And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. (Mark 8:27-30 ESV)
When I was both a college student and a new Christian, I had many questions about life and the prospects of ministry service. My college pastor was kind enough to help and guide me not by merely answering all my questions, but by asking me more questions in return.
Much like the Lord Jesus did with his disciples on the way to the villages, I have found that for those thinking about a call to vocational gospel ministry, one of the best helps we can provide is to shepherd them not only by listening and answering, but also by asking them more questions to ensure they are thinking through some things that haven’t yet occurred to them.
As I have talked with students over the years, here are three questions I have found helpful to ask them and then also to help them find answers. There are many more questions than these to ask and answer, but these are a good place to start.
1. Why are you thinking of pursuing vocational gospel ministry in these days?
“The end of all things is at hand” – 1 Peter 4:7
I never saw the connection between the joy found in fellowship and having hope at the end of the world—I never saw the right connection between ecclesiology and eschatology—but there it was even in The Lord of the Rings.
The hero and his faithful companion, comprising the remnant of a Fellowship that set out on a journey to destroy evil and see the return of their King, lay exhausted and helpless surrounded by an erupting mountain of volcanic proportions with no cause for hope of rescue.
Yet in that moment they had the peace and security that only victorious soldiers must know when they, though dying, have saved countrymen or even countries. What was their source of hope? Knowledge that evil was ultimately defeated though the world self-destructed around them and hope in the truth for which they persevered. That and remaining fellowship led them to express gladness and joy there ‘at the end of all things.’
Tolkien’s story is a helpful window through which to see there is great hope and joy for those of us laboring as Christians in the fellowships that are local churches in a self-destructing world—and thankfully that is a mere glimpse of the shining light of truth of these themes found in the Bible.
In 1 Peter 4:7 the Apostle Peter explains that “the end of all things is at hand” and by that he means that he and his readers were living in the last days before the return of Jesus. Since that time until our very own, humanity has been living at the verge of the end of the world, but that is not a cause for despair or hand-wringing. Peter’s point was focused rather on how one is to live at the end of all things and he spends the next few verses underscoring this for believers.
Peter explains that while a Christian should have his eyes fixed and his hope set on the soon and certain return of Jesus, he should be using his spiritual gifts, whether they be serving or speaking, all for the glory of God (1 Pet 4:7-11).
This end, then, is the source of hope that those considering vocational ministry should consider and pursue. In these days and until the end, whether one eats, drinks, preaches, trains, waters, reaps, types, writes, shares or disciples, he should be doing these things, through the fellowship of local churches, as the biblically prescribed means for carrying out the Great Commission to the Glory of God.
2. Do you first need formal theological training?
In 1939, C. S. Lewis delivered an address entitled, “Learning in War-Time” to encourage those to persevere in their studies at the advent of World War II. Reading through his comments, I am struck by the relevance his words have for those called to ministry but are currently considering whether they need to prepare by gaining formal theological education.
The men and women thinking of seminary, too, will pursue studies during an ongoing war—a spiritual war—and often the call of the front lines of full time ministry service in contrast to the present semesterly demands strains one to question if more school really is the right next step. For these questions C. S. Lewis can help.
At the end of his message, Lewis gave what he called “mental exercises” that served as helpful defenses for the student in his day to resist the enemy of excitement that war-time brought to those still in educational preparation. He said,
“[T]he tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.”
Just as for some in Lewis’ day who had eventually to abandon or postpone their studies in order to serve their country in war, there are some today who do, in fact, need to slow down their theological studies for a key ministry opportunity. However, this is not the norm and in my experience observing students rarely is this the wise course, and even rarer still does the student who suspends their studies altogether ever complete their degree. The excitement about future ministry will always be there. Better to prepare now so that when in ministry the excitement fades, one has learned well how to persevere.
3. What should you look for in a seminary?
After walking through the more formative questions above, thinking practically about where to study is vital. Instead of telling a student where he or she should study, first I offer four more questions to ask those who are asking about seminaries:
What do they believe?
