If you are called to ministry, I want to suggest three areas of focus for your development as a minister.
Zone 1: Knowledge: being conversant with the Bible, theology, languages, church history, and related areas like evangelism, counseling, missions, or preaching. What are the key categories, issues and fundamental questions in these areas?
Zone 2: Skill: By skill I mean things you need to know how to do: exegete a text, preach effectively, organize a project, put together a budget, plan a worship service, etc.
Zone 3: Leadership: In addition to your own skills, ministry also requires that you know how to lead others: recruiting, casting vision, inspiring, encouraging, teaching, and correcting.
Seminary is made for and best at developing Zone 1: Knowledge. While you can learn Bible, theology, and church history outside of seminary, most of us need the accountability, guidance, structure, and expertise of veteran scholars. Left to ourselves, we might read only our favorite author’s popular level books, or listen only to our favorite preachers, simply because we don’t know any better. Left to ourselves, our learning inclines to be narrow and/or shallow. Seminary, like all good education, forces us deeper and wider than we would go on our own.
Some subjects we might ignore altogether. I don’t know of anyone, for instance, who learned Greek or Hebrew by themselves. While I’m certain that you could learn theology by reading, think of the disadvantage of having to figure out the differences between Barth, Bavinck, Pannenberg and Mollenkott all by yourself!
Seminary can contribute to Zones 2 and 3, skill and leadership development, but it is far more likely that you will learn these things not from seminary, but alongside seminary. You might get to preach once or twice in preaching lab, but there is no way that seminary alone will give you enough practice to develop your preaching “voice.” Your hermeneutics class may show you have to interpret a text properly, but you will need lots more practice to get skillful at it, far more than seminary will require of you. Similarly, you might lead some peers in a few class projects, but you will have to learn the skill of recruiting and developing leadership teams outside the classroom.
A few practical suggestions:
Take full advantage of seminary. Since seminary specializes in knowledge, press into your opportunity to learn. In some subjects, you will learn more in seminary than you will the rest of your life. This does not discount your continued learning after graduation, but self-directed learning will depend upon your interests and professional needs. Most pastors will keep reading and growing in theology and Bible, but may not do much more reading in philosophy or missions. Take full advantage of your access to your professors, who are experts in their field. Ask them hard questions, pick their brains, and observe how they think about issues in their field.
Find ways to practice ministry skills. Preach every chance you get—in Sunday school classes or nursing homes, on the street, or at special events. See if they will let you make announcements from the platform on Sunday morning (a critical and underappreciated skill). Shadow your pastor on hospital visits. Volunteer for homeless outreach. Serve on the prayer team. Do door to door evangelism. In short, take any chance you can find to speak publicly or guide people through spiritual conversations. These are two critical skills for ministry.
Find ways to lead. Whether you are leading a boys’ Sunday school class, a parking team, or weekly outreach, leading others is the best way to learn leadership. Can you recruit, train, deploy, and encourage volunteers? There’s nothing like trying it to find out.
What would you add to these suggestions?