In seminary circles we often talk about “personal formation” as the individual growth process we experience during our time while preparing for ministry. However, it can be easy to use this as a euphemism for spiritual activity. Joining a bible study, reading scripture, taking a personal retreat, serving in your neighborhood, committing oneself to more prayer. All of these are great disciplines, yet when it comes to representing Jesus and His truth, Scripture speaks more about our attitudes, and more specifically, the attitudes of our heart.
Therefore, it is perfectly possible to fail at seminary, even if you come out with a 4.0 GPA. We can spend 2-5 years of our life working on papers and exams only to walk away from our education with merely a piece of paper to show for it. But if we want to become more like Christ, we need to be aware of our blind spots. This requires some extra-curricular focus.
So to those who are currently in seminary or have considered it for the future, here are four warning signs that you will not get the return on your investment:
1) Your goal is to win the argument.
Whether it is in the classroom or on social media, there is a fine line between sharing your ideas for fruitful discussion and simply trying to prove that you are correct. No one is an expert at anything. Also, learning from others can be amazing if you take the opportunity to listen and be humble about it. Brothers and sisters from various backgrounds can meet together to share wisdom and encourage one another.
If you listen more, you will be amazed to hear the stories of those who are taking a stand for the gospel both domestically and around the world. Seek out those who have lived outside your own context. Find people who are different than you and learn from them. Take the stance of Francis of Assisi and “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
2) You are growing in knowledge without understanding.
How do you respond to conflict? How do you handle embarrassment or criticism? What do you say when you are insulted on social media? As Christians, we follow a radical gospel that is “foolishness to the world” (1 Corinthians 1:18). So how will you respond when you are called a fool?
If the collective goal is simply acquiring information (knowledge) and not simultaneously learning how to grow in discernment or character (understanding), it will be difficult to carry the witness of Jesus Christ in this world. We must take inventory of ourselves and determine if we are growing in the fruit of the Spirit as much as we are learning languages or theology. People follow integrity and devotion more than pure eloquence. You may be able to preach a sermon, but does your life preach as well? If you want to serve in the church, your words cannot conflict with your behavior. Teachers in the church are held to a higher standard (See James 3.)
3) You are fighting the wrong war.
We all have certain experiences that have shaped our worldviews. Many of us are no stranger to emotional, mental, or spiritual pain. This pain can then create barriers in our hearts and prevent us from truly healing. Sometimes this pain becomes part of our identity. It becomes easy then for us to dismiss a group of people simply for who they are. Their identity may threaten us. But in reality, it threatens our pain.
In seminary, we will have several experiences where our deep, personal convictions will be challenged. It will also be a time where we can make a choice. A choice to either bury our pain or trust Jesus to make us well. We can use our education to protect our pain or we can use it to forgive and heal alongside others. The community we choose is important to help us grow, but it all starts with a choice.
To think that “the accuser” would not try to tear apart the body of Christ is naive. If we are not careful, we can categorize others and put up walls of separation that were never meant to be there: Arminian vs. Calvinist, black vs. white, male vs. female. But for those who truly believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, His people are called to be a community that acknowledges differences with the attitude of reconciliation and grace. So, we must respond to Jesus’ words – “Do you want to be well?” Before we write another blog post or update our Facebook status, we need to check the motivation for our words. We are fighting a spiritual battle, but not with one another.
4) You need to be the expert.
As students of the biblical text, we have the amazing opportunity to teach and lead others to understand God’s truth. Seminary trains you to respond and have answers for many questions in life. People in today’s world are closely watching Christians’ response to a variety of issues. However, they are also looking for people who are human. People who know how to comfort in times of loss. People who are honest with their doubts. People who can empathize with the pain of addiction, divorce, and injustice. Don’t feel the pressure to always have a perfect answer. We are responsible for our knowledge, but sometimes strength doesn’t require a response. Sometimes we just need to pray and be a presence of peace. We can stand with others and ultimately bring them to the Healer who has perfect wisdom.
I struggled in seminary. It was by far the most challenging task of my life. The papers and projects were more advanced, but what was most difficult was being confronted with the condition of my heart. Thankfully, I had a group of friends who were not afraid to address my opportunities for growth. Together, we challenged one another to not simply memorize Romans 12:2 in koine Greek, but to do the hard work needed for proven transformation.
Theological education can be a formative period of your life—if you allow it to be. We must be willing to focus on these areas of development so our hearts can receive from God (Matthew 13). There is no syllabus for this kind of learning, but it is probably the most important class you will ever take.