I loved my time in seminary. In fact I liked it so much, I went back for another degree! Seriously though, I credit my time in seminary working on my masters and doctorate for so much of my spiritual and ministry formation. The challenges in the classroom, the lessons from reading, and the sanctification of a dissertation process come up on a daily basis in pastoral ministry. But it didn’t cover everything. That’s why I found it particularly helpful to pick up and read a book specifically on the things we don’t learn in seminary.
Even as Dr. Mohler acknowledges in the foreword, there are some things that aren’t covered as well in seminary as they should. You can never retain every single thing you read in your studies, the seminary experience isn’t intended to capture every single thing you’ll encounter in ministry. For that, we need the local church. Seminary provides, as Robinson describes in his chapter, the basic training. It’s the “relatively safe place for acquiring the tools for ministry” (p. 21). The local church, on the other hand, is the battlefield. And it’s there where our training can be implemented.
That training is put into practice through the love that we show to our people, not just our church members but also our families. The foundations of biblical theology, doctrinal fidelity, and exegesis in seminary provide the fuel for us to not only know how to love people, but also provide us the motivation why we love people. One chapter, written by Danny Akin, is exclusively devoted to the task of making sure to love your wife well (in true Akin fashion it’s an alliterated exposition through Ephesians 5). Another chapter on the importance of modeling before our children a love for the local church is helpful as I raise my two boys to not only love Jesus but to love the Church and ministry. The rhythms of our ministry and family time are often a dance more than a line graph, but that’s where it’s important for us to remember that our churches can always find another pastor, but our kids can’t find another dad.
Beyond the love of people is the importance of loving the place where we serve. I resonated with Higbie’s chapter on pastoring people different than you. I’m a suburban-born, coffee-snob Millennial. One ministry assignment was in a small rural college town (we had a farm across the street from our house, so to me that meant we lived in the “boonies”), and now I serve in a largely retired area. Fish out of water doesn’t begin to describe it. But when God calls us to a people, he also calls us to a place. And that’s something we don’t learn in seminary, how to navigate a very different area than who we are. Because we’re all interim (p. 46), we need to make the most of our time wherever we are. And that means we shepherd well, trusting in the sufficiency of the Word to meet our needs and the needs of the people we’re loving and caring for through the reality of living in a fallen world.
Learning to lead in seminary is typically done in a safe, controlled environment. Most of us who attended seminary were also part of churches that had significant seminary influence. So they functioned like a laboratory. There were controls in place, elders & pastors were trustworthy and faithfully teaching, deacons and other lay leadership had strong biblical foundations. But in most of our churches after seminary, we learned that leadership doesn’t happen in the controlled setting. It happens in a messy way. Which is why we have to key in on what biblical leadership looks like, and how crucial it is for us to take a long view on leadership in the local church. But that leadership also takes on the shape of suffering, which is an inevitable reality in any ministry. I’m writing this review the morning I’m doing a funeral for a man in our church who lived a full life but in his last years was blind, going deaf, and suffering from dementia, leaving behind a widow with a broken heart and poor health. It’s through these painful moments that hope becomes a reality for us to share with our people.
Conflict in ministry is something that I didn’t feel ready for. I’d always read about conflict, had done case studies in seminary, and even got to learn from sitting under a great leader how to navigate conflict. But none of it could prepare for me the person sitting in my office saying he was going to make sure I was fired, or for the anonymous letters, or for the business meetings that turned into firing squads on other church leaders. I found Thomas’ presuppositions so helpful: 1) Conflict must be dealt with, 2) Only the Gospel can heal, and 3) Christ-Centered love is the final goal (p. 95). But the greatest conflict we’ll wrestle with as pastors is our own wars within our hearts, the fight for our own relationship with God. In the seminary vacuum, you’re surrounded by community, you’re saturated in the Bible, and it’s inescapable to be sharpened by the Spirit. In the daily grind of ministry, it’s up to us to fight the war for our souls’ health by prioritizing our own spiritual growth.
Finally, something to emphasize and re-emphasize to my generation is the importance of putting down roots and avoiding the trapping of pursuing our own name’s glory. Too often we have a dream of the “ideal” ministry setting, when in reality the ideal setting is right where God has us. If He calls us elsewhere, it’s a different story. But rather than see our ministry position as a stepping stone or a chance to build a brand, we need to see them as an opportunity to invest our lives for God’s glory among His people, caring for His Bride, and leading her faithfully.
For those who are serving in ministry, regardless of their tenure length, this book would prove invaluable as a tool to learn and apply what we couldn't learn in seminary but need every day in our ministry. Thank you Crossway for providing a review copy!
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.