Failing Seminary for the Glory of God

Ryan Burns —  April 30, 2008

Towards the beginning of the semester a professor gave out an article written by Mike Yaconelli titled, “Getting fired for the Glory of God.” As one who has worked in a local church for over 9 years, I found his article challenging in some points and reaffirming in others. Regardless of if you agree with Mike or not, the article should make you think.

As I approach the end of the semester I’ve given much thought to my experience in various classes and have decided to modify Mike’s article for the seminarian. So, without further ado:

Failing Seminary for the Glory of God

After spending time in seminary, there is no doubt in my mind that the institution can not fully prepare a man or woman for the calling to vocational ministry.

I’m beginning to believe that if those who are in seminary follow the lead of the One who called them, bad grades are highly possiable.

Why? Because, in general, seminary is incomplete. The seminary has become a place of information and not transformation. The focus has been shifted from who you are to what you know. Spiritual formation has changed from a life lived before the cross to a 2 hour class on Thursdays. Prayer is not the air we breath but a formality to start a lecture.

You disagree? Why don’t you try these seven suggestions, and see how long you keep straight A’s.

Transformation, not information

Focus your energy on not merely getting information, but rather focus on how that information transforms you more into the image of Christ. Whether Greek, hermeneutics, Old Testament, New Testament, history, homiletics… above seeking facts, seek in that class to be transformed more into the image of Jesus.

Give the wrong answer

Don’t simply give the answer you know your professor wants to hear. Humbly give your answers out of your conviction… even on a test.

Read the important stuff

Read your bible as much as, if not more than, you read books about the bible.

Stop listening

Don’t just sit in class listening to things about God. As his splendor, glory, and goodness is revealed to you, respond to him in prayer… right then and there. Repent, give thanks, worship, praise, petition… Do not forget the King you are hearing about in class is right there in your midst. Again, do this in all your classes; from history to homiletics to Hebrew to hermeneutics.

Put your family first

Don’t let your reading list, papers, and exams rob you from your family. Say yes to your family first.

Ignore your GPA

Evaluate your seminay success by love for God, passion for the gospel, and heart for your neighbor… not numbers and letters on a piece of paper.

Love the Church

Live out your seminary experience in a local church. Find a pastor who will invest in your life and mentor you in ministry. Then, in turn, invest yourself into the lives of the church and community.

……

Note: I love seminary and I love my seminary. However, I am willing to do poorly in my classes in order that I might excel in the things listed above. These two things are not mutually exclusive, but I’d argue that focusing on the above will very likely result in lower grades (maybe not failing, but would you be willing to fail in order to do the above?)

Ryan Burns

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Ryan Burns is on staff at Redemption Hill Church in Richmond, VA. He also runs a church jobs website to help connect churches and ministers.

8 responses to Failing Seminary for the Glory of God

  1. Well said! Reading one’s Bible, being a Bibliophile and not a bibliophile (loving the Bible over books about it) is key in seminary. Sad to say that Bible reading seems to not be the paradigm of many students, but I know it is of our professors.

    The first week of class a few years back one professor shocked us saying, “For some of you, getting an ‘A’ in this course would be sin.” And then he unpacked that statement, that in relation to the basic commitments and responsibilities God has for us, seminary cannot be placed ahead of family and marriage and even other commitments, one’s love for God and serving in the church. To neglect those would be to “fail” in seminary, even with a 4.0. For single students there may not be a reasonable excuse.

    Kari and I were sitting next to one another and smiled knowing what he said was absolutely true, whispering an Amen to one another. We both got an A, but that was secondary to our marriage. By God’s grace both Kari and I have done well in the grades department. More importantly, we have become more captivated by Christ, committed to Him, passionate for the local church, and better spouses and parents.

