I once preached a message about reasons not to follow Jesus. It was sort of a reverse-psychology version of Jesus’ exhortation to count the cost of following Him. The late-20th century evangelicalism under which I grew up had largely presented Jesus as the answer to all society’s ills and problems; yet as a faithful follower, I had experienced enough pain, heartache, and first-world suffering to challenge that notion. And on top of my own experiences and what I saw in others’ lives, I also saw my fair share of downright meanness among people at church who would also describe themselves as faithful followers. Obviously, “following Jesus” wasn’t going to cure much; there had to be something more. Through my message, I hoped to invite our church to journey together through the challenges of not just following, but being transformed by Jesus.
For the next few lines I want to do something similar for men and women considering seminary (specifically those intending to pursue pastoral ministry, versus the more academic or counseling-related tracks). I chose to attend seminary because I believed God had called me to be a pastor and because the churches I thought might consider me as their pastor expected a seminary degree. In a sense, I was trying to punch a ticket—probably not the best reason, but it was mine and I don’t regret the decision. But my desire to be a pastor also held some of what others hope for when they start on this course: a passion (or at least a burden) to make an impact on the lives of people and the Kingdom of God, and a conviction that the institutional/local church is a viable vehicle for that impact.
But let me give you three things to chew on as you think about attending seminary:
1. The western church is a mess (and so are you). The church is as adept at turning people away from Jesus as drawing them toward him, and it will take a lot more than good preaching and fluency in Hebrew and Greek to draw people to Jesus. Oh, and a fancy logo, hip website, and good music are just window dressing. If you’re not more passionate about loving people than you are about growing a church, then don’t go to seminary—it will only mess up both you and the church even more.
2. You’re not going to change the church. No matter how gifted a communicator you are or how many books by John Maxwell, Malcolm Gladwell, or Jim Collins you’ve read, your influence will most likely be limited to the couple hundred people that come to your church, maybe a few hundred more who visit over the years, and (I hope) the community in which you and your church reside. It took 1,500 years for the first reformation to happen, and it’s only been 500 years since. Chances are, you’re not the next Martin Luther.
3. Going to seminary won’t change the truth of either of those two statements. Seminary will equip you with some knowledge and skills. It will help you learn to think theologically and may prepare you to be a better leader, shepherd, and people-lover. On the other hand, seminary may also cement within you some of the theological messes you already carry—especially if you’re thinking about going to your own denomination’s seminary. What seminary won’t do is change the fact that the church is a mess, and it won’t transform you into the next great reformer.
Still want to go to seminary? Still thinking about forking over tens of thousands of dollars and anywhere from two to eight years of your life to study for a graduate degree that probably won’t be worth much outside the church world? There are some good reasons to go to seminary, too, and I’ll write about them next time.
About the author: Randy Ehle squeezed a two-year degree into eight years at seminary campuses in two states, eventually graduating in 2014 with a Master of Arts in Ministry and Leadership. During those years, he and his wife Eiley managed to get their three kids through four graduations of their own (kindergarten, high school, and two eighth grade graduations), survived nine months of unemployment, took two trips to Africa, and built a home. Oh, and Randy spent five years as an Associate Pastor before launching a continuing search for a Senior Pastor position. Follow Randy on Twitter @randehle or check out his own blog, The Rushed Contemplative, at www.randehle.com.