Over at The Gospel Coalition they’ve been asking longtime pastors such as Alistair Begg, Tim Keller, John Piper, Ray Ortlund, and Mark Dever what seminary didn’t teach them. Listening to their answers made me give some thought to the question. While some of these men are now retired, and others have served at the same church for decades, I thought a novice might have something to contribute.
Here’s an answer from someone who is not a celebrity/mega-church pastor.
Before I proceed, I should say that I agree with what a number of these pastors have said: Seminary will never fully prepare anyone for ministry, and we shouldn’t expect seminaries to do so. Pastors can only learn certain aspects of ministry by jumping in, failing, repenting, and moving forward. For this reason, I’m not answering the question, “What did seminary not teach you?” Rather, my answer is tailored more to the question, “What were you not prepared for in ministry?” or “What issues/topics were not addressed in seminary that you would have appreciated?” I tried to keep my answer to a minimum and also balance both the positive and the negative.
What I didn’t expect—Negatives:
Church conflict – Yes, to some degree I knew churches experienced conflict, but living through it is another thing altogether. Trying to lead the church through these times is incredibly challenging. Attempting to get everyone involved to come together, pray, repent, and think through the best way forward is hard to do, especially when one person or group of people are certain that they are right. It’s no wonder that church conflict is the number one reason most pastors leave their churches.
Church politics – As pastors know quite well, ministry involves working with people. And people have their own interests. Typically they want the pastor to back their interests; they want his support. And if you don’t support their interests, or if you disagree with a proposal, they don’t always respond in godly ways. Again, I knew people behaved like this, but I guess I had higher expectations.
Personal criticism – You might be saying to yourself right now, “Really, Joe? You weren’t expecting criticism.” Well, again, yes I knew that pastors were criticized. Anyone in a public position receives criticism. To some extent, therefore, I knew I’d be criticized. But dealing with it is a different story, and living through it for extended periods of time is challenging.
What I didn’t expect—positives:
A front row seat at watching God work – By far, the best part of pastoral ministry is seeing conversions to Christ and witnessing people grow in their walk with Christ. Witnessing a believer’s excitement as they read the Bible, enjoy intimacy with God, and find their place in the church and use their gifts fills a pastor’s heart with joy.
The importance of older members – If you would have told me at the start of ministry that my closest friends in ministry would have been older members—especially older women—I would have been shocked. But they are. Perhaps it’s because they see me as a son and they’re like second moms to me. I honestly don’t know. Nevertheless, it wasn’t something I expected.
The joy of walking through life with others – Pastoral ministry requires one to specialize in the ordinary—what Eugene Peterson calls “the ministry of small talk” (see his The Contemplative Pastor, p. 112ff.). I needed to learn this because what became obvious to me fairly quickly in ministry was my inability to change anyone. I can’t always say the right thing at the right time; I can’t alleviate anyone’s pain; I can’t be Jesus for the person in front of me. But . . . I can be present and I can be available to people. The joy of pastoral ministry is walking with people through the ups and downs of life.
I should have known this beforehand, but I didn’t.