What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary…

Recently, one of our staff passed along a blog written by Dr. James Emery White. As I read it, I thought back to times in my own life. I also reflected on what needs to happen if this next generation is to be effective and efficient in ministry.

Dr. White addresses the traps we can fall into as leaders. I remember sitting through a seminar with John Maxwell on “things they didn’t teach you in seminary.” I was fortunate enough to be involved in ministry while I was going to school, so I didn’t have time to sit, soak, and sour. I had to practice my ministry daily and, as this article states, sometimes got busy in the ministry and forgot the Lord.

Traveling, preparing at least two messages a week, writing articles and books, and preparing for conferences can be exhausting. It takes discipline of the mind and your time. If we are not careful, we will do the work of the ministry in our flesh, not out of the overflow of our life in Christ.

I’ve preached on seminary campuses and college campuses. One danger I find with the younger generation is they have very few mentors who are dead—meaning, they tend to only listen to their peers or to the popular speakers of their day. You need to be reading and listening to someone who has died, finished the course, and run the race well. Following “pretty boys” or “hip” communicators will get you in trouble. It’s easy to like the content and not evaluate the character of the one you are mimicking.

One thing they should teach in our colleges and seminaries is, “Don’t whine about the old people when you do the same thing.” It’s a course that wouldn’t take long to teach, but would take discipline to act out. For instance, don’t sit in the back and then, when it’s your time to lead worship or preach, expect the crowd to come forward for you. If you don’t model it now, you won’t get it then.

Don’t expect people to listen to you if you don’t care enough to take notes when they are teaching. You won’t remember 90% of what you hear. It’s a waste of time to attend a class, seminar, or conference and sit with arms folded or a blank stare. Pay attention, sit up straight, make eye contact, focus, write down as much as you can. You never know when you might need to refer back to some truth that, at the moment, didn’t seem important to you.

I never talked to Ron Dunn or Manley Beasley without a pen and paper in my hand. I never call Warren Wiersbe without a notebook in my hand. Why? The nuggets are there, but you have to be ready to grab them.

Find a hero that doesn’t wear skinny jeans, have a shaved head or spike his hair. It’s amazing how many of today’s young ministers have no concept of our spiritual heritage. They know little of leaders from our past. We stand on the shoulders of giants. You won’t get to the top by only listening to and following those who you think are in your wheelhouse. You need to learn and listen outside your normal traffic pattern.

My heroes were not my peers. We were all on basically the same learning curve. My heroes were men older, wiser, and more experienced than me. Not all of them built what we would call “great” churches, but then we’ve come to measure greatness by size, not sort. Many of our “great” churches are 50 miles wide and one inch deep. The preaching is shallow, centered on felt needs, and stirs the emotions but not the spirit. They didn’t teach you in seminary how to discern the spirits or test the spirits. You have to learn that by walking in the Spirit. That takes time away from the crowd and congregation.

So, I’ve said enough. Here’s an article worth reading. That is, if you want to be a leader. Not just a leader, an effective leader.

The Soul of a Leader
Dr. James Emery White

In my book “What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary,” I wrote about something you may have never heard before: Ministry is spiritually hazardous to your soul.

Actually, leadership of any kind has a built-in set of challenges.

Here are some of the reasons why that are ministry specific, but are easily transferred over to other areas of leadership:

First, it is because you are constantly doing “spiritual” things, and it is easy to confuse those things with actually being spiritual. For example, you are constantly in the Bible, studying it, in order to prepare a talk. It’s easy to confuse this with reading and studying the Bible devotionally for your own soul.

You’re not.

You are praying – in services, during meetings, at pot lucks – and it is easy to think you are leading a life of personal, private prayer.

You’re not.

You are planning worship, leading worship, attending worship, and it is easy to believe you, yourself, are actually worshipping.

Chances are, you’re not.

When you are in ministry, it is easy to confuse doing things for God with spending time with God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake the trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.

It’s an easy deception. Think about something like the game of golf. I first started playing when I was in graduate school. I took all of two lessons from a course pro, which basically taught me which end of the stick to hold. I bought a cheap set of clubs and began to play. Initially, I made great strides. My score went from the 140s, to the 120s, then the low 100s. Sometimes even the 90s.

Then I’d play the back nine.

But then I began to play with less and less frequency. Soon, I only played at the annual Christmas gathering with my wife’s family. And as you might expect, I would play about the same each year — translation, horribly — because I hadn’t played since the previous year.

