Proverbs for Beginning Seminary
Accept that you are now a big fish in a pond with other big fish – It is possible, even likely, that you are coming from a context in which your gifts for ministry and your service were known and appreciated by a lot of people. You have left a time and place of fruitfulness. Coming to seminary, no one knows who you are, what your gifts are or how well you have served. It is likely that you have vested your identity in your ministry accomplishments and recognition, at least to a certain degree. The combination of loss of ministry and anonymity can cause many students to question whether or not God is calling them to ministry or whether they were ever of any use to Him. And if at first you find academic success evasive, you can become deeply discouraged.
Look back upon that time and the church’s endorsement of your calling to have confidence when discouragement comes. Remember that time of fruitfulness not with nostalgia, but as evidence of your calling. Yet also take this experience as a good reminder of how easy it is to wrap up one’s identity in ministry. Remember this experience as a good future warning not to vest your identity in what you do in ministry, but in Christ’s righteousness as the foundation of your identity.
Remember that everyone does not know all the answers – It is easy when beginning seminary to get the impression that everyone in class knows the answers to every question except you. This is especially true if your educational background is not in theology or Bible or if you have found academics challenging in the past. Whenever a professor asks a question in class and several hands are raised to answer, and you don’t even understand the question, it’s easy to think that everyone knows and you don’t. This is not the case. Some students are likely to know the answer to any question but it is not usually the same students. Few if any students know every answer to every question. Don’t psych out yourself by thinking otherwise. Ask clarifying questions, even if you’re afraid it will make you look bad – your classmates who have the same question will thank you.
Get organized – Seminary work can be unwieldy as well as voluminous. Quizzes, tests, reading and papers can be hard to get your arms around. Different professors have different expectations, and it is important to understand how each one differs from another. However, the most helpful thing is to organize yourself well at the beginning of the semester so that you will be able to monitor your progress and flex when needed.
During my years as a student and even still today as a professor I find the most helpful way is to prepare a sheet for each week of the semester with a table whose column headings are the days of the week with one row for each class. Depending on your preference, you can do this on paper, in a word processor or spreadsheet or whatever format is most helpful for you. For myself, I find that using a word processor table is the best way initially to get organized. I sometimes print them and carry them in my backpack or put them on the cloud and access them electronically.
Some professors will list reading assignments week by week and others will not. If they are not listed week by week you can simply take the number of pages and divide them by the number of weeks in which you wish to finish that particular reading and plot out the appropriate number of pages for each week. I generally know which days of the week are best for reading, which days are best for busy tasks and which ones are best for research. I count on those time slots as times that I am not involved in ministry or have family responsibilities. If you need to, you can include Saturday on the schedule although I find that Saturday is a good catch-up day for things that are still not checked off from my Monday-Friday schedule. I never include Sunday on my planning sheets (see the second piece of advice above). An example for one week is at the end of this document.
Learn to read – At the more immediate level, you need to figure out how to read your assignments. This will vary depending on 1) the particular book; 2) the professor and nature of the assignment and 3) how much time you have. Depending on these factors you will vary anywhere from careful reading with notes to skimming. Figure out which is intended by the professor. Reviewing the table of contents of books and regularly noting the headings can help a lot toward comprehension while maintaining the pace of reading you need to keep. Scheduling (see “Get organized”) will help immensely.
But you must learn to read at a different level as well. One recent book on preaching identified the chief reason “why Johnny can’t preach.” The author’s answer? Johnny can’t read. Contemporary reading requirements, many undergraduate programs and new media all undermine the ability to understand texts – particularly narratives, poetry, epistles, etc. The vast majority of reading today is for information. Consequently, while we can read and understand words and sentences, we’re not very good at understanding what texts mean and how they mean it. Therefore, when we read the Bible we are reading for doctrinal facts instead of letting the author do his thing and submit to it. This a-literacy affects our ability to write and speak in sustained ways such as papers and sermons. So for this and many reasons, learn to be a reader of literature, good literature, whether classic or contemporary, fiction or history, narrative or poetry. You’re not going to stop eating and exercising while in seminary, so you can also make time for a good literary diet.
