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Terrified of Going to Seminary? Join the Club.

My biggest fear going into seminary (and perhaps it’s yours, as well?) is the whole question of whether it is my “False Self” that is called to it and pastoral work, rather than my “True Self”. I have spent much of my life following Spurgeon’s (I think) advice that if you feel called to ministry at all, try to do everything else in your life you possibly could do. If you still end up in ministry, then congratulations, you were called.

My entire life, I’ve had “affirmation” of my “calling” from every possible corner of my existence. I can’t step foot among charismatics without a “prophetic word” of some sort to this effect. It seems every pastor, youth group leader, campus minister, etc. have all said I seem uniquely gifted, called, and suited for “this stuff”. (Maybe you can relate.)

And yet, I’m a public school kid who chose the big urban evil secular college instead of the rural Christian one. I was originally pursuing Psych and English double-majors, and Writing and Criminal Justice double-minors. Yet, I graduated with a Psychology major and minors in Writing and…Religious Studies (primarily all Bible classes). I spent my first semester without a church, but graduated after being the President of my Church’s Campus Ministry and helping plant a new church. I was on my way to a Counseling Psychology Ph.D. program, when the seminary “call” hit me like a bus. And so I went to seminary. I did a year and dropped out to work in Social Work. And now I’m back at seminary pursuing ordination.

It seems I can’t get away, no matter how hard I try.

I’ve often thought that I buck against a ministerial call for two reasons. One, I didn’t like the idea of “Pastor” being the main thing that I “did”–my first answer at parties to “what do you do?” I didn’t want to be secluded from the rest of humanity in church meetings and church offices and church trainings and church services. I’ve wanted to “be” something in “the world”.

Some of this is a desire for prestige and affirmation, yes. Some is a twisted idea of ministerial work, shaped by a Bible Belt upbringing and my love for being a part of church plants that necessitate the “constant meetings” state of affairs. But a lot of it comes from a desire to have one foot in the “ministerial vocation” and one foot out. Is that “okay”? Is that faithful to “the call”? Is it divided allegiances?

Secondly, part of me has felt that settling into doing “church stuff” vocationally was–in a sense–the “easy way out” for me. In a lot of ways, I’m just wired for this stuff. Theology, ministering, pastoring, teaching, etc. are all things in which my soul finds such freedom and delight (though they are impossibly difficult, yes).

And yet, I know plenty of ministers who can say everything I’ve said above and have still ended up running their souls, their ministries, and their people into the ground.

I know I have that pride, that hubris, that swagger, and that arrogance. I fear I’ll be the one to have my anxiety spiral out of control, to collapse under the weight of others’ criticisms, obsess over the numbers, and find my worth and value in everything (and everyone) else other than God’s declaration over me–all under the justification of “well, I was called to do this, right?”

(Again, anyone else have these same whispers haunting them?)

All I can offer by way of encouragement is what has helped me. And more than anything else, that has been my own seminary’s constant and relentless stress on how pastors are not the “okay ones” within the congregations. If anything, they are the “lead repenters”. And not in some token sense either, but in areal way. They really are the biggest sinners in the congregation, for they behold and proclaim the most glorious glories in the universe, all while at the same time defaming and squandering them more than anyone will ever know.

So as we press forward through our seminary times—full of doubt, terror, and fear—our only hope is that with some self-awareness, living in community, and receiving brutal honesty, we’ll be protected from going too far astray.

To all my fearful, weak, needy brothers and sisters: may God give us all grace, guidance, and wisdom.

By Paul Burkhart – Paul Burkhart lives in Philadelphia, PA. He is a deacon at Liberti Church and is currently working on his M.Div. through the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He works in social work, mainly in the areas of mental health and street homelessness. He blogs at The Long Way Home.

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