Balancing Church and Seminary
Seminary students are a transient bunch. They blow into town, spend three years too busy to do anything but study, and then they’re gone. For many, the whole seminary thing can seem like a hassle. If you didn’t need to do it, you probably wouldn’t. But is such pessimism really warranted? In other words, does seminary need to be something that gets in the way of your involvement in church ministry, or can the two be pursued at the same time? If you move to another city to attend seminary, there are some things to keep in mind when choosing a church and deciding how to be involved in the ministry of local churches.
Why Get Involved?
Few would disagree in principle with being involved in church ministry while attending seminary. The problem is, the work involved in being a student gets in the way. The workload can be especially overwhelming when coupled with the responsibilities of family life, leaving many to feel like they have nothing left to give to the church. Perhaps the subtlest temptation, though, is to view seminary as an extension of church. Though that view isn’t completely wrong, here are some qualifying factors.
Membership in a local church is necessary for growth. Regular contact with other Christians is one of the primary ways in which God causes us to mature. If you are not attending a church and surrounding yourself with the same people on a weekly basis, then you are undermining this amazing means of grace.
Seminary is an institution of learning, and the Church is the bride of Christ. In other words, if worship is important to you (and, if you read the Bible, it should be), then you don’t have an option. A good seminary will make no pretense of replacing church in this way, but students still need to take care not to let the chapel services and prayer meetings—not to mention the classes themselves—become a replacement for engagement in a church community.
Seminary is a ministry to the Church, not the world. Yes, it does minister to the world, but only through the Church. Many seminary professors have ministries (many of which are connected to churches) they are involved in outside of the classroom. They understand the importance of reaching out to the world directly. Shouldn’t their students follow their example?
Choosing a Church
Once you understand the importance of being part of a church, you must consider a few things while choosing a church. If you’re already part of a church, though, these points aren’t meant to tempt you to leave. It isn’t wise to go from church to church because you don’t like the music or you don’t think you are “being fed.” If you feel that way, it might be because you are not involving yourself in the life of your current church. However, if you are in a place where you need to find a new church (having just moved to attend seminary, perhaps), then keep the following in mind.
Try to choose a church near where you live. This is just good advice whether or not you’re in seminary. There is no way to be engaged in a church if you have to drive 45 minutes to get there. If you’re in a place where there are a lot of options, proximity should be fairly high on the list of factors that helps you choose a particular church.
Find a church that matches your vision of community. Is a multiethnic church community important to you? Or maybe one with people your age. Whatever the case may be, look for a church with the kind of community you hope to be a part of. Worship styles would also fall under this category. Remember, though: be ready to compromise. Don’t go into a church hoping to find that it meets your laundry list of perfect qualities. No church is going to perfectly conform to your ideal of what church should be.
Avoid the temptation to replace church relationships with seminary relationships. This is not to say relationships with professors and fellow students are not important. They will be extremely important in helping you solidify a vision for your future ministry. This is simply to say that if you’re not engaged in a church, you’re missing something. Again, involvement in a worship community both as a participant and, where appropriate, as a leader is paramount with respect to your growth as a Christian.
Overcoming the Commitment Obstacles
Once you have selected a church within which to minister and grow during your time at seminary, how can you overcome the practical obstacles that keep you from committing and staying involved? Here are a few pointers.
Get to know your church leaders. This includes pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, music team members, etc. As they get to know you, they’re sure to find ways you can use your gifts to get involved in the ministry of the church. They’ll also keep you accountable (especially if you ask them to) and seek you out if you’ve fallen off their radar.
Consider slowing down the pace of your studies. You may think, Shouldn’t I want to graduate as quickly as possible so I can get to wherever it is I really want to be ministering? Chances are, though, most people you meet who finished their M.Div. in three years would take more time if they could do it again. No one needs a pastor who can get through their M.Div. in three years yet has no practical ministry experience. Just stretching a program out to four years is sufficient for many people to have time to invest in their local church community.
Commit to serving in any way you can. The importance of church in the Christian life is rivaled only by the importance of Christ and His Gospel. After all, if you plan on going into ministry after your time at seminary, then you plan to serve the Church. Why not start now? Offer to lead a small group. Or even just be faithful in attending a small group.
There are tons of ways you can benefit your church while you’re a student. In the end you’ll be better prepared for ministry, which is, after all, why you’re attending seminary. Just as importantly, you’ll leave the church you attended during your seminary years better than you found it.
And maybe you’ll be remembered long after you’ve graduated.
Daniel Moch is a part-time seminary student in Orlando, FL. He spends the rest of his time in lay ministry, engineering and the occasional writing project. Adapted from an article on GoingToSeminary.com. Used with permission.
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