  2. This is a tough one for me, and I live in a sort of tension. While I came to seminary really wanting to be transformed by what I learned and by the Word of God, I realize that pursuing theology at the academic level requires me to put a heavy emphasis on the information side, aiming quite intently for good grades. And that results in me having to work extra hard to come to grips with the transformation aspect, as well trying to balance the rest of life with what seminary requires of me. It’s tough, and sometimes I get so frustrated that I want to give up. But then I don’t know what I’d do because this is the path I feel led down. I suppose the struggles make us stronger.

  3. “I suppose the struggles make us stronger”

    Jake – I think this is part of the transformation process. I recently had a difficult time with a paper. In discussing my struggles with a fellow classmate I realized that I was missing an opportunity for transformation. The difficulty in the paper should have been reminding me of my need for grace and mercy. Not only that, but I needed to be reminded that the wrestling with the content of the paper was more than just getting words out for a grade. I needed to be transformed by the text I was writing about. I can exegete all day long, but without implications and applications, then what is the point.

    I think much of our challenge is to stop for a moment and listen and look for what God is doing in our classes, course materials, and situations. The information is important… but there are all to many people in the world who know a whole lot more than we do and yet don’t love Jesus. We have to be careful to not just go to class to know about Jesus… rather we need to go and get to know Jesus.

    And, hey, I don’t have it all figured out… everything written in the post is preaching to myself least I forget.

  4. JaG–great post! I think this should be taken to heart by all seminarians, especially those with families and spouses. I have thrown my two cents in on the seven categories. Perhaps being a bit older and not fresh out of college and high school has been a benefit to me.

    There are so many times when I sit in class and ponder (yes, ponder) the glory of God being revealed in class. I can honestly say that I have been transformed in many areas by a couple of classes and professors in my two semesters at Southern.

    Does giving a qualified wrong answer count? I have given answers that I know the teacher was not looking for, but I qualified them heavily.

    As for Bible reading, the Lord has answered my prayer and given me a thirst for His Word among all the other stuff. I will have actually read the entire Bible this semester albeit at the expense of a couple of assigned books.

    Unfortunately, the times of spontaneous prayer have been few and far between. I am more likely to meditate on what I am learning than pray about what I am learning. I do differentiate between the two.

    I will not study in front of my children. It is a personal conviction that I have only had to go against once. I just do not want them to grow up thinking that I put my school work before them. Besides, I don’t think when I graduate I will be saying, “Man, I wish I wouldn’t have gone to the park that one day because it cost me a letter grade on my Hebrew exam.”

    Loving the church has been somewhat hard for me–I want to serve in a church and not just be an active Sunday morning pew sitter. I have struggled with having a limited role.

  5. Jake makes a good point about “tension.”

    Let’s call it a “happy tension,” since navigating these priorities is part of what makes for good life and ministry prep.

  6. I may be wrong, but I do believe that some seminary professors are beginning to glimpse the truth in what you’re saying here—especially with reference to refusing to neglect your family. As a seminary prof, my students probably hear this statement in every class I teach: “What you do for God beyond your home will typically never be great than what you’re practicing with God within your home. If this class keeps you from being the spiritual leader in your home that you need to be, drop the class and finish later. This seminary has been here 150 years and will probably be here another century or two—but your family, at the stage of life they’re at right now, will not be here forever. Do what they need you to do before you do what I ask you to do.”

  7. I just noticed that I left out the “er” on “greater.” The sentence should read: “What you do for God beyond your home will typically never be greater than what you’re practicing with God within your home.” Sigh. One more reminder to be more merciful to the students.

  8. Good article, even though I fell more in the camp of those who the act of faith is not procrastinating and actually turning papers in on time and actually studying.
    I think the title of this blog points to a pressure that contributes the problem – “failing” at seminary. Who says that anything less than a 4.0 is failing? Seminary is a tremendous investment of time, energy and money there is a pressure not to fail.
    I like the suggestions and you, Jake and Jeff have suggested the solutions may be better with the happy tension, both/add instead of either/or.
    Looking back, I definately would do more of the seven suggestions. Cool thing is these are still great suggestions for the “Real World” after seminary. Life hasn’t really slowed down or gotten less busy.
    Thanks.