The six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention are confessional institutions bound by the mandate of the churches that each and every faculty member agree with, teach, and support the Convention’s confession of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Churches in the Baptist Tradition have used confessions throughout their history not to replace or supersede the Bible in terms of authority, but rather as documents that summarize the minimum of what those churches believe the Bible teaches in order to partner together for the sake of gospel ministry and for the shared advancement of the Great Commission. In short, confessions of faith are tools to “define” and “defend” what Baptist churches believe and serve as life-giving, Bible-centered guardrails for the training and instruction of these seminaries. Rather than offer an anchorless or aimless education in the name of academic freedom, confessionally bound schools actually provide more freedom to think through timeless questions and the questions of the day, while at the same time providing answers to those questions.
With whom will you study?
J.I. Packer begins Knowing God with an illustration of two ways people express interest in the study of theology by “by picturing persons sitting on the high front balcony of a Spanish house watching travelers go by on the road below. The ‘balconeers’ can overhear the travelers’ talk and chat with them; they may comment critically on the way the travelers walk; or they may discuss questions about the road, how it can exist at all or lead anywhere, what might be seen from different points along it, and so forth; but they are onlookers, and their problems are theoretical only. The travelers, by contrast, face problems which, though they have their theoretical angle, are essentially practical—problems of the ‘which-way-to-go’ and ‘how-to-make-it’ type, problems which call not merely for comprehension but for decision and action too.” Packer then says, “Now this is a book for travelers.”
When one is considering a seminary, he or she should look for a school that has heart for training travelers. In much of what is classified as theological education in this country, the six Southern Baptist seminaries and several evangelical sister institutions stand apart in this regard, for many other schools are content to sit in ivory towers and spectate. The task of theology for these schools is to observe, comment, criticize, but not actually implement or trust. Further, and equally important, is finding a school where the faculty are also non-spectators. These are not mere theorists, but also practitioners—professors who are engaged in applying theology and the study of the Bible to life and ministry just as much as they are teaching and writing theology.
What degree programs do they offer and encourage?
When it comes to the theological degree with long standing proven effectiveness, the Master of Divinity continues to represent the mainstay for equipping those with a solid theological foundation for a lifetime of ministry. Other masters degrees are helpful for more specialized avenues of service, but the MDiv still is the best degree available for those called to vocational gospel ministry.
Likewise, I remain convinced that seminaries serve churches best when students can aim to complete a rigorous professional masters degree that focuses on the high quality biblical and theological core of what a student needs to prepare for pastoral ministry in three years. Since avenues for further specialized study beyond this foundational degree exist in the form of MDiv concentrations, the ThM degree, and doctoral degrees, a three year MDiv is ideally designed as the healthiest MDiv to prepare men and women to serve the churches.
For more on the history of the MDiv degree and my thinking regarding how long it should take to complete, please see this article.
What will it cost?
While finances should not serve as the first and driving factor for one’s decision for choosing a seminary, it should be a contributing factor. Incurring student loan debt for seminary puts the future graduate in a challenging place in terms of vocational options and hinders their ability to serve in places of greatest need.
The six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention are unique in that, due to almost a century of sacrificial gifts by churches of all sizes to a centralized Cooperative Program, these schools are able to offer a significant scholarship to students from Southern Baptist churches. This same Cooperative Program continues to fund many of these students who go on to serve on the mission fields of every continent on the globe. This partnership with the churches from the start of their seminary training is a remarkable relationship that has strengthened the seminaries, the students, and the churches now for several generations.
Questioning Those With Questions
I remain convinced that one of the best things we can do when talking to college students exploring a call to vocational gospel ministry is not merely to answer their questions, but rather first to shepherd them by asking them questions.
Are you praying and thinking through a call to vocational ministry? Are you walking with someone who is?
I’d love to speak with you, listen, and then ask some questions.
For further reading and wise counsel on this topic, be sure to read and then share a copy of Jason K. Allen’s Discerning Your Call to Ministry: How to Know for Sure and What to Do About It (Moody Publishers, 2016).