Higher education is about preparation. Business school is designed to train graduates to succeed in business; medical school is focused on preparing medical professionals who help heal the sick and wounded. Seminary has the purpose of preparing graduates to teach, disciple and help people along their spiritual journey to the ultimate success of eternity in glory.
As business and medical school graduates will tell you, their alma mater did not prepare them for everything they have encountered in their career, so too seminary grads will advise that their education had some blind spots and areas they had to learn “on the job.” This is not to disparage the seminary experience but rather point to some areas where the student could seek additional training and experience during their school days to prevent such blind spots once they launch their career in the ministry.
1. Specialized Counseling—Mental Illness
Classroom discussion will not prepare you for counseling in certain areas. Mental illness is a very complex arena where opinions differ (and change frequently). The debate will rage on over the physical vs. spiritual aspect of mental issues, but the truth that there are no simple solutions remains. There seem to be as many different diagnoses as stars in the sky—and we need to rely primarily on the One who created the stars for the best counsel! After that, spending time with seasoned counselors and a local clinic will prove invaluable for the young minister who may face similar situations within the flock. Professional treatment methods change frequently (demonstrating the complexity of the human brain) so keeping as current as possible will help a new minister be able to assist their church when this situation arises.
2. Finances/Budgets—Personal and Business
Whether or not seminary provides personal budgeting courses, there are many external resources available that greatly assist grads starting out. What may not be studied as deeply is the business environment of the church. God’s provision aside, the simple truth is that a church must function as a business financially. What this doesn’t mean is that they employ marketing strategies and hire business experts to get “paying customers” in the door. Instead, it means that a pastor must make sure the governing board is careful about church expenses (from the mundane electricity bill to sponsorship of conferences and special events). Seminary can’t predict what the administrative structure of the church will be, but with some additional study and research, the new grad will not be blindsided by the budget process in their church. It is doubtful that a newly hired pastor will have much responsibility for the finances, but coming in with some business sense will serve the church through times of plenty and the lean times.
3. Leadership, Church Sub-Groups, Unrealistic Expectations
Courses on leadership abound in nearly all higher education institutions, but few prepare the grad for the cliques, power groups and other sub-groups within the congregation (and they are there). This is different from the in-crowd at high school; these groups can be ruthless (despite their smiles) and powerful. The rookie pastor must learn to navigate the minefield of social culture in the church first by showing respect to all people and purposing to love each one equally. The best advice to offer the new minister is to be kind and courteous (always) and seek to include as many different people in a variety of activities. It may be uncomfortable at first, but taking advantage of your “new” status can work in your favor as you help provide a culture of inclusiveness in the church.
Leadership also includes being willing to disappoint their church by not being omnipresent, omniscient or the return of the Apostle Paul. Unrealistic expectations can weigh heavily on a new grad’s mind. The simple motto “Divert Daily; Withdraw Weekly; Abandon Annually” can help keep you focused and fresh. A daily break to relax and help mental clarity; a weekly day off is a principle from Scripture. To get ‘off the grid’ once a year will help you retain your sanity as well. All of these schedule items work together to remind your flock that you are human and subject to the same needs as everyone else. No person can work 24/7 (even the on-call status gets wearing over time); the ‘people pleaser’ will burn himself up in a short time. Setting your schedule priorities early in your ministry career will make them stronger (healthy) habits for life.
4. Family Pressures
If you have a family (or plan to), there is a separate set of rules and conditions they will be faced with. The pastor’s wife, for example, will not only be her husband’s ‘help-meet’ but will be expected to fill a mentoring role for the women of the church. This is a conversation that must be had during (if not before) seminary, but the other consideration is the impact on the children in the household. Ministry workers’ children are held to a higher standard of conduct (right or wrong, unrealistic or not). This can produce stress in their lives at a young age. If not anticipated (or relieved), this can be detrimental to their lives later on. There is no single method to combat this, but it is important to be aware of the circumstances and counsel/coach your children in how to handle these expectations. Like many conditions we face, forewarned is forearmed—being aware of the issue is half the battle!
5. Personal Holiness
While last on this list, it should have a much higher priority on yours. Personal holiness, character and your own spiritual growth are vital to effective leadership. Scripture speaks very clearly and harshly against hypocrisy—if there is any area of weakness in your own character, make all efforts to root it out, work through any residual issues and move on. This is an area that is never completed—it is an ongoing struggle in every believer’s life—it is much more important (and impactful) in a minster’s life. How many scandals have damaged the cause of Christ in recent years that could have been avoided if the people in question had guarded their actions? Be aware of vulnerabilities in your life. Pay attention to surroundings and conditions (i.e., don’t schedule a one-on-one closed door meeting with someone of the opposite gender—it could be innocent, but the appearance is negative). This will avoid potential problems and reduce areas of temptation (or accusation). Be wise in your outward conduct and strong in your character.
Ministers are human beings, imperfect and fallible. That God uses people to bring about His holy will is almost beyond comprehension. Seminary will prepare you for many things—pay attention to the blind spots where you will need to fill the gaps on your own.