Why Does Anyone Need a Seminary? (Part 2 — this time it’s personal)

Okay, so what is the secret? Here it is. The reason I didn’t need to have the answers — the reason leadership is not about having the answers — is that no one is asking the question!

When, in your life, did someone approach you to ask you why you were so hopeful? When did someone spontaneously invite you to share your faith in Jesus? I know what 1 Peter 3:15 says. I have been in ministry leadership for a lot of years, and I can’t remember the last time it happened — if ever. Could it happen? Perhaps. Will it happen? Not likely. Planning for it to happen is like purchasing lottery tickets as an investment strategy.

You know what else I realized? If someone finds out you’re a pastor, or some related ministry leadership person, as likely as not, that person is as likely to avoid you as seek you out. Why is that? The simplest reason is that you are answering questions that a lot of people either do not care about, or do not want to ask.

Even if I might encounter someone who might be receptive, I suffered from a credibility gap as a witness to Christian faith. I was a paid professional, so of course I was going to give the expected type of answer (and answer that people could predict, even if they did not know it very well, by the way).

In the mid-1970s, Power to Change (then called Campus Crusade for Christ) sponsored the I Found It evangelistic campaign. The idea was to put “I found it” on billboards and buttons to invite questions about what “it” was — new life in Jesus Christ. But here’s the rub. Most people didn’t care what it was. And some parodied the billboards and buttons. Soon there were buttons and bumper stickers reading “I lost it,” “I smoked it,” and “I had it but I forgot where I put it.”

The truth is that people don’t care much to hear me give the answer unless they have seen me live the answer first. Until then, the message is just words. And interestingly enough, being the answer invites the question in a way that telling an answer tends not to. Oh, and you should know that being the answer may invite a different kind of question from the ones we might expect. But that is okay. Starting the conversation is a good thing. Jesus did this, in a variety of different ways, showing us that meeting people where they are is far better than starting from where we think they should be.

What is more, seminary exposes a person to a greater breadth of input and example than one would encounter in everyday experience, and in a more intentional and constructive fashion than one would experience in the course of ministry in a local church. Seminary imparts knowledge, but it also shapes wisdom, and provides context for the diversity of people and ideas that a seminary student will encounter in pursuit of that person’s vocation. In simple terms, seminary adds a considerable number of tools to a person’s ministry toolbox.

Why is this important? Well, although we may have realize that, at least in formal terms, the basic issues of the human condition are rooted in the problem of sin, in material terms, the solution is more complicated than dogmatically calling upon people to repent. As Abraham Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” We need a greater number of tools in order to address these different situations. But if we don’t have those tools, or the expertise to know how to use them, we will have an obstacle to overcome. Treating people in a one-size-fits-all way does not work.

Still don’t believe me? I am not the only one who thinks this way. This post from Greg Lanier says it well. (My thanks to my colleague Andrew Dyck for sharing it.) Seminary is important. Training and formation are essential. Let’s stop thinking of ministry as a sprint and start training for it as a marathon. Because it is. Play the long game and you will win. Play the short game and you will grow discouraged and quit.

One thought on “Why Does Anyone Need a Seminary? (Part 2 — this time it’s personal)

  1. Having been pastored by more than one person who was evidently of the “I have to have all the answers” persuasion and knowing more than one counselor of the “Just repent” school , and having been that person myself (in a lay leader capacity) I am delighted that at least a few seminarians somewhere are seeing a different ethic and dynamic at play in at least one of their professor’s life!
    You would have got along very well with David Powlison I think and if your path ever crossed Ed Welch’s there’d be quite a resonance as well.
    Thank you for your work, Brian

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