The Monday after I graduated from GVSU I started working as a computer programmer. That summer I married and we moved into a one bedroom apartment in Walker. My wife and I began considering seriously considering the possibility of pastoral ministry. As we prayed about it, we decided that at a minimum, God was leading me to go to Seminary.
We looked at a several possibilities but only seriously considered two. First, we went down to Kentucky to visit Southern, a large Southern Baptist Seminary. There were a few pros to Southern. First, Since I had grown up in a Southern Baptist church (in Northern Michigan) I was eligible to receive a 50% reduction in tuition cost. Second, the job market in Kentucky for teachers was significantly better than in Michigan. Finding a job in Michigan was nearly impossible. Finding one in Kentucky was extremely likely.
There were also cons. We would be far from family. To get the 50% tuition reduction I would also have to commit to working within the Southern Baptist Convention. While I am extremely grateful to the SBC and to my spiritual heritage I wasn’t ready to commit to working within that organization. So, for my conscience to be clear, I knew I couldn’t accept the 50% discount.
My second option was Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (GRTS). It was in the greater Grand Rapids area. It had a good reputation. It was historically Baptist, but was open to other viewpoints. And, when we visited, I got a great impression from everyone I met. When God opened the door for my wife to get a teaching job in the area – no easy task – I knew that GRTS was the school for me. We spent the next year saving as much money as we could to be able to go debt-free (a goal we accomplished thanks to God’s provision).
I went into Seminary without a clear picture of the next step, or of what kind of ministry I would be involved with. The call to pastoral ministry was always tentative. This went against the prevailing wisdom I heard at the time, and that I continue to hear. The message I received from those around me was this: “don’t go into pastoral ministry unless you are absolutely sure!” And, “if you can do anything else, then do it.”
The “…unless you are absolutely sure” message I heard often included some strong, overpowering subjective experience or conviction of the Holy Spirit. This was not my experience. My “assurance” was this: (1) I believed God had gifted me in certain areas – a theory I was eager to test in Seminary and (2) I believed those gifts aligned with the pre-requisites for pastoral ministry and could be useful in building up the church.
There were still some unknowns. I didn’t have a really clear picture of what pastoral ministry looked like. I hadn’t been tested in certain areas that I typically associated with pastoral ministry – such as preaching and counseling. I didn’t know if I would enjoy my classes. Seminary began as a process of exploration and confirmation of God’s call.
As for the “if you can do anything else, then do it” mentality, well, this one just baffled me. I sure hope, for the sake of the church, that our churches are staffed with pastors who have other skills, interests, and abilities. I like computer programming and I was confident that I could even find some degree of fulfillment in that profession. After all, I would still be doing something useful. I could still be a witness. I could still build up the church. I could still love my wife as Christ loved the church. I could still raise a family in the training and admonition of the Lord. No, the drive to pastoral ministry could not come from a “this is my only option mentality.” My apologies to all those who told me it should.
Given all this, Seminary served several important roles.
I needed training – badly. I had some general knowledge but, if Seminary teaches you nothing else, it’s that you don’t know what you thought you knew.
I needed to test out various pastoral gifts. I had very little experience public speaking and other “pastoral” tasks. I needed to know if I could handle these unexplored areas of ministry.
I needed to understand my own interests. Which classes would I like? Which would I hate?
I needed to connect with and learn from others on a similar journey. I didn’t know this going into Seminary, but I discovered later that one of the best parts of seminary is learning from other peoples perspectives, which I received both from fellow classmates and from wonderful professors.
I had hoped to make it through my seminary experience. Oops. Maybe I’ll make it through in the next edition.
Thanks for reading. God bless.