping you in this season. He’s humbling you, teaching you to lean on him, disillusioning you of your self-sufficiency, and that you’re the captain of your life and soul.

Take your transition and waiting as a time to cultivate humility — better, to embrace humility. It’s a reminder that you don’t run the universe — otherwise you’d already have yourself in different circumstances — and a reminder that you aren’t quite yet ready for the next season. God still has some work he’s doing on you, maybe related to knowledge and skills, but most likely related to character and your heart.

Your season of waiting and preparation and transition hasn’t caught God off guard; he’s planned it and means to use it for your good and the good of others. He is doing unique things in and through you as you wait, things that he won’t do once you transition. Don’t miss the joys.

2) Look for further course corrections.

You may have come to seminary thinking you’d be a preaching pastor, but perhaps God’s redirecting you to the classroom or to Christian publishing or in some other way. Maybe you find yourself in vocational transition because he put some new desire on your heart, but be careful not to presume that your initial sense of calling in your final one. When God begins to shake the roots of our lives loose, he typically doesn’t reveal to us all at once where he plans to finally replant us. Usually he reveals more along the way.

One desire gets us from point A to point B, which we expect will lead us to point C, but he doesn’t reveal the unexpected point D until he has us in transition. Also, realize that often we’re not really in a season of waiting, even when we think we are. God’s already placed you where he wants you for the long haul, and maybe you just haven’t realized it yet.

So be open, even eager, for God’s redirecting while in a season of waiting.

3) Look after the little things — which, in God’s economy, really are the big things.

Beware a dramatized version of the Christian ministry, which subtly thinks every step has to be sensational. I’ve often felt in my own heart — and hear resonance in others — a kind of messianic view of the ministry where we feel like our lives need to be worthy of written Gospel accounts. Perhaps because we love Christian biography, and still have a sizeable portion of unmortified pride, we suspect that people may write and read biographies about us someday. My counsel would be that when and if such a thought comes, do your level best to dispel it right away. Don’t let a dramatized view of the ministry, that everything has to feel big and immediately significant, lead you to miss the seemingly little things.

Just briefly, let me highlight three sets of relationships, in which the seemingly little things are really the big things:

1) Our relationship with God.

It’s so easy to think in seminary that you’re hearing enough from God in your studies, whether in the classroom or the homework; or if you’re teaching, that you’re hearing enough from God in your preparation. Our counsel is in How to Stay Christian in Seminary to find some patch in Scripture to graze in from which you have no assignment or formal responsibility, to just go there and feed, nurturing your own soul, not as a means to some project. It’s simple, but vitally important to • hear from God daily in the Scriptures, • speak to him daily in prayer, making our requests known to him, • remember his grace, that he is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, especially when your patience is wearing thin.

Remember the oxygen-mask instructions on the plane: secure your own mask first, then help others. Watch your life; in doing so you’ll save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:16).

2) Our relationships at home.

If you’re married, your calling to be a husband is more objective than any call to ministry you may feel. Don’t neglect your calling to be husband to your wife and daddy to your kids, and thus deny the faith and prove worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8).

3) Our relationships in the church.

Don’t be a spectator in the local church, or keep the local church at arm’s length, but be fully in — “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” but “encouraging one another” and considering “how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:25–26).

Simple As It Is, You Will Fail

Let me close with this word. Even though the counsel we have for you in seasons of waiting — whether seminary or some transition or some vocational change or whatever — even though the counsel is very simple, that does not mean it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean perfection is demanded — or even possible.

You will fail — even as simple and basic as these things are. It’s very simple to say that the key to staying a Christian is being one, but being a Christian is a supernatural thing, piled upon layers and layers of grace, desperately dependent on the Holy Spirit. So, we’re not saying if you fail, but when you fail, don’t lean elsewhere, but lean into God.

When you catch yourself giving yourself a pass, or moving into a holding pattern, repent for presuming that you could do anything apart from Jesus, and cast yourself on him again. He is gracious and merciful, and eager to uphold you, and even have you blossom and flourish, in any season of preparation or transition or waiting.