Relatedly, know the difference between knowing something and knowing where to find something. Marshall McLuhan’s prediction has come true – that our brains would one day be wired to the world. This is great in many ways. The world is literally at our fingertips. Consequently, a lot of higher education has become more about knowing where to find something than knowing it. Students today may sometimes profess the creed of the homeless mind: “Why do I have to know something if I can look it up?” But the Psalmist has said, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart.” (Ps 119.11) There is knowing about God and knowing God, and the latter comes from deep internalization of His Word.
Research for writing – Good research papers cannot be written while doing the research. Not only will the writing not be good, such writing is very dissatisfying. One is trying to write while still trying to decide what one wants to say. Unfortunately, students often develop this bad habit in high school or college. Not only are the results not good and the process dissatisfying, it is stressful because it inevitably means trying to meet a deadline along with all of the accompanying stress. You end up scanning resources for quotes instead of learning what those resources can teach you. If you want to be a thoughtful person who is able to bless others out of your well of experience, wisdom, and knowledge, develop good research and writing habits while in seminary. The most important thing for achieving this change is doing research ahead of time. This means scheduling research just as you would schedule class attendance or any other bounded time activities.
You know when your papers are due, so budget time for writing using to the above technique. But not only budget time for the writing, but for the research as well. Your research time will include searching for resources, reading resources, and annotating or taking notes on them. Finally, finish your paper in time to step away from it for a day or two so that you can read it fresh for a final edit before submitting it. This one step is likely to improve your results dramatically. I have graded many papers which, had they been subjected to a final edit by the student, would have received a letter grade higher. This step may be the one in which you invite a friend or classmate to read your paper and give you comments.
Learn to learn – There is a difference between information and knowledge and between knowledge and wisdom. Marshall McLuhan once predicted that the day would come when all our brains would be connected together into one global consciousness. One way in which his prediction has come true is the unquantifiable information now available through the internet. One effect of this “electronic golden calf” is younger learners tend to be satisfied with being able to find information at the expense of knowing things. The result is that the kind of knowledge that led to wisdom is now external to us as information. Without knowledge we don’t attain wisdom. When information passes the boundary to our internal selves to become knowledge, we are changed. The goal of your education is knowledge leading to wisdom, especially including knowledge of God’s word which is able to make us wise. The richest preaching, teaching and other appropriation of God’s word comes only through years of internalizing it so that it coheres internally within us. Begin for the first time or begin anew to internalize God’s word, not just knowing where to look up things about the Bible.
Gain the upper hand on social media, take notes by hand, read printed books instead of electronic ones, engage your whole being in the learning process. Carry a printed Bible to class. We are a people of the Book. We didn’t make the Book, the Book made us.
Get thee to the church – to a church, yes, but also to the church. Your time in seminary can provide the opportunity to experience a variety of local churches. You may have just left a situation in which you are extremely busy and highly committed to a local church and you’re looking forward, at least for a short time, of being a little less busy on Sunday mornings. And you are curious about what different kinds of churches and different styles of worship might look like. Experiencing a variety of churches can certainly be enlightening as you develop your own ideas about ministry.
Alternatively, you may be coming from a situation or background in which your church involvement was nominal. Perhaps you came to faith in college and you have moved around a bit since and you really never have put down deep roots in a local church.
Whichever the case, there is a risk – the risk of laying your ministry foundation without the visible church being central to it. Here at RTS you are going to be taught from the Scriptures that the church is the sign, presence and means of extending the kingdom of God. The goal of creation and redemption is a cosmic church (Eph 1:22; 3:10). The object of Christ’s passion was the church (Eph 5:25-27). God’s eternal purpose is to glorify himself in Christ and the church (Eph 3:20-21). As a Christian you must not attempt to live apart from the church. As a present and future ministry leader, must learn to love the church, and it is impossible to love the church apart from loving a church.
Therefore, don’t tarry in making a commitment to a local church while you are in seminary. You may be tempted to sluggishness because you feel as if you are being spiritually fed sufficiently in your studies and campus fellowship. But if you are married this will probably be the extreme opposite for your spouse. Likewise, if you have children, you would not want to raise them even for a moment estranged from their mother above (Gal 4:26). Satan would delight in your theological training if it was in isolation from the covenant life of the church and the sacraments and ordinances through which that life is communicated to you. Don’t be an unwitting agent.
