Balancing Church and Seminary

by on June 10, 2009

balanceSeminary students are a transient bunch. They blow into town, spend three years too busy to do anything but study, and then they’re gone. For many of them (or, I should say, us), the whole seminary thing can seem like a hassle. If we didn’t need to do it, we probably wouldn’t. But is such pessimism really warranted? In other words, does seminary need to be something that gets in the way of our involvement in church ministry, or can the two be pursued at the same time? I’m writing to encourage you to get involved in the ministry of your local church while pursuing your studies, and to shed some light on ways of making that happen.

Few would disagree in principle with being involved in church ministry while attending seminary. It’s just that the actual work involved in being a student gets in the way. The workload can be especially overwhelming when coupled with the responsibilities of family life, leaving many to feel like they have nothing left to give to the Church. Perhaps the most subtle temptation, though, is to view the seminary as an extension of the Church. I won’t say that view is totally wrong, but it need some qualification:

  1. Seminary is a ministry to the Church, not the world. Yes, it does minister to the world, but only through the Church. Many of the professors at my seminary have ministries (many of which are connected to churches) that they are involved in outside of the classroom. They understand the importance of reaching out to the world directly. Should we be following their example?
  2. Seminary is an institution of learning, not the bride of Christ. In other words, if worship is important to you, then you really don’t have an option. A good seminary will make no pretense of replacing the Church in this way, but students still need to take care not to let the chapel services and prayer meetings – not to mention the classes themselves – become a replacement for engagement in a church community.

Once we understand the need to remain involved in the Church during our time at seminary, how do we overcome the practical obstacles? Here are some suggestions to help you choose a church in which to involve yourself:

  1. If you haven’t already, get to know your church leaders. This includes pastors (of course), elders, deacons, small group leaders, music team members, and others. As they get to know you, they’re sure to find ways you can use your gifts to get involved in the ministry of the church. They’ll also keep you accountable (especially if you ask them to) and seek you out if you’ve fallen off their radar.
  2. If you’re strapped for time, consider slowing down the pace of your studies. This one is the most likely to cause controversy. Shouldn’t I want to graduate as quickly as possible so I can get to wherever it is that I really want to be ministering? Consider this: Most people I have talked to who finished their M. Div. in three years would take more time if given the chance. You learn a lot in seminary; but you’re not taking full advantage of your education if you’re not putting it into practice in a local church as you learn. Make the effort to apply what you’re learning while it’s still fresh. No one needs a pastor who can get through his M. Div. in three years, yet has never tried to put his education into practice. Just stretching such a program out to four years is sufficient for many people to have time to invest in their local church community.
  3. Become part of your church community. This is the core of what I’ve been hinting at. If the church is a body, community is the expression of the wholeness and unity of that body. There are many factors of modern society that make community avoidable: we live in spread out across sprawling cities; we (sometimes) prefer e-mail and online social networking to actually spending time together; and our multiplicity of social circles (of which the seminary community is one) make us wonder whether we need to be building relationships at church. We absolutely need to be building relationship at church. How else is the unity of the church body to be realized?

The importance of the Church in the Christian life is rivaled only by the importance of Christ. After all, if you plan on going in to ministry after your time at seminary, then you plan to serve the Church. Why not start now? Offer to lead a small group. Or even just be faithful in attending a small group. There are tons of ways you can be a benefit to your church while you’re a student. In the end you’ll be better prepared for ministry, and you’ll leave the church you attended during your seminary years better than you found it.

About

Seminarian, engineer, nascent blogger. I grew up in Binghamton, NY, got my undergraduate degree from Grove City College, and have recently moved down to the Orlando, FL area to attend Reformed Theological Seminary. After getting my M. Div., I hope to go on to Ph.D. studies and afterward to move back to Upstate New York to begin a church planting ministry there.

Comments

Couldn’t agree more; thanks for the pointed commentary, Daniel.

When I told friends and family I was putting seminary on hold (2/3+ thru an MDiv) to focus on pastoring in the local church, some thought I was letting the church get “in the way” of finishing seminary. “I hope you’ll still finish,” they’d comment, “the longer you’re away, the harder …” You know the line.

How about we flip that thinking? If we unplug from the church and pursue seminary, we should say the same thing, “I must still finish” — a life-long commitment to the local church — “the longer I’m away (from the church), the harder …”. If we don’t engage in the ministries of the local church, being in the life of people while we don’t yet “have to,” then what makes us think we’ll flip-a-switch and persevere with these people just because we draw a paycheck? The church is a beautiful mess; we have to be in the middle of the mess.

Thanks for the reminder, Daniel.

Thanks, Jeff. I’m glad you found the post helpful.

Mix-and-match options go beyond engaging in a full pastoral (ordained) ministry as well. Many churches have internship programs that can be done on a full- or part-time while still attending seminary. There are a lot of ways that seminary students can engage in ministry in a local church without sacrificing one or the other. That’s the kind of approach I’m really trying to advocate here (with due respect to those who, for various reasons, need to focus on one or the other).

Thanks again for your input.

Daniel,

Thank you for sharing your passion! As a seminary professor for nearly 20 years, I have grown in my conviction that what you say is so true – seminary exists to serve the church but the seminary is not the church. My ministry now is through a fully online seminary that allows students to stay put in their church and learn where they serve. I have the greatest respect for RTS and wish you God’s best in your learning journey.

Sam

Good thoughts. I’m on to Asbury Theological Seminary this fall and have been reading up on “everything seminary” that I can; including this awesome blog 🙂 I have read Derik Coopers book, which was most helpful in the process; but have now found another called “What To Expect in Seminary; Theological Education for Spiritual Formation” by Virginia Samuel Cetuk. It is an awesome refrence tool and has many questions at the end of each chapter to think about. She writes as an Associate Dean of Drew; and shares her experiences with the different outlooks and assumptions that students take when going to seminary. Check it out on Amazon, I think You’ll like it . Robin

http://www.amazon.com/What-Expect-Seminary-Theological-Education/dp/0687017289/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244753580&sr=8-1

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