Called to pastor? Put seminary on your to do list. Reason 3: Partnerships.
When I think of my three years at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary faces flash across my screen. Yes, there were hours of theological study, volumes of deep reading, reams of papers written, classes, seminars, exams, carbon paper (yes, I'm that old), debates, learning, and dozens of other reminders of the rigors of graduate study. But, up front, before anything else, there are the faces---the many people who shared that particular experience of preparing for ministry---John Faris, Robert Jackson, Johnny Hunt, Zane Brown, Danny Bullock, Jimmy Coyle, Tommy Cromer, Stan Prewett, Gene Fawcette, Ed Westbury, Danny Hedgepeth, Tom Newboult, David Gilbreath, Dicky Cullum, Clark McCrary, and so many more. They were part of a strange partnership of endurance, a band of brothers called to overcome the obstacles of an eighty-four hour Master of Divinity degree.
The course of study and God's call were about the only things any of us had in common. Like me, most of them were married with kids, and were entering this long course of study after some time in other life pursuits and careers. This crowd had been hospital administrators (that was me), pastors, public school teachers, policemen, bankers, salesmen, small business owners, maybe a con man or two, and no doubt a couple of Clemson grads. We met in systematic theology, church history, ethics, philosophy of religion, New Testament survey, and Greek classes. We got to know each other in the student lounge or coffee shop thrashing through the dilemmas of this new world. Even after all these years encountering one of them is a refreshing renewal of the alliance developed in those three years at Southeastern.
The seminary experience was unique in graduate study at that time. Class and degree programs were smaller, limited to on-campus study, and fulfilled in the context of their particular scheduling system. Usually there are no seminary classes on Monday, the travel day for students serving churches in locales distant to the seminary community. Classes were therefore intensified in a Tuesday through Friday regimen. So, those of us in the Master of Divinity degree program were together a lot, either in class, or in library study carrels, the student lounge areas, or coffee shop. This interaction became a central element of the seminary experience. It's where we fleshed out what we had learned in our classes, where the ones of us with pastoral experience taught the rest of us what any of this had to do with service in a local church or expectations of church staff. These partnerships extended the context application of theological education to the places most of us couldn't imagine at this early stage of our preparation.
Value rating the many elements of the seminary experience this many years from it is difficult. Rarely does a day pass that some aspect of what I learned in those three years doesn't interact with the practical realities of life, especially when I was working through the metrics of pastoral ministry every day. At the time, however, when I was trying to absorb the Documentary Hypothesis, or make sense of Hebrew conjugation, or memorize the dateline of the Kings of Judah, it was the friendship with these fellow voyagers that carried the day. They encouraged and emboldened me by sharing the crucible of learning, scratching their heads with me, and reciting the enduring promises of God when it all got a little to much for us.
In my own mind, without accompanying studies or research data, this is one of the missing pieces in many of the distance learning graduate systems---you know, the human element. Yes, of course, we are the screen-age learners and can absorb some things from the distance teacher we don't have to interact with personally. Yes, too, this is the impersonal personal world of email, text messaging, Siri voicing, icons, emoticons, and the new hieroglyphics of abbreviated notes. But, somewhere in the mix of educational philosophy there is the human touch, the need to be up close and personal with other people as we learn. It was valuable then, and is valued now.
Seminary just about blew me away. My biblical illiteracy and lack of learning about the contextual elements of theological education almost sent me packing. I remember one night in particular when a group of us slipped away to a lake cabin for an all guys sleepover. Late in the night I told them I was contemplating leaving seminary. It wasn't what I was expecting and certainly didn't coincide with what I had been taught all my life. I remember one of these partners, someone who had already pastored a small church in South Carolina told me to hang on, God was still God, his word was still true, and he would guide us to truth if we stayed focused on him. That encouragement lifted me beyond the momentary funk and kept me focused on the task at hand to finish the course of study. The men in that group, some of tHem listed above, were genuine partners to me that evening and have held a special place in my heart for more than thirty five years.
This memory causes me to reflect even more about the value of the seminary experience and to factor these kinds of relationships into that evaluation. My personal background, a college graduate with little or no theological or biblical training, and nothing beyond required history studies, but with a great business and administrative background made this partnership touch us all in special ways. In fact, in retrospect, these relationships exposed us to the basics of life among believers. It was as if we were an assembled body, a mini-church that God had gathered, with each of us serving as the particular parts of the body. What I was lacking some of them provided. I was permitted to fill in some administrative and leadership gaps for some of them. Being with these individuals took me straight to the Apostle Paul's gratitude for the partnership he shared with the Philippians (see Philippians 1:5, 4:15) or his partnership with Titus (2 Corinthians 8:23). Underneath the formal learning system of seminary education I was being tutored in the dynamics of church life by a group of fellow students.
And my concern is that many of our pastor candidates are missing this essential element of seminary education that doesn't appear in a course syllabus. You see, you can't get this real-time learning from a book or computer screen or self-motivated learning program.
It's the bond of believers doing life together. And, with Paul, I thank my God upon every remembrance of them.