10 Things I Wasn’t Taught in Seminary   5 comments

1. Know Thyself.

We had to know the Biblical languages, the breadth of theology, church history, and homiletics. We had to understand the meanings of Heilsgeschichte and Sitz im Leben and the “two horizons. We had to know “peccable” from “impeccable,” and “inerrant” from “infallible”, but we were never forced to understand ourselves. We touched on it in the study of man and sin theoretically, but didn’t approach it the way Socrates would have suggested. I’m talking about family of origin issues, maybe birth order – the kind of stuff that might be measured in the Meyers-Briggs Inventory or the like. What was I bringing to the table? What were my hidden assumptions, needs or motivations? In his book, The Me I Want to Be, John Ortberg says, “You are your own Nemesis, your own biggest problem, because there is a relationship between the best version of you and the worst version of you. What they have in common is that both of them are you.” (His discussion of personality types and “signature sins” starting on page 147 is invaluable in this regard.)  As for me, I was clueless, and it wasn’t on my professors’ radar either. If you don’t understand your own motivations and actions, you’re not only dangerous to yourself, you’re also not likely to be of much help to others. (If you don’t see what I mean, just think about your marriage. You need to know your spouse, and vice versa, but if either or both of you have no self-understanding, you’re headed for trouble.) As Ortberg says, “… no one is more vulnerable than the person who lacks self-awareness.”

2. Prepare for Loneliness.

Many people who go into the pastorate are introverts. We love to have time to ourselves to read, study and pray. It may come as a surprise then, to many solo pastors in small churches (which is most pastors), just how lonely it can be day-to-day. Even though you and your family are definitely members of the church, you may be seen as outsiders for a long time (New England!), or as those who won’t be around long. And even if people accept you, having friends in the church (which I recommend), can be very complicated. You can be surrounded by people but have almost no one you can really talk to. And loneliness can really set you up for other problems. No one told me I would feel so alone. You know that picture of JFK with head bowed, leaning upon his desk in the oval office – it’s that feeling I’m talking about. The scale is smaller but the feeling is still powerful.

3. Be Aware of Sexual Pitfalls.

You’re either the “young buck” or the “mature leader” who has arrived on a white horse to save the needy church. Women in the congregation in problem marriages may look at you and compare you to their husbands – and of course, they surmise, you would be such a better husband. You’re so very spiritual. (Of course, they don’t see you at home, and your wife’s not telling – well, hopefully!) Some women will mistake your pastoral interest for something else, and some might actually have evil motives to begin with. Combine numbers 1 & 2 with this (#3) and you can see how stuff happens. (I’m writing from a man’s point of view. If the pastor is a woman, then everything above is still the same – except “young buck” I guess should be “young doe”, and replace “their husbands” with “their wives.”) People are sexual creatures. They don’t leave these desires at the door – nor do you. Ministry leads to intimacy, and where they’re aren’t procedures and protections in place, that can lead to trouble. As a class of “young bucks”, leaving seminary to save the world, we were much too innocent about all this.

4. Beware the Credit/Blame Game.

A friend had a Baptist church. Another church in the area had some real problems, and people started leaving in large numbers – and attending his church instead. Great! (Not really, but it was hard for everyone not to be pleased about the growth of their church. Of course they credited their pastor.) Later, when the other church finally got back on track, many people left my friend’s church and went back to their former church. No one stopped to really analyze what was happening, but they certainly weren’t happy to see all those solid people leaving, and his time the pastor was blamed. I remember the initial years in my first church where this happened to me. I was new and a lot of new people were showing up. After a few years a lot of those same people started leaving. My good. My bad. In reality though, the truth was that those people were just drifting “church hoppers.” They wouldn’t be at the next place long either. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until years later. When it was happening it hurt me badly. A warning about this inevitable type of event would have been nice.

5. You’ll Be Criticized Mercilessly.

Don’t even get me started on this. I’m really embarrassed that I didn’t see this coming. How could I have been so naive? It’s a truism that if you try to do anything significant, you’ll be criticized. I can only say that I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of it – especially in my first church, the pervasiveness of it, how personal it could be, and so completely unchecked. (By that I mean people felt free to say just anything. They criticized my appearance, my mannerisms, the way I handled my finances. They criticized my wife to my face. No holds barred.)  The stories my pastor friends told me along this line were heartbreaking. Many stories. Many different friends. Many friends, many stories, over many years. My point is that anyone going into ministry should expect it. You will be criticized. Your spouse will be criticized. Your children will be criticized. Don’t worry, as Warren Wiersbe said years ago, “Criticism is the manure that the Lord uses to grow his plants.” – and of course, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Just prepare to grow and become much stronger than you are. (By the way, many of us at some point do some pretty dumb things, so it’s not like we never merit criticism – and we definitely can and should learn from it. But a lot of it will be unfair, unChristian and unhelpful.) Even when you know it’s coming it’s very demoralizing, and again, a warning would have been helpful.

