Gone are the days when seminary students were solely focused on their education, tucked in the halls of the school wearing their academic regalia with little else than study clamoring for their attention. Today many students have to balance their studies with their roles as full-time pastors, part-time assistants, or lay leaders within their church. Even those who are not already engaged in active ministry will usually be involved in field education as part of their degree program.
It is completely understandable for students to struggle with balancing study and practice. After all, you feel called to ministry. You want to pour yourself into people. And more can always be done. More hurting people can use your encouragement, another program can be run, another phone call can be made. It is very common for students to face temptations to overexert or overcommit, which leads to burnout.
In a meeting one day, a mentor of Ben’s recalled writing in his Bible as a young seminary student, “I’d rather burn out for the Lord than rust out!” Reflecting on that memory nearly fifty years later, he regretted such a perspective and encouraged all who were in the room to do neither! Burning out and rusting out are both ways to ruin one’s legacy. Neither one is the calling that God has placed on the leaders of his church. Rather, as a seminarian you are called to live in the tension between studying and ministering.
Don’t separate seminary from ministry
The church father Gregory the Great said that the care of souls is the art of arts. We want those who are called to the health of souls to finish their course of study so they are ready for the challenges that lie ahead. Do not fall for the trap of dreaming about the glorious day when you will get into “real ministry.” Ministry is simply equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry (Eph 4:11–12). Thus, if you are involved in learning, you are in the ministry of equipping. This will eventually mature into your ability to equip others.
Furthermore, if you are involved in spending time with people, praying with them and for them, and challenging them to think deeply about the Word of God, then you are in ministry. Some of your fellow seminarians will have a crisis of faith during their studies, some will face the death of a loved one, some will face financial pressures, and some will question their calling and their identity as adopted heirs of God. Encouraging and equipping people in contexts such as these is ministry. So invest in the maturation of others for the sake of their calling and yours. Do not go through this season of life waiting for ministry to start; it already has. You are charged to minister wherever you are.
Don’t separate your study from your call to ministry. Succeeding in your seminary studies should be one of your main goals during this season of your life. Ministry is not something that magically happens on graduation. Ministry is something that is cultivated and disciplined into your life—as you go through life. In the Great Commission, Christ charges his disciples, “In your going … make disciples” (Matt 28:19–20). In this context of active living, we are to do ministry. Practice the skills of ministry right now, starting today, not waiting for tomorrow or for graduation. Just like we don’t want you to leave school without finalizing your preparation, we don’t want you to wait to practice ministry for graduation. Separating study from ministry tends to lead to a theology of discipleship where discipleship is studied, learned, and theologized about more than it is practiced.
This post is adapted from Surviving and Thriving in Seminary by Danny Zacharias and Ben Forrest (Lexham Press, 2017).