Advice for Undergraduates Planning on Seminary

In April Fred Sanders asked me to write to some THI students who are anticipating seminary in their future. Today I officially started an M.Div. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, so it feels fitting to review the tips I wrote and share them here. I’d like to hear what others think (both Biola grads and not).

5 tips to chums considering the pastorate (with some personal examples):

1. Read your books: The people guiding your education right now know a lot more than you do about pretty much everything, vocational ministry included. Commit yourself wholly to their care while you have the opportunity. There will be occasions in the future when you can develop other important skills and affections, but resolve to consistently prioritize now what you can best do in this season of your life: carefully reading and talking about old books (writing about them is important too, but less important for now). With this priority in mind, do not let the syllabus, your classmates, or the general cultural expectations prevent you from thoroughly ingesting each text. If that takes reading some books twice, do it. Carefully attend to your own energy cycles and optimal conditions for study. Never again will you be able to read so widely and with such helpful support: be a good steward of this opportunity. A good indicator of this will be feedback from your mentor (and since success in Torrey depends much more on hard work than “a beautiful mind”-type insight, you should try to be in the top 5% of your class). If you start the program ahead, write more and periodically engage with stronger dialogue partners who will push you. A good quote on this topic: “When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don’t feel like that, then you aren’t working hard enough.”2013 - Logo - Torrey Seal (2738)

2. Develop aspirational relationships: There was a time when pastors were usually the best educated people in town. This is not true anymore, so you need to be thoughtful about charting a course that will improve on the standard academic route to the pastorate. Most people will become the average of their closest companions. And while Sutherland Hall is a wonderful place with many great people, it does not have a high concentration of deeply rigorous thinkers, so you’re going to have be proactive about building your friend base. I recommend a mix of people who are especially helpful given your current life-focus (see point 1) and then just generally wonderful people (given the likely longevity of many of these relationships). In addition to peers that will spur you on, regularly seek out the company of older students and alumni. Lunch once a month with a graduate student takes little extra effort and will be extremely helpful in keeping you humble and hustling. Note that this advice does not mean you shouldn’t be good friends with your roommates or the random person on your intramural volleyball team; you just need to head hunt too. I did this by intentionally making friends with older students I respected, presenting at academic conferences, doing fellowships through think tanks/other colleges, taking classes cross-listed at Talbot, and interviewing pastors about both their ministry and their preparation for it. I’ve kept interviewing since graduation and now have advice, recommended resources, and the contact info from more than twenty pastors.

3. Lead something: The other thing that college is especially good for is extra-curricular activities. I suggest you combine this asset with intentional development along the lines of useful professional skills. Here again think about what is best achieved in each setting. If you go straight to seminary, you will have very little experience for many aspects of church leadership (and what experiences you do have from those spheres might not be very strong). In addition to teaching and setting vision for the church, every pastor has to occasionally play counselor, small-business owner, visual and music designer, community organizer, and manager. These aspects of the work are harder to practice in academic settings (both undergrad and seminary). With this in mind I recommend you either spend some time in the professional world (I was a teacher for two years and then spent two years working as a manager with Teach For America) and/or leading something in college. At Biola I think AS/SMU is a good option, or being an editor of the newspaper; working somewhere off-campus can work well too. Just make sure you’re in charge at some point: you need practice making decisions that some people won’t like, leading other people, and having organizational success or failure depend on your work.

4. Get involved in a church and tell the pastor what you plan on doing: Find a church and go there every Sunday. Join a small group that has older people in it. Tell people (especially the pastor) you’re thinking about becoming a pastor and ask them to help you begin preparing for it. Volunteer in some way that allows you to serve and learn without compromising a lot of study time (ushering, teaching Sunday School to kids, etc.).

5. Fight your habitual sins while you have such strong support: This advice is from my brother, now the lead pastor of a church outside Tacoma, WA. At Biola you have an incredible web of support, encouragement, and wisdom. Do not let that environment cause you to hide or minimize your sin for fear of exposure; take advantage of those resources and your youth. Regularly confess your sins to others. Use the structures of chapel, intimate friendships (the real world is going to be a huge shock on this: most people do not live 10 feet from their closet friends), mentor professors, residence life, etc. There are people at the Institute of Spiritual Formation that are handing out free spiritual direction! Do not expect total victory over sin, but use the time and support to sever some of the tap roots of habitual sins.

Bonus!: Study something besides Bible and Theology: This is the most idiosyncratic of my tips, but I am glad I studied philosophy as an undergrad instead of B&T. Assuming you do an M.Div. you will be able to “get more” from the two different periods. Some benefits of studying something else: greater diversification in education, higher possibility of more academically rigorous classes, greater credibility on non-biblical topics (useful in the current age), and a more interesting group of friends for the future. If you want to study with one or two incredible Bible professors, just audit their class or take it as an elective.

In summary: Thoroughly study your books. Hang around people you want to be like. Don’t get weird. Practice hard stuff.

Read what others are saying:

30 Suggestions for Theological Students and Young Theologians by John Frame

Excerpts from a Letter from John Piper’s Father on Ministry

email
  • http://www.andrewmbailey.com Andrew

    Though I doubt I would have heeded it, I wish I had been given this advice when I was 18 or so. It strikes me as wise, and not just for those who intend to become pastors.

  • Ed Hopkins

    Attend some churches outside your own tradition and “comfort zone.” Have an open mind about them. Try to understand why they do what they do. When critiquing other theologies or faiths, learn of them from their proponents, not just from those who oppose them.