6. Prayer is Your Priority.

I hope the Seminaries are doing better now than when I went in the 80s. At that time, my fellow students and I definitely got the impression that if we could exegete the text with skill and exposit it compellingly – things would go well in ministry. (That means that the church will grow.) Those were the essentials. “Preach the word in season and out.” After about 15 years of ministry and many fads that swept over the Christian community that pointed in other ultimately fruitless directions, I finally came to the end of myself and understood the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” I learned that to accomplish anything of any lasting value in the church – lots of prayer was necessary (since in prayer we stop trusting in ourselves and depend upon God to do what only He can do anyway.) Not just token prayers. Not just prayers at prayer meeting. Not just the pastor praying. I’m talking about a completely different model than “exegete and exposit.” You have to do that of course, but prayer has to undergird that, permeate it, and precede and follow it – and everything else you do. This how Jesus did ministry. This is how the Apostle Paul did ministry. In Col. 4:2 he tells us to “devote ourselves to prayer.” I wasn’t taught to do that. I noticed no role models in seminary to emulate who were doing that. (Not to say none were.) In Mark 9:29, Jesus explains to his disciples, who have been unable to cast demons out of a boy that “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” Imagine how many other failures may be explained the same way. I wouldn’t want to have to choose between a skilled exegete with good preaching skills, and a man of prayer, but if I did have to choose, it wouldn’t have to think about it at all. Prayer is the way we must do ministry. There is no other way. Sadly, I wasn’t taught this, and I ended up being a very slow learner.

7. It’s Really About the People.

I became a Christian in my last year or so of high school. A friend’s parents encouraged me to go to Bible college. I loved the study and learning there so much that when I graduated I went on to seminary. In seminary, when I had the chance to do a second degree (Th.M..) – an “academic” degree – I didn’t hesitate. When I finished my six years of graduate studies, I applied for and was accepted into a Ph.D. program (which I left almost immediately – long story). My point is that I loved the reading, the study, the discussions and debates – the intellectual stimulation. And not just learning. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the Bible and Theology. At the time I was hoping to teach (and thus the Ph.D. program). Later on, when I was “thrust by the Lord” into the pastoral ministry, it was a shock to my system. It was tough to make the time to study, and people didn’t necessarily understand, appreciate or support my doing that. Even so, I think I studied as much and read as much as most of my peers – but all of us were very busy with administration, meetings and people problems – the constant press of the ministry as it’s understood these days (as opposed to in the day of Jonathan Edwards, for instance). But even though I may have studied or read as much as I could, I still felt my brain dying. I spent most of my time working on how to communicate the most important truth that I already knew to my people in the most effective, memorable, practical, clear way. You learn in the process of doing that, but it’s not the same. What I’m trying to say is, many people get into the ministry for one reason (they love to study and learn), and then find out that “it’s not about that.” It’s really about the people. Now, let me hurry to say that, I’m glad I became a pastor and not a professor. I’m glad I learned to really love and care for God’s people. It seemed that God had “made” a pastor of me, and I was glad, because I was preparing people for life when they went out those doors. It’s a very high calling. Just don’t think that you’re going to sit in your study and break down paragraphs of Greek and Hebrew, while keeping abreast of what the recent “must read” theologians are publishing. More likely, you’ll be overseeing a meeting between your trustee chairman and a young woman – one brought about by the fact that he had asked her why she was the only one in her family “who wasn’t fat.” (True story.) Somehow no one ever told me that these days, the pastoral ministry is often not a very scholarly endeavor. You have to be very intentional about it to avoid this trap, and even then, everything works again you.

8. Find Peer Support.

I helped to start a group where local believing pastors from a number of denominations met weekly to share, pray and eat together. Over the years more than one of the guys in the group told me that he would have probably left the ministry if it wasn’t for the group. (See #s 2 & 5 above.) Whether it’s weekly meetings, monthly gatherings, or regional denominational meetings, forming some relationships where you can share with others who do what you do is essential. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find one or two friends among the bigger group that you can be completely honest with about anything. I have a pastor friend like that now. We’ve both been through everything and seen it all. We’re committed to each other. We love each other. Nothing one can share will make the other one blink – and we can trust each other in terms of confidentiality. You’re going to need this. Trust me. Start working on finding such people from day one – and be such a person to others. Nobody told me to do that, but I figured it out pretty fast for myself, just so I could survive.

