Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why Seminary?

Last night in Pastoral Ministries class, I spoke about Starting Well, Staying Long, and Finishing Strong. This lecture covered a lot of ground, from the call to ministry, to preparation, ordination, dealing with committees, enduring through hardship, and, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, "knowing when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run." We spent much time discussing education, and let the record show, I am all for it.

My educational journey has been abnormal at best. I spent my Middle and High School years aiming high toward one goal -- being a pilot in the United States Air Force. The way I looked at it, the best track I could pursue to reach that goal was through the USAF Academy or through ROTC. I graduated from high school with both an appointment to the Academy and a full-ride ROTC scholarship. I chose the Academy, but no sooner than I processed in, I voluntarily processed out (my critics say I washed out, but I know the difference). It was a matter of God intervening in my life and setting my course on His direction. With no "fall-back" plan, I enrolled in UNC-Charlotte to study history and secondary education, thinking that if I could do nothing else, I could teach history. After two years, I began to sense that God was calling me into ministry so I took a year off to consider that possibility and make further plans.

I decided to enroll in Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute. Academically, it really made no sense. I was already half-way toward a Bachelors degree by this point, but I realized that I needed an intense program of practical ministry and Bible training, so Fruitland was the most appealing option, even though I would only attain an Associate's degree upon completion there. I have never regretted that move.

While pastoring my first church, I completed my Bachelor's degree and 9 hours of graduate work at Lancaster Bible College & Graduate School. At that point, I was faced with a decision to commit to the Master of Arts program at Lancaster or to move to a seminary somewhere, and I chose the latter. After considering several options for seminary and receiving input from some trusted counselors in my life, I opted for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I completed my Master of Divinity there in 2005, with concentrations in Christian Apologetics and Biblical Languages.

Along the way, people have asked me why I chose to attend seminary when I already had biblical, theological and ministerial training at Fruitland and Lancaster. I had to be convinced of the need for it, because I thought between FBBI, LBC, and self-training, I had been sufficiently educated. In fact, I was merely puffed up and arrogant. Godly counsel showed me that I needed to be academically challenged in specific ways.

Seminary forced me to "systematize" my beliefs coherently rather than piece-meal. Prior to seminary, I tried to stitch together garments of doctrinal fig leaves that I accumulated from various sources, giving no thought to the coherence of these views. Writing graduate-level research papers forced me to reexamine some of my doctrinal commitments and see that they really did not fit together or do justice to Scripture. In addition, seminary also required me to think critically about how I reasoned through issues and defended my positions on them. I had to scrutinize, redevelop, and learn to articulate a distinctly biblical and Christian worldview and apply it to many areas of life and thought. Seminary also forced me to be more careful in my handling of Scripture. I was always opposed to the practice of "proof-texting," but it was not until I enrolled in seminary that I realized that I was doing the very thing I hated. Additionally, because of my apologetics concentration, I was equipped in seminary to be more confident in my evangelistic efforts and my defense of the Christian faith. But perhaps nothing has been more of an asset in ministry than the training I received at seminary in handling the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. I had "taught myself" just enough of these languages to be convincing in my preaching, but seminary forced me to realize that I only knew enough to be dangerous. Taking introductory and advanced exegetical courses in each language gave me a stronger skill set and more confidence in working with the ancient languages for myself. While I am not quite a capable translator, the skills I acquired in seminary enable me to "referee" the arguments set forth in critical commentaries and other academic works, and to choose between variations in translations and textual variants. My lingquistic, theological, and philosophical vocabulary was vastly expanded, such that when I encounter a difficult concept in my reading, it is not typically unfamiliar to me, and I know to which resources to turn to find more information on the concept before proceeding.

So, I conclude by saying that anyone preparing for ministry should proceed through any open door of education that God providentially opens. Go as far as you can go, get as much as you can (besides just the piece of paper at the end of the journey), and make the most use of it as possible in your ministry. For me, that involved seminary. My seminary degree is not "terminal," as daily I am reminded of how much I still do not know and have not learned. So I desire to go further as God opens the door, and I find ways to challenge myself daily by reading solid materials and studying and revisiting things I have learned along the way. My best advice to anyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, in pastoral ministry and out of it, is to never stop learning and growing.

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