It’s gotten a little better these days, but it would be very easy to trick myself about the state of my game. Why? Because entering into “golf world” is easy and deceptive. I can subscribe to golf magazines, purchase golf equipment, live by a golf course, wear golf clothing, watch golf on TV, and enjoy eating at the clubhouse — and feel like I’m a decent golfer!

But I’m not. Because simply being exposed to something has little bearing on whether or not we become proficient at it.

We can be this way spiritually through our vocations in ministry. Just swap out “church world” for “golf world.”

A second reason why ministry is hazardous to your soul is because you are constantly being put on a spiritual pedestal and treated as if you are the fourth member of the Trinity. In truth, they have no idea whether you have spent any time alone with God in reflection and prayer over the last six weeks; they do not know what you are viewing online; they do not know whether you treat your wife with tenderness and dignity.

They just afford you a high level of spirituality.

Here’s where it gets really toxic: you can begin to bask in this spiritual adulation and start to believe your own press. Soon the estimation of others about your spiritual life becomes your own.

This is why most train-wrecks in ministry are not as sudden and “out of the blue” as they seem. Most leaders who end up in a moral ditch were veering off of the road for some time. Their empty spiritual life simply became manifest, or caught up with them, or took its toll.

You can only run on empty for so long.

I had a defining moment on this in my life when I was around 30 years old. A well-known leader fell, a leader who had been a role model for my life. I was devastated. But more than that, I was scared. If it could happen to him, then I was a pushover.

It didn’t help my anxieties that I was in a spiritual state exactly as I have described: confusing doing things for God and time with God; accepting other’s estimation of my spiritual life in a way that made it easy to bypass a true assessment of where I stood; I was like a cut flower that looked good on the outside, but would, in time, wilt dreadfully.

I remember so clearly the awareness that I could fall; that no one would ever own my spiritual life but me; and that I needed to realize that the public side of my life was meaningless — only the private side mattered. This was not flowing from a position of strength; it was flowing from a deep awareness of weakness.

So the gun went off.

I began to rise early in the morning for prayer and to read the Bible. I began to take monthly retreats to a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains for a more lengthy immersion in order to read devotional works, pray, experience silence and solitude, and to journal. I entered into a two-year, intense mentoring relationship with a man who had many more years on me in terms of age, marriage and ministry.

There was more, but you get the idea: I was going to be a public and private worshiper; I was going to be a student of the Bible for my talks and for my soul; I was going to pray for others to hear, and for an audience of one.

I hope you hear my heart on this. It’s not to boast, it’s to confess. I have to do these to survive. Maybe you do, too. And again, this was not something anyone had warned me about, told me about, pulled me aside and counseled me about.

Interestingly, at the same time my “awakening” occurred, I was part of a breakfast meeting with the great British pastor and author John Stott. He had been touring various American seminaries, and someone asked him for his observations. He did not suggest anything about a diminishing state of orthodoxy, a lack of biblical preaching, or diminished standards of academic excellence.

Instead, he said two things that still stand out to me to this day: first, he said he wanted to tell everyone to “cheer up.” Seminaries all seemed so serious, so gloomy, so joyless.

Coming from a Brit, that was particularly interesting.

But second, he said that there seemed to be a real lack of spiritual formation; that the seminaries did not seem to be doing much to help people know how to grow spiritually, to care for themselves spiritually, or to develop themselves spiritually.

I know it was true for me.

So here’s a spiritual truth that should never be forgotten: no one will ever own your spiritual life but you.

And if you are a leader, that ownership better run deep.

Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).

Editor’s Note
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

5 thoughts on “What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary…

  1. Excellent, thought provoking article, and spot on…ouch! I needed to hear this and be reminded of it…Thanks! Looking forward to seeing you at ReFresh next week.

  2. Hey Michael, you are so right. I’ve learned more from the older guys than I ever learned from the “pretty boys.” Some of my best teachers are dead men. What really amazes me it that many who are giving advice today have never pastored a church or served on a staff. Thanks for always giving good counsel.

  3. Profound and so true. Adrian Rogers, W.A. Criswell, Vance Havner, Manley Beasley, Ron Dunn, Have forgotten more about ministry than I will ever know. It wouldn’t hurt for some younger guys to listen to the advice of a Tom Elliff, Jimmy Draper, Paige Patterson, Jim Henry, Junior Hill or Michael Catt or others of our day and time. They are far from irrelevant!!!

  4. You are right, Michael. And I do read and study a bunch of dead guys. One can get a complete picture from them. Maybe I should say a “completed” picture! Ha! But I must say that I love learning from you. I’m glad you are still alive and hope you stay that way for a long time!

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