9. God Cares About Social Justice.

My wife is a lifelong Democrat. She was born in NYC in a very poor neighborhood. I was born in the suburbs in Ohio, in what, as I look back now, was a somewhat privileged middle class situation. Until somewhat recently, I was a Republican. It’s funny how differently two people can see things! Just tonight she was telling me that she has never understood why, when Republicans talk about Christian values, they’re usually only talking about abortion and homosexual marriage, etc. Where is the concern for the mother’s who don’t abort, for instance, she asked me, and who now find themselves in the ranks of the poor? I didn’t really have a good explanation. I don’t understand it either. I believe it was Martin Luther King Jr. that said there is no distinction between justice and social justice. The Bible is all over justice issues – especially care for the poor. It’s hard to believe you could have one course in OT Major Prophets and another in OT Minor Prophets, and not get into God’s heart for, and demand for, justice – not only in the lives of his people, but in their land (toward others), and ultimately, in His world. Somehow though, I don’t remember this even coming up in relation to any contemporary questions or events. (And I was in college in the Vietnam era.) In the prophets we focused on “prophecy.” In the prophets we struggled to deal with all the minutia. We learned not to believe in Deutero-Isaiah. We figured out the Millennium. Somehow though, we missed what is definitely one of  the biggest emphases of the Bible. (Perhaps that approach was left to the “liberal” schools of our day. That’s the only explanation I can come up with looking back.)

10. Be Aware of the Drop Out/Burn Out/Kicked Out Rate.

If you’re not familiar with the book Finishing Well, you need to become familiar with it. Spoiler alert: it’s thesis is that only one in ten who start in full-time ministry “finish well.” I joined a fairly large church in Queens several years ago. At one point, when I was inquiring about some kind of ministry involvement, I was told “We have more M.Divs. in the congregation than we do on the staff.” – and they had a big staff!  I already mentioned the weekly group of pastors that I helped start years ago. Of the three founding members, only one is still in ministry. I’ve seen so many pastors succumb in one way or another, and if you’ve been in ministry very long, so have you. It’s an epidemic. It’s terrible on so many levels. The thing is, we weren’t told. It’s not enough to have a chapel message every few years on the importance of “guarding your heart” – not when the rate of success (just “finishing”) is 10%! If you’re in ministry you need to be aware of this reality. If you’re new to ministry, the next time you’re in a gathering of pastors, just look around and imagine 90% of them eventually sidelined  – by lust, greet, bitterness, power trips, people traps, etc. Imagine 90% of your pastor friends as “failures” before it’s all said and done. Will you be one of the 10%? Hard to say, but if you’re not aware of this problem, you’re already in trouble.

I will close with this, for the sake of (almost) full disclosure. If my professors would have tried to tell me many of these things, I’m not sure I would have listened. I was foolishly sure of myself and my abilities (exegesis, exposition, theology). I felt sure that a needy and appreciative world was waiting. And, in my particular case, I wasn’t even thinking about pastoral ministry until I was out of school altogether. That obviously affected the way I listened. Even so, I wish they had tried. I really do. Maybe I would have done better.

I share these opinions with you, not to be critical of my professors or the seminaries of that day, and also not to stir up any kind of controversy. I share with you out of a heart of love for you who are servants of God, to encourage you to guard your heart, to devote yourselves to prayer, to walk and minister in the power of the Spirit, to immerse yourself in the Word, to make yourself accountable to others – all that you might be “delivered from the evil one.” A 10% lifetime success rate is not acceptable. You want more than that, and God has more for you than that.

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5 responses to “10 Things I Wasn’t Taught in Seminary

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  1. Well said, brother Bill. A lot of wisdom from years “in the trenches”. I affirm what you say and the warnings and admonitions you make.

  2. This article hits the issues of longevity in ministry right on. Having somehow survived almost 30 years of ministry and I guess an official part of the 10% club, i can confirm that I have experienced all ten of these issues. The most sobering one of me is the mention of prayer. How weak most pastors, including me at various times of ministry, are in the matter of prayer. We get so busy doing ministry that we forget the most important item.

  3. Bill, Thank you for some good food for thought. I saw you model some of these things as my Mentor early on in my ministry development. These are things I still need to be continually re-learning.

  4. These are some great points for people to consider contemplating going into ministry. Blessings to what God is doing here through you. Kevin

    • Thanks Kevin. I thought of one more in the meantime – #11 I was never taught how to empathize with people (parishioners) – really care for them in love, AND at the same time, protect myself from being sucked into a vortex of congregational need and pain. All caregivers need to be taught this (social workers, psychologists, counselors, doctors, etc.).

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