It’s a conversation I hope to never forget. It was spring 2017, and my wife and I were preparing to move across the country to start seminary. I sat opposite the room from my pastor as he reflected back on his own seminary experience. On this particular day, he was reminiscing about his final semester as an M.Div. student. Nearing graduation, he already had secured a job as a youth pastor. But instead of experiencing excitement, he felt terrified. The thought of shepherding people, despite four years of rigorous seminary training, was daunting. In an attempt to alleviate this tension, he went to a professor’s office to convey his thoughts and receive counsel. The words of his professor have remained with him to this day. “I am so glad to hear you feel this way,” the professor said. “Don’t allow that tension to ever go away. Shepherding souls, regardless of how many years you have been in ministry, or how many degrees you have, is a weighty responsibility. If you didn’t feel this way, I don’t think you would be ready for the pastorate.”
I have been a seminary student for six years now. For twelve semesters, I have had the privilege of sitting under godly men’s instruction on how to rightly handle the Word of God. The benefits of my seminary education are difficult to thoroughly convey. There is no experience quite like it.
And yet, a seminary education is also dangerous. Although there are many facets to the kinds of dangers that accompany seminary, one constant threat every seminarian must incessantly battle is pride.
Tens of thousands of hours are spent studying the Bible and listening to lectures. With this wealth of knowledge comes an important question: How do I demonstrate grace and patience to those who haven’t had the privilege I have had?
Self-admittedly, I am not the expert on this topic. I will always need more of God’s grace in this area of life. But I do want to share four lessons I have learned along the way which I pray will be helpful to you, from one seminarian to another. And more than anything, my hope is that you take the time to personally reflect and wrestle with this question. Because let’s face it, your education does not stop at your seminary commencement ceremony. As you go through life, you will continue to grow and mature in your understanding of the Bible. And so, this question demands your attention not just in seminary, but all the days of your life.
Lesson One: Recognize Seminary as a Gift
Seminary is an opportunity none of us deserve. To have the ability to take dozens of classes in order to grow in our understanding of who God is truly is a gift. But as with any gift, we can receive the blessing of seminary with a wrong attitude. Our thoughts can drift to the lie that we have earned the right to attend seminary, or that somehow because of our education we are more significant. Don’t be fooled by this kind of deception.
1 Peter 4:10 is a verse every seminarian ought to meditate on daily. Peter writes, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”
The gift of seminary comes with a significant stewardship. One of my professors described seminary as a labor of love; it’s a focused time to prepare for a life of service.
You don’t study diligently to make a name for yourself or draw attention to your abilities. Rather, you labor in order that “in all things God may be glorified” (1 Pet. 4:11).
You toil to faithfully serve those God has granted you influence over with Christ-like humility. That is how the gift of seminary is to be received. And when you receive seminary in this manner, your heart is guarded against failing to show grace and patience toward others.
Lesson Two: Be Mindful of Your Own Sanctification
As you interact with those who haven’t had the privilege to attend seminary, think about your own sanctification. Recall the countless individuals who invested themselves in your spiritual well-being. Acknowledge the patience God showed you as you developed in Christian maturity. None of us are where we are today because of one sermon we’ve heard, one book we’ve read, or one Bible study we’ve completed. Instead, over time God has used a variety of means (Scripture reading, prayer, fellowship, Bible studies, sermons, friendships, life circumstances, etc.) to bring us to where we are today. And like the apostle Paul (Phil. 3:12), none of us have reached perfection yet—we all are still a work in progress.
When we become impatient, bitter, or arrogant toward those who haven’t been exposed to sound doctrine or properly taught the Bible, we are blind to God’s grace in our own lives.
Always seek to point people toward the truth, but do so through a means of long-suffering, prayer, and the awareness that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who brings about real change and growth.
Lesson Three: Consider the Place of Knowledge
In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul states that if he knows all mysteries and all knowledge but does not possess love, he is nothing. He then goes on to provide numerous facets to help define what love looks like. It is patient. It is kind. It does not brag, nor is it arrogant.
Seminarians possess a wealth of knowledge. If they aren’t careful, this knowledge can become harmful, crushing, or even worthless. Sadly, many churches have suffered greatly because of how seminary graduates have abused knowledge.
When interacting with those who aren’t as well-taught, be sure your knowledge is tamed by the sweet constraints of love.
Lesson Four: Grasp the Weightiness of Shepherding
As my pastor’s professor stated, shepherding souls is a weighty responsibility. Pastors will one day stand before the Lord and give an account for how they kept watch over those entrusted in their care (Heb. 13:17).
In reflecting upon this reality, I often hear discussions revolving around the burden pastors must have to teach sound doctrine. This is undoubtedly a proper application of the text, for pastors will give an account for what they teach. However, pastors will also give an account for how they act toward the flock, a matter I fear we discuss and consider far too little. Keep in mind that only one of the many qualifications to be an elder deals with teaching (1 Tim. 3:2-7; Tit. 1:6-9).
Brothers, you will give an account to God for how you have conducted yourself toward others. My prayer is when that day comes, you will be found as a faithful servant who showed grace and patience toward others. As the apostle Paul told Timothy, may we all not only pay close attention to our doctrine but also the conduct of our lives (1 Tim. 4:16).