Gentlemen, you are husbands, fathers, workers, and aspiring expositors. Your plate is full. And yet, you have added seminary. For some of you, this is the first time in years you have sat in a classroom. There are papers to be written, books to be read, and plenty of late nights and early mornings ahead. Failure may be a fear of yours.
However, there is a much greater failure than failing seminary. There is the possibility that you could miss the opportunity before you.
The point of seminary is to make better servants. The goal of seminary is not simply to educate you in your Bible knowledge or increase your ability to communicate the Word of God, but ultimately to increase your love for Christ and His people.
I don’t want you to fail. So I compiled a list of ways others before you have wandered into failure. The following are ten ways to fail as a seminary student. I hope you will avoid these temptations.
1. Pursue a title rather than an education.
If your goal is letters behind your name, you will do just enough to get by. You will find yourself asking: how little do I need to do to pass? Make your goal to be a better student, more skilled preacher, and a greater blessing to the church—not simply to graduate. Your future congregation will not be blessed nor impressed by your title—but after this program is over, they will receive the blessing of the man you have become through this process. Don’t take shortcuts. Digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.
2. Substitute your classroom reading for your devotional life.
Your life is now a balance of work, sermon preparation, assignments, and devotional time. You often will be tempted to neglect the latter. There is a difference between opening the Word to finish an assignment and opening the Word for sustenance. At the end of each week, no amount of time spent writing a paper or reading will replace whether or not that week you communed with Jesus. Too many pastors have stepped into the pulpit on a Sunday morning and realized: “I have done plenty of things well this week, but I have not been with the Lord.” Brothers, don’t let this be true of you. In the coming years, boredom will not be a struggle of yours, but you must guard your time with Christ. Remember what John Owen wrote: “We read our Bible to know and savor Christ.”
3. Short-change your church ministry and blame it on seminary.
You are being blessed with the time and ability to study in seminary. Do not in turn use this program as an excuse to neglect ministry. Think of it like this: seminary is competing with your leisure time—with Netflix, Twitter, and sports—not visitation, discipleship, or sermon preparation. In the next several years, you will have to say “no” to plenty of good things in order to succeed in this program. Ministry is not one of those things. Beneath the veil of “study,” do not push aside the God-given responsibility to engage in ministry. Guard your first priority—love the Lord, and then express that devotion by loving the church.
4. Make this program your own personal journey without bringing others along with you.
Your church, friends, and family need to understand why you are doing what you are doing. As you are in this program, bring people along with you. Tell others what you are learning and how to pray for you in your studies. Let them know what you are reading and writing. Be vulnerable in how you are being convicted, on the blind spots you are finding in your life and ministry. Demonstrate for those around you that you can never outgrow learning about the Lord. Be an example of someone who is hungry for the Word. Help those around you to see that you are in this program out of love for the church, to better serve her. Don’t let this degree be an endeavor of self-promotion, but of care and affection for the church.
5. Neglect your wife and children, and justify it by saying there is just no other way.
Please do not withdraw from your wife and children and blame it on seminary. Nobody wins if you get several letters behind your name and lose your family. Redeem the time you lose with your family in this program by spending extra, unexpected time with them. Make up the time. Do not let your wife become (or feel like) a second thought to the church or seminary. There are moments you will be removed—basketball games and recitals you will miss, but make those precious moments up. Make your wife and children glad you entered seminary.
6. Make excuses for why you cannot do your work with excellence.
Every one of us has more work than we can do each week. Our schedules are filled with work, family, events, and meetings. And now add a rigorous graduate program. If you are not careful, you will convince yourself that your schedule and demands are unique. Be careful. Every man in this program has a family, the church, and this educational pursuit. Be slow to conjure excuses as to why you need more time for a paper than everyone else. Every man’s life in this program is hard. Because you are reading this, you are choosing to add to your life a demanding program. Be careful of justifying why you can’t do what you chose to do with excellence.
7. Brush off critique from graders, mentors, and peers by telling yourself the weaknesses they see are illegitimate.
Everybody loves feedback until it becomes “constructive.” Brothers, listen to people who love you. When you are given feedback, do not let yourself become defensive. Learn from those who love you enough to help you. When someone is giving you feedback, be silent and listen. Fight against your natural response to explain or justify. It is in our nature to defend ourselves more than we need to. Critique is for your good. Embrace it.
8. Fail to connect with other men in the program and stay to yourself.
Push yourself to connect with one another in seminary. Learn to depend upon and trust these men. There is something unique about having a group of men in your life who you can call, and they care about you and the calling God has placed upon your life. Exchange names, emails, cell phone numbers, and build a brotherhood. Sound theological education is essential; so are meaningful Christian friendships.
9. Begin to see yourself as a scholar, having graduated from being a shepherd.
Scholars are revered, shepherds are taken for granted. Scholars are respected, shepherds are overlooked. Now that you are in a graduate program, be careful of thinking of yourself as more scholar than shepherd. Be on guard of thinking that you have outgrown shepherding. Yes, you are a scholar, but not instead of being a shepherd. One of the ways you shepherd God’s people is by studying. If those you minister to know that your time in the study is intended to feed and serve them, they will protect and honor it. But if they begin to think that your time in the study is a way of avoiding them, they will grow to resent your studies. Think like a scholar, but never instead of being a shepherd.
10. Graduate and then consider yourself as having arrived.
Don’t think that graduation is an arrival. This is a lifelong journey of knowing God’s Word and communicating it more effectively so that the body of Christ is built and Christ Himself is glorified. Read your assignments and write your papers with a desire to build the body and to glorify Christ. Then, receive every day of your life as an invitation to continue your pursuit of knowing Christ more deeply and helping others love Him above all else.