The long and winding road: collected wisdom on maturing in seminary
A couple weeks ago, four pastors from the Louisville, Ky., area held a public conversation about seminary students and church membership. Sitting on the panel were Timothy J. Beougher, senior pastor of West Broadway Baptist Church and Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth; Ryan Fullerton, the lead pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church; John Kimbell, pastor of preaching and discipleship at Clifton Baptist Church; and Kevin Smith, teaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church and assistant professor of Christian preaching. Here are some of the take-aways from the panel:
Seminary students learn a lot of terms and jargon (which is good) but they need to translate that when talking with “ordinary” church members.
Fullerton: “Someone who is in seminary is not of necessity more mature. But they are almost always proficient in language that involves an expertise around a particular subject. There are extremely mature seminary students, and they are always a blessing to the church because mature Christians are always a blessing. … What happens is when your level of knowledge begins to mask a level of immaturity, you begin to get
“Sometimes we’re blessed by a really clear delineation of a particular doctrine. Or would toning that down a bit to establish a good relationship be better at this season? Love and holiness means that there’s sufficient self-awareness that I know how I am affecting people. I am more interested in how I am affecting for good than I am of self-actualizing on my theological knowledge.”
Beougher: “I think one of the challenges of being in [the seminary] environment is that we are taught to talk but we are not taught to listen. And we have a lot to share and we want to share it. And so part of that dynamic is learning to ask good questions and then listen, letting people share their pilgrimage, their lives and accepting the fact that they won’t do it with all the precisely correct, theological verbiage.”
Students can, with good and pure motives, be harmful to local churches.
Beougher: “I’ve seen this a few times where we’ve had a ‘layperson’ teaching in an environment and maybe did not parse the verb correctly, maybe had a minority interpretation of a passage, and a student just jumped right in and quickly, quickly set the record straight very arrogantly. I’ve had many conversations over the years with students in that environment. If there’s outright heresy, that’s one thing we can discuss. But differences of opinion, different ways of raising things, you need to sit and listen.”
There are “really effective ways” to jump in and serve a local church.
Kimbell: “One of the things we stress at Clifton as new students are coming in is to encourage them that one of the primary responsibilities you have from the get-go is to be a good member. Just being a faithful member of this church means being there on Sunday morning, being at our prayer meeting, going to your small group and participating in the ministries that are already there and building up the body. So start there — and don’t jump that step — by demonstrating your faithfulness as a member.
“I think if it starts there, and you’re faithful in that, opportunities just open up if you’re loving the body, if you’re investing, if you’re giving your time. Those opportunities for more teaching or leadership will come organically almost every time if you’re doing that.”
Smith: “If you’re going to be here three to four to five years, I tell students to consider, over that period of time, maybe to be involved in more than one congregation, particularly if your background has been limited to one congregation. If you grew up in a church like Highview with multiple staff and multiple services and multiple campuses, why would you not find it educationally edifying to experience another part of the body and be in another congregation with 150 members who really need a lot of hands-on in trying to bring revitalization to a congregation? So you’re learning something that is other than your background.
Sometimes, students should get experience preaching during seminary; and sometimes it’s better just to listen.
Kimbell: “I would say it can depend on the student and what you’re ready to do. And I think there can be a lot of value in sitting under good preaching, seeing good ecclesiology, seeing good pastoral care and experiencing that.”
Fullerton: “There are a ton of country churches, there are a ton of smaller churches, there are a ton of bi-vocational pastors, go and serve. That would be glorious.
“At the same time, I think it’s Ted Tripp who says that the way you teach children to make good decisions isn’t by asking them to make them but by modeling good decisions for them. So it is, I think, being under good shepherding. When I came to Louisville, I wound up at a healthy church, the first really healthy church I think I’d had the privilege of being at, and I would hear guys preaching and I wanted to preach. I had been a preacher before and I really just determined, because I had chosen that church, that I wasn’t going to pursue any opportunities to preach — not because that would be wrong, but because I sensed at that stage that it was pride. I wound up preaching more than anyone else at that church within a year. You can trust the sovereignty of God, if you just put your head down and serve, he can lift you up.
The opportunities to serve are rarely glamorous, and often, they’re downright difficult.
Beougher: “Sometimes we are called to serve in tough places. I think a helpful distinction is that there are some places that are toxic places. There are some places that are meat grinders that absolutely chew up pastors and spit them out. That’s one reason you want to do a little bit of homework prior to going to any situation. There are some churches out there that are absolutely toxic, and if that’s the situation then get out.
“Students should take full advantage of the disciple-making avenues of their churches — both individual and corporate.”
Kimbell: “In terms of what you can expect from your pastor, I think that’s going to depend on what situation you’re in. If you’re with a bi-vocational pastor who you have one conversation with and he says ‘I would love for you to teach a Sunday school; I’ve had a conversation right from the get-go and I’d love to meet with you every week,’ there are situations like that. At Clifton it’s a little different. Probably half of our families are looking for this kind of care and discipleship so we’ve tried to create structures that are helpful for us in that.”
Discipleship in a local church is both one-on-one and corporate.
Fullerton: “I think we have done such significant damage to the word ‘discipleship’ by defining discipleship as ‘one-on-one at a coffee shop.’ We have harmed people’s conceptions. So you will literally get people who are like, ‘I’m sitting under exegetical preaching and I go to a great Sunday school, and my small group will get into my life and hold me accountable and minister the gospel to me, but, you know what, I am not being discipled.’ And I think, ‘Oh, my!’ You are surrounded by an embarrassment of riches, but because you have defined discipleship by one act, that really I’m not sure most of Jesus’ immediate followers almost ever got … you’re not being discipled.
“That’s a tragedy and it puts inhumane expectations on pastors who are limited to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just like you are — and who you don’t want to neglect their families to be with you all the time, too. So I would not deny the immense riches that have come to me from one-on-one meetings. … Those are sweet. We should pursue that; pray that God would open those up for us in significant portions of our lives. And yet every time you hear a man behind a pulpit open up his heart, and especially the Word of God, you are being discipled. When godly men place structures in place — those structures didn’t just randomly happen — so that they would be for the edification of the saints. … I think you can grow a long way through the programs your church lays out and through the ordinary means of grace in the church.”
This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Towers. You can read the full issue here.