Sunday, May 11, 2008

Calling and Discouragement in Religious Studies

I recently read a very insightful blog article by Sean Michael Lucas on calling and serving and how it influences students' seminary careers. After reading this, I realized how completely accurate it is. Those of you who are not in sem will find it illuminating as well.

An excerpt from the article:

. . . Most (male) students come to pursue an MDiv degree because they believe that God has called them to ministry in the context of the local church. Most frequently, that has some connection to preaching, teaching, administering the sacraments, praying, leading, and counseling--the basic functions of either a senior, solo, or staff pastors. Many come to seminary with a very romantic view of the ministry--having grown up in churches, many of which were strong and stable, it appeared that the senior pastor's life offered security and significance. In addition, these students may have had someone who impacted their lives in a profound way: perhaps a youth minister, campus minister, or senior minister who took time with them and discipled them in the basic practices of the Christian faith. In a response of romance, gratitude, and epiphany, these students come to seminary desiring to be used by God in a similar way.

Until they get to seminary. And then they discover several things: one is that seminary can be difficult. They struggle with Greek and Hebrew; they find that their wives and children serve as sanctifying agents in ways they hadn't before (amazing what an 800 sq. ft. on-campus apartment can do); God begins to peel back their hearts in ways that had never happened before. Their wives may go through a period of questioning them--why did you lead us away from Egypt (or Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, Los Angeles, or wherever) to bring us to the wilderness?

Another is that ministry can be difficult. Through field education, as these students begin to spend time as interns or directors of ministries in the context of the local church, they see the other side of ministerial life: the grace-filled thorns that the Apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12. They are exposed to infighting among ruling elders or among church staff members; they engage in the less glamorous parts of ministry (one internship I had at a church led to hours spent in the church's tape room making copies of sermons for distribution to the congregation); they sometimes feel a bit ignored.

A final discovery is this reality: as one friend put it, that while they were the rising star at their local churches--the one surrendered to vocational ministry--when they come to seminary there are hundreds (at Covenant Seminary, 350 MDiv students) just like them. Suddenly, they don't feel so special any more, which can lead to profound doubts and questions about calling.

I have experienced each of these struggles in-turn. Ministry is not easy and seminary education is not the romantic lifestyle that most Christians assume it to be. You don't need to be exceptionally bright to get through sem (in fact that can be a hindrance at times), you just need to be tenacious. Calling is the only thing that has kept me on-course. I should not paint an overly negative picture, as seminary has its perks and thrills, but it is not an easy process and it prepares one for an even more difficult ministry.

Seminary is really about balance. How do I read all the required books, where do I find more to learn on the subject, when can I find time to study for this exam and do that prep-work, how do I work-in that peripheral lecture or panel discussion, how do I find time to work and make enough to help pay the bills and work-off debt, when do I prepare for worship at church and a lesson-plan or a sermon? How do I make these decisions and honor Christ in them? That is the bottom line, our careers are about service. Service to God and service to others. Service is not what this culture has raised us to value. It can be a rather intense awakening.


Timothy L. Decker said...
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Timothy L. Decker said...

That was a good article by Sean Michael Lucas. If you could bring yourself to read some Dispo writings, the book Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost has a good article on balancing seminary life with the Christian life. Check it out from your library if you get a chance.

One thing that was so true in all of this is that Bible College/Seminary students do have a romantic idea of ministry. The reality is much different when you are actually in the trenches. I learned that the hard way. That doesn't mean I don't love it though. Getting through those "unromantic" difficulties and seeing God bless in spite of my inadequacies make it all worth it.

Steven Douglas said...

Indeed. Where God leads us, he provides just enough encouragement to make all the tough times worth it. Sem is a far cry, however, from what I expected.