Disciples are learners...life long learners. Those called to pastor must lead with the heart of a learner, and a passion to know Scripture and teach it to the ranks of learners who are following. Seminary is a place of learning. Of course, it's not the only place where learning happens. But, it is a strategic element of pastoral and ministerial preparation, where learners can study to show themselves approved of God, workmen who need not be ashamed.
When God called me to pastoral ministry at age 30, seminary wasn't optional. My biblical knowledge was limited to the Bible stories I'd learned from Cradle Roll through Intermediates in Sunday School. So, I could hold my own in the children's department with the stories of Moses and Red Sea, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, and Jesus frolicking with the children. In a moment of clarity my pastor told me I was biblically illiterate. Not stupid, or uneducated. I had a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration with an accounting emphasis, and eight years of strong business and administrative experience. But, the Bible had not been on my study list. So, we knew seminary was a necessity for me.
Time out. Today, many young pastors are opting out of seminary. Many of them believe that years of business experience have given them an edge in learning and that they can, therefore, learn what is necessary for teaching the Bible to those they are called to lead. My hat tips to those who can pull this off. But, it is my belief that sooner or later the needs of people living on the mean streets of this world are going to outpace our personal presumptions and leanings about Scripture. Don't get me wrong, I've met some extremely knowledgeable and gifted teachers who provide insight in the Word beyond my own limited interpretations. At the same time, there have been times when very visible pastors have presented totally improper interpretations of Scripture to throngs of eager, needful listeners, creating uncertainty and un-Scriptural guidance on critical life issues. The calling to lead a congregation and be the teacher of his word to a flock of humans dealing with hard problems isn't a stroll in the park or something we can handle with a Google inquiry. For this reason, I almost always advise pastoral candidates to check out one of our seminaries so they can adequately prepare for the important role God has called them to fulfill.
Before seminary I didn't know about historical time-lines, the importance of the Chronicles to the nation of Israel, the redemptive thread through all of Scripture, or the significance f the Messianic Secret. Seminary was a time when I was stretched and challenged and prepared to be the prime teacher and leader of a local church. Here's another pause. My time at seminary was a rough period in the life of our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Our seminaries were certainly leaning to the left with at least a very moderate view of biblical interpretation. Some of those first days were really tests. But, those fine professors, though I disagreed with many of them substantively, encouraged me to learn and challenged me to grow in my Bible learning. Their leadership actually pushed me more to the right and I left seminary more conservative than when I entered. Still, I am thankful that they taught me Bible knowledge. What I had learned as child wasn't sufficient to lead people dealing with adult situations. Even more, God used that time of learning to affirm the authority and sufficiency of Scripture in my understanding and to allow that foundation to guide me through study in more spiritual disciplines.
Often there is an inspiration argument against any further study of his word. I've heard young pastors say that their interpretation of Scripture, led by the Holy Spirit is as valid and inspired as those who have gone before or those who have done deeper study. Yes, of course, he inspires our reading and interpretation and preaching and teaching of his word. There is no private, individual interpretation of he word. Yet, we know from the teaching of Scripture that God does call those to teach, and that these teachers are especially endowed spiritually to imaprt the truth of his word. Therefore, I don't any one of us is ever totally independent of the need for teachers to instruct and influence us. Yes, God can and does inspire each of us as we study. At the same time, he also places people in our path to influence and teach us.
Many young pastors have earned Bachelor degrees in Bible studies or religious studies or Christian ministry and forego seminary in the belief that their degree is terminal in nature and adequate for leading a local congregation. OK, let's go out on a limb! There's some truth here. There was a time when uneducated pastors faithfully led congregations for many years. My grandfather, Rev. O.F. Owens was one of them, being a very gifted preacher, passionate teacher, and loving pastor for a number of churches, West Greenville Baptist Church, Greenville, SC, the one I remember most. That was then, and this is now. The church today, by and large, is not my grandfather's church. Today our populations are more educated, information is more available, books and study and resources are accessible, and the necessity of education is more apparent.
There is also a recognizable difference in basic college study and the requirements of graduate study. For this reason, I uniformly advise even college graduates with very reputable under-graduate degrees to pursue graduate study at the seminary level. Today there are incredible graduate programs offered by our great denominational colleges and universities. Of course, I recommend these programs for graduate work in addition to the established seminaries. Most of these programs are relatively new and for individuals definitely called to pastoral service I still recommend seminary as a first choice. When these advanced degrees are tested and proven I will recommend them as well, depending on the circumstances of the individual considering graduate study.
This week I will examine five reasons I recommend that those answering calls to pastoral ministry attend seminary. Reason one is simple. We need bible learning, the truth of Jesus Christ revealed in the pages of the Old and New Testaments, and what links the entire Bible to him. There will be four other reasons advanced this week. The world around us is changing exponentially. The educational landscape around us is changing too. Today, opportunities to attain this level of Bible learning are being presented in many packages, available in many venues. Some of them are creatively new. Time will tell if they preapre the next generation of pastors to lead our churches in the future.
For now, I'm advising pastors to go to the next level in Bible preparation. That may be seminary for many. So, my word to them is "do it!. Now!