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A Pastor’s Reflections: What They Don’t Teach You in Seminary

April 25, 2017


One of the regular complaints I hear from graduates is that they believe their seminary education did not adequately prepare them for the various counseling challenges they face in the pastorate. On the one hand, I can understand this sentiment. You spend thousands of dollars, countless hours in class, read tens of thousands of pages of theological works, take many exams, and so the assumption is that you should be thoroughly equipped for whatever challenges come your way. On the other hand, as comprehensive as a seminary education is, the reality is that no amount of time in a classroom or textbook will prepare you for everything and anything that you might encounter in ministry.

Think of the medical doctor who has a similar experience with her own educational experience—she studies, reads books, takes exams, spends years in school, and even interns for several years before she becomes qualified to serve as a doctor. But just because she has all of this knowledge does not mean that she will ready to handle any medical situation that comes her way. There are some medical cases where diagnosing and treating a patient is very difficult if not downright impossible. In my own life I was diagnosed with a very rare illness—I was elated that my doctor so quickly identified my illness. He admitted, however, that he was able to diagnose me so quickly because he had just diagnosed a patient with the same illness just six months earlier. It took my doctor a considerable amount of time before he rightly diagnosed the patient before me.

The same situation applies for military officers—they study tactics, practice battle strategies in simulated warfare, and study as much as possible before they engage the enemy in battle. Officers go into battle with as much preparation as possible, but war is a part of life, and life as we all know, can be very unpredictable. Officers can face situations that they’ve never studied or prepared for because the battlefield is a fluid and unpredictable arena.

So what’s a person to do? I believe it’s important to recognize that a seminary education gives you the necessary tools so that you can face any situation, but it doesn’t necessarily automatically give you all of the answers. A good seminary education teaches you how to exegete the Scriptures, informs you of the various theological insights of theologians throughout the ages, and gives you the principles for applying the Word of God. But it can’t give you all of the answers to any and every situation that you’ll face. There will be some counseling situations that will be very difficult and perhaps even seem impossible. But this is where your seminary education equips you to know that, you won’t have all the answers, and in such circumstances that you must seek the wisdom of Christ. In prayer, humility, and reliance upon Christ, you must take your challenging situations to him and seek divine wisdom on how to proceed and how best to apply the Word of God. Beyond prayer, you can and should also seek godly counsel. Talk with other more experienced ministers—chances are they have faced a situation like yours before. If not, they might nevertheless have great wisdom on how to proceed.

Remember, no education can give every answer to every problem. Rather, a good education will equip you with the necessary tools to point you in the right direction. A good seminary education will prepare you to understand God’s promises in the gospel, fallen human nature, and what you can expect of redeemed human beings. It will also give you the basic principles of counseling so that you can begin to tackle the toughest of problems, not with prideful confidence, but an assurance that you can help people because Christ and his word are greater than any of our problems.