It’s coming up to Christmas shortly and I got an early present: my results from this semester’s studies. And the results are good, so I finally graduate after what has been, honestly, three of the best years of my life so far. Spending hours and hours each week studying and being trained to think through God’s Word will, I hope, produce a fruitful life of ministry.
Recently I’ve been greatly encouraged by the increasing number of people in my circles who are interested in and seriously considering theological education. While I don’t think study is for everyone, I generally wholeheartedly encourage study for those who are willing, able and available.
After three years here are some of my reflections on my time at College. Some useful, some slightly more trite. Over the coming years I will most likely expand upon these as ministry and theology meet with experience. But the following few points I hope will be an encouragement and food for thought for those considering the jump.
Learn to see that godly people will disagree, and that’s OK.
I’m speaking specifically about non-crucial matters of faith and salvation. Whether in writing or in person, people will disagree. There are some further things to say on this:
- Take care not to overplay theological dominoes, aka the slippery slope argument – just because you might hold a particular view doesn’t necessarily mean you also believe some of the logical out-workings of that view (ie, holding to an old earth view of creation doesn’t automatically mean you’re an evolutionist).
- Learn what hills are worth dying on – there are lots of fights to fight in theological studies, but most of them are not fights people fight in church on Sunday – so learn what it is that you’ll fight for, and what it is you’re willing to leave for the sake of relationships and ministry.
Learn to live with tension
A common error in biblical interpretation is to so focus on or emphasise one view that it becomes detrimental to another equally valid view. Quite a number of tensions exist in scripture not because of its ambiguity but because of its clarity, and it appears that scripture is happy to live with these tensions (eg. the debate over the extent of Christ’s atonement). So be careful of overstating your case to the detriment of what scripture actually says.
Another common error in relation to this is presenting arguments in a false dichotomy. It’s annoying when you’re reading through some material and they’ve caricatured a closely held doctrine. So don’t be hasty in your presentation of an argument. Do it honestly and faithfully, that your ‘enemy’ would sit there listening to you and agree with your presentation.
Grow a robust view of scripture
Quite often our reading of scripture is pretty narrow. By this I mean we tend to usually take the literal meaning of a text at face value and move on. My three years at College have taught me that scripture is more robust: it invites us to pause more often to consider how it should be read and applied.
Faithfulness does not necessarily equate to a narrow reading of scripture – artistry and beauty are two lenses which give equally (sometimes more) satisfying explanations of some difficult texts. This takes more time and effort, but is worth it.
Why so serious?
One of the best pieces of advice I heard early at College was from a long-term ministry worker who said he had learnt in his time to ‘harden up theologically, but soften up relationally’. He had learnt that we shouldn’t treat our relationships like we treat theology: calculated, dispassionately and theoretically. So while I would say that you must take theology seriously, you yourself are not ‘theology’ so don’t be so serious!
Along with this, use College Missions not just as an avenue to serve churches, but as an opportunity to build friendships and networks that will last you into ministry. It took me three missions to learn this, don’t waste yours.
It surprised me during my final year that many people did not have clear interests or hobbies. I want to argue that it’s good to develop outside interests while at College. Things that can help you unwind and take your mind off ministries, things that can help you relate to others on a different level and things that you might be able to build a creative ministry around. So get into it!
Learn to Read Scripture Pastorally
Essays are at once a challenging and rewarding exercise while at College. You’ll have very few opportunities in ministry life to research and write to the same depth as you do during studies. But it comes at a price as it’s widely reported that most people coming out of College tend to write their sermons like they write their essays.
So while you’re writing your essays keep an eye on your clarity. Take the time during your studies to ensure that you know how to clearly put forward an argument in your essay, and translate that to your teaching generally.
Finally, as you’re reading through your essays take some time out to think through the question pastorally. This may not work for every essay, but for most of them some pastoral reflection will do your heart much good, and it will keep you thinking about how God’s word speaks to yourself and to others.
There are my thoughts. If you’re a recent graduate or have been in ministry a few years, what would you add?