In concrete terms, make a commitment to a local church by the end of your first semester if not before. You may find after a time that you will have greater ministry opportunity or flourish more in a different local church and may wish to reaffiliate, but you will not have languished in the meantime. Bear in mind that there are local churches which are not always sure what to do with seminary students – seminary students are somewhat transient, some of them can be overly critical, etc. Some local churches are more pro-active than others at welcoming and encouraging seminary students to serve. Nevertheless, any ambiguities or ambivalence you might encounter pales as an excuse in light of the vital importance of local church life for you (and your family).
If you are diligent in getting yourself rooted in a local church, it is more likely that your life and ministry will become more deeply rooted in the church. You will be more likely to shower your affections, patience, gifts and ministry skills upon that unworthy object of Christ’s affection who is now robed in heaven with the spotless and wrinkle-free wedding garment of her Bridegroom’s righteousness.
Call the Sabbath a Delight – Keeping the Sabbath may be a Christian discipline with which you are very familiar. However, you may be coming from a background or tradition which neglected this ordinance. Whichever the case, keeping the Sabbath is more important as you begin seminary than perhaps any time previously life. I won’t take the time here to explain both the duty and the blessing of the fourth commandment. Others have done that very well. The critical importance at this point is twofold. First, it is unlikely you will ever have the flexibility of schedule in the future that you will have during seminary. This doesn’t mean you will have extra time, because seminary students tend to be very busy. But you will have extreme flexibility in deciding how to use your time outside of class. That high level of flexibility can lead to disorder and even chaos. One of the great blessings of the Sabbath is how it orders time, not just the use of the first day of the week but how it influences our use of time throughout the week.
Second, seminary, similar to ministry, easily becomes a life without boundaries. A good Sabbath habit in seminary will serve you and even save you in ministry. But a good Sabbath habit is not only for you, it is for those to whose lives you are connected. A major but easily overlooked aspect of the Sabbath in the Old Testament is how it brought justice, mercy and relief for whole households. The faithful Sabbath-keeping head of household blessed his house by his faithfulness. The expression “call the Sabbath a delight” in the context of Isaiah 58.13 has direct reference to providing justice and mercy. If by faith you embrace the liberating promise of keeping the Sabbath, your wife and children will bless you. They will feel as if they have gotten back their husband and father and it will be a reminder to you not to deprive them of your attention and affection during the week. Sabbath keeping truly is walking by faith. By keeping the Lord’s Day the Christian says “God, I believe my six days labor keeping your command will be more prosperous to me and to my household than seven days labor trusting in myself.” Believe in God’s goodness by keeping his command. (Heb 11.6) Attendance in seminary chapel is an important way to live this out. Even though it is not commanded by God in scripture, it is an excellent way to walk by faith by ceasing from your studies for divine worship.
Go to bed on time – Good sleep habits are important for good health in general. Unfortunately, seminary can make for some short nights. However, a married seminary student should go to bed with his wife almost all the time. It is easy under normal circumstances for seminary to become “your world” and not your wife’s. A student can easily graduate successfully from seminary and find that he and his wife have been living separate lives throughout his studies. You are on campus during the day, talking theology with your friends, building relationships while your spouse is working, caring for children or even both. Going to bed when your wife goes to bed is that vital moment of the day, whether you fall directly to sleep or not, when your lives re-merge and you have the opportunity to practice being one flesh. Don’t let your books, your online chat session studying for a quiz or even your study group meeting for coffee somewhere to become your mistress. There are also reasons why it’s not wise to be up late alone before your computer.
Some of you may even be tempted to make your peer group your closest and most intimate relationships. Don’t make a wife or a husband out of anyone else except the one with whom you are one flesh.
If your responsibilities or assignments don’t allow you a full night’s sleep, go to bed on time and wake up early. If you have children, all the more reason to make the end of the day at bedtime a unifying time. Put your seminary books aside and read aloud to your children and see them to bed with prayers. This will start you on the right path to preventing your children in the future from being jealous of the church for owning their father’s affections.
