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Dear student,

So you’re beginning theological studies! I’m thrilled that even in uncertain times the Lord of the Harvest is equipping new labourers for work in His fields, moving you to obtain some of the tools you will need to serve Him. I pray that our Father in heaven would bless you richly during your time at school, as He conforms you more closely to Christ and equips you by His Spirit for the ministry He has appointed for your future.

I wanted to take this opportunity to exhort and encourage you. As a seminary graduate who spent four years pursuing studies very much like the program you are commencing, if I could offer any advice, I would say the following:

First, study to love and worship God. This is not an abstract, impersonal “field of study” that you are approaching

You are drawing near to One who is not only incomprehensibly and infinitely awesome and glorious, but One who “knitted [you] together in [your] mother’s womb…[Whose] eyes saw [your] unformed substance; in [Whose] book were written, every one of them, the days that were yet formed for [you], when as yet there were none of them” (Ps. 139:13,16).

See, you are learning about a Who, not a what. It’s easy to let the schedules and drudgery and requirements and exams and other trappings of an academic context drain the joy out of your study. Dear brother or sister, please don’t let that happen. Study not to look at him from a distance, but rather as one dwelling and reveling in His presence, for “in [His] presence there is fulness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). Study for joy.

Second, don’t sacrifice your marriage and family for either present or future ministry

Even if you, at present, may not be married or have children, you need to understand this. All too often, those in Christian ministry are tempted to “put God first and wife/husband/kids second.” Yes, God is more important than anything else. Yet that truth, when viewed out of its biblical context, can be twisted into grave, marriage-destroying and child-estranging error. The question is not whether what you do for God is more important than what you do for others. The question is whether your marriage or your parenting is itself something you are doing for God.

See, your family is not an auxiliary appendage to your “first” ministry. Your family is your first ministry. The Apostle Paul says of a man seeking eldership, “he must manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4), a principle applying not only to men in the pastorate but for men and women in any area of ministry. One way college or seminary prepares one for formal ministry is in how it mimics the “weekly grind” that characterizes life in a local church or on the mission field. So now is the time to learn how to put God first BY putting your family first. As a student, that may mean fewer extra-curricular activities, or accepting a lower GPA in exchange for more time with your spouse or kids. It WILL mean developing that indispensable-for-long-term-ministry skill of saying “no” to even very good things. Love God by loving your family.

Third, find and serve a healthy local church

A Bible college or a seminary is kind of like a hardware store. It provides you with invaluable equipment and tools you’ll need for future ministry. It has knowledgeable, skilled people who will show you how to use them. But a hardware store isn’t the job site. And college or seminary isn’t the “real world” of Christian ministry. Nor is it intended to be.

It is the local church, not any school, that is “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). The Apostle Paul reminded Christians who were overly excited about their own gifts for ministry, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor. 14:12). In context, his concern is unity in a particular local church: this is congregational “building-up” that he is concerned to see. If you’re at Bible college or seminary to develop your “manifestation of the Spirit,” you need to be striving to use it to build up a local church. And do this now, not at some yet-to-be-determined point in the abstract future. It’s in the context of a healthy local church—one gathered around the regular teaching of God’s Word, defined by the right use of the ordinances, and which cares enough for God’s truth and Christ’s reputation to hold its members accountable—that you are actually trained for ministry.

So, find such a church. And once there, don’t “casually date” that church. Commit to and serve that body of believers sacrificially, remembering Paul’s words: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:2,9). And especially if you’re a man aspiring to pastoral ministry, remember that “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). In other words: one who cannot follow must not lead. Be the kind of member you’d love to have as one of your own “future flock,” obeying and submitting to your pastors in such a way that they will “keep watch over [your] soul…joyfully and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17). Find and serve a local church.

Finally, when it comes to Bible college or seminary, as is true in so many other areas of life, you will get out of it what you put into it

The purpose of a Bible college or seminary is not to simply download information into you; rather, it’s to give you—and teach you to use—tools that will help you continue learning for a lifetime. So when you’re given an assignment requiring a minimum number of sources, don’t just do the bare minimum. That may sound a bit strange coming right after I stressed that you may need to, say, accept a lower GPA in order to manage family demands. But if you can’t commit more than the bare minimum that your professors demand, then to be frank, you’re already overextended and need to re-examine things. What I’m saying, then, is that doing more than the bare minimum should be your minimum.

And don’t just study to affirm what you already think. Go out of your way to read writers whose perspectives are different than yours. This isn’t to become a mushy postmodernist who views every perspective as equally valid. Rather, do this to hone your ability to weigh different arguments and come to your own, tried and tested, conclusions which you can then stand on when objections and opposition inevitably arise. And, this is so that when you disagree with a particular perspective, it is an informed disagreement that is charitable to those with whom you disagree. I stress this because you almost certainly will not serve a church where everyone around you agrees with you 100% of the time, and you need to be able both to listen respectfully and openly for things you may have missed and to lead others patiently to see what you are seeing.

I’ve already written enough! May God grant you wisdom, strength, and fulness of joy in the years ahead.