Seminary 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:
- 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?
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.