Just this week we hosted a group of prospective students for our Preview Day event held in conjunction with our annual For the Church Conference. During a lunch session, my colleagues and I were asked what advice would you give to someone considering further studies?
My answer: Start as soon as you can.
Here is what I mean:
Formal academic training is not a requirement for ministry or necessarily even a barometer to guarantee a certain level of genuine godliness or qualified fitness. However, to have 3-4 years to learn from professors and work out one’s understanding of foundational beliefs is not only a helpful blessing for many toward a long-term ministry of faithfulness, it is also often a form of what I call “structured discipleship” that many of us need before we are in a position of regularly leading others.
This is especially true at the undergraduate level and frequently is true at the graduate level.
Before or during their theological education, students usually reach a point of wanting to focus solely on serving and to finish their degree later. This hurried spirit is often noble and motivated by God-given zeal but usually is short sighted.
With some regularity I meet people seasoned in ministry who tell me how much they regret not staying for more training or who had every intention of finishing their degree but have never found the time. The same can be said for those who always desired to pursue a terminal degree but have concluded, due to good and godly circumstances, that is no longer a feasible dream.
However, due to the developments and improvements of online studies over the last decade, as well as creative partnerships with a network of local churches, there is now no real reason why someone who wants to start or finish their theological education, can not do so as soon as possible. For those who dream one day of starting doctoral studies, the reality is that due to innovative modular seminar formats, that day is here.
To be sure, though an enjoyable and memorable time, seeing a degree through to the end is not easy. The rigors of theological education combined with a growing family, a job and local church service can stretch and strain even the most resilient among us. But as hard as it may seem, there is good and joy that comes through the stretching … and the finishing.
Here is one example and encouragement from a key theologian.
While reading through materials related to Jonathan Edwards for my brief book Seven Summits in Church History, I came across this portion in Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards that serves as a great reminder to all those currently in a preparation season for ministry. Murray relates:
“The choice, then, before Edwards in 1723 was between taking up a pastorate and the spiritual work which he had so greatly enjoyed in New York, or responding to the need at Yale with the prospect of wider studies which a Yale tutorship would provide. The fact that he went as far as formally to accept the call to Bolton, only to withdraw from it, is proof enough that the decision was not an easy one.
“As we shall see, the three years now before him were not among those which he regarded as his happiest, yet the additional discipline involved was to contribute largely to his future usefulness.
“The comment of Samuel Miller on Edwards’ decision to return to Yale is worthy of repetition:
Many a young man since, as well as before his time, of narrow views and crude knowledge, has rushed into the pastoral office with scarcely any of that furniture which enables the shepherd of souls ‘rightly to divide the word of truth’; but Jonathan Edwards, with a mind of superior grasp and penetration, and with attainments already greater than common, did not think three full years of diligent professional study enough to prepare him for this arduous charge, until, after his collegiate graduation, he had devoted six years to close and appropriate study.“
As I tell students, if God has given you the opportunity and ability to give time to formal study and theological preparation, he has given you access to “that furniture which enables the shepherd of souls ‘rightly to divide the word of truth’” —something the majority of ministers in the world will never have.
Like Jonathan Edwards, the question is one of stewardship in sacrificing now so as to be able to enjoy and see maximal fruitfulness for the Kingdom in the years to come.
If Edwards felt he needed to finish formal theological education, do you? The call to ministry is a call to prepare, and there is no better time to start than now.
 Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, 1987), 56.