If you are single, heed this counsel for different reasons. The great temptation of a single life is the undisciplined life. Your time is yours and no one else’s – or is it? Have you not also been “bought with a price?” (1 Corinthians 6:20) Do you realize that online pornography spikes between midnight and 3:00 a.m.? Perhaps you know better than anyone would guess. That we are children of light is more than a metaphor (or as you get to know my views of metaphor, everything a metaphor should be). (1 Thessalonians 5:5-8)
“Open wide your mouth” – This borrowed phrase from Psalm 81:10 refers in its context to God’s invitation to his people to allow him to be as gracious to us as he would be. I mean it first and foremost in that sense. Let God fill you with divine grace. For Israel in the wilderness as well as us, this is a word of warning for picky spiritual eaters. If you remember, Israel loathed the manna and instead craved the food of slavery in Egypt. Instead of the grace of divine manna, Israel received the grace of divine discipline – a feast of quails on which they gagged. God offers to us his son, but we develop dainty appetites that pass over the bread of life for a lesser diet on which we will always hunger and thirst. In the grace of his fatherly discipline, God will make that lesser diet a stench in our nostrils. If you are hungry and thirsty, it may be that you have dug cisterns that will not hold water and longed for the bread of slavery rather than the bread of life. Always remember that the great end of your studies is to know the Lord. Where I grew up we often said, “I don’t care what you call me, as long as you call me for supper.” Hear quickly the invitation to “Taste the Lord and see that he is good.” (Psalm 34:8)
Secondarily, open wide your mouth to all that God would teach you here. There is a gravity, an inertia, toward selecting a favorite professor or for pitting one professor’s ideas against another. Israel wanted a king like the nations (1 Samuel 8:5). Seminary students can sometimes want rock star theologians the way Christians want rock star pastors. This means that you will detect differences between professors that are not there or you will amplify the ones that are there. Remember that a Twitter feed is not a world view. A slogan is not a system of doctrine. A “life verse” is not a biblical theology. Neither is one professor your sufficiency for training in ministry. Everyone will have something to say; no one will have everything to say. Open wide your mouth to receive everything we offer, from every one of us that offers it. If you try to divide us, we should gently rebuke you. If you elevate us above one another, we will resist you. No one of us believes that we have all that you need, so please do not tempt us to think or act otherwise. More importantly, don’t deprive yourself of the rich menu of the knowledge and the embodied life we each bring to the table.
No “couch bargains” – At the end of my MDiv studies my wife attended a seminary wives small group she had been part of for most of our three years. Each wife was sharing what she was looking forward to after graduation. One of her friends said, “Now I’m going to get my couch!” Although a slight over-simplification, it seems that she had agreed to support her husband through seminary if she could get a new couch after graduation. It’s really important to show our appreciation for a spouse who has faithfully supported us, whether partially or fully, while we have studied. If prudent, a new couch could be a great way to do that. But in that particular instance it indicated something more ominous.
Our friend had supported her husband for his calling, but not so much for their calling. As a result, he had accrued a certain debt to her for which the new couch was only the first installment. They lasted two years in Christian service after which they returned to their original home city and he found a job in industry. Their marriage has survived and their children have fared generally well, but for my wife and me it provided a cautionary tale which we have never forgotten. If a husband and wife are not of one mind and heart about calling to ministry when preparation begins, it is naïve to expect that to happen during seminary. This doesn’t mean that we can prevent every difficulty, doubt and discouragement that happens in seminary. But it does bear out the wisdom of Amos 3:3, “Do two walk together, / unless they have agreed to meet?” Even if the journey is begun together, our hearts and minds don’t automatically remain one without concerted effort. If the rails on a railroad don’t remain parallel a train wreck is assured. It’s very easy to develop separate lives when one spouse is a seminary student and the other is working. It’s even easier for the student’s sense of ministry calling not to be shared.
What is the solution? Be intentional about cultivating a shared sense of call by talking openly and often about it. Respect your wife’s fears and hesitations about what life in ministry will look like. If she tends to want to please you at the expense of fully expressing concerns, actively encourage her honesty and affirm her when she expresses them. Additionally, share life while in seminary. Share with her what your days are like and be sure to have her do the same. Support and encourage her for the sacrifice she is making and cultivate interests in common outside of seminary.
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 Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Reformed Theological Seminary – Orlando, address to incoming students on August 25, 2015 by . This and other short writings can be found at www.refmin.wordpress.com.
 See T. David Gordon’s book by this title.
 While we affirm that parachurch ministries have their place and we actively and enthusiastically encourage and equip students who are serving or will serve in parachurch contexts, we also actively encourage those students to recognize and cultivate the connection those ministries must have to the visible church.
For a book length treatment see Joey Pipa, The Lord’s Day (Ross-shire, U.K.: Christian Focus Publications, 1996) or his chapter “The Christian Sabbath” in Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2011), pp. 119-71.