Forming the Character of our Future Ministry

Many seminaries advertise their core emphases, God-centered and Bible-saturated curriculum, world-class faculty, modern facilities and great equipping strategy. Thank God for these places of higher learning. We want to be prepared for ministry in the church today, and the church needs the academy, and vice versa. Yet, story after story reveals the crux issue with seminarians after graduation is one of character not competence.

In all our learning of theology, biblical languages, let us not forget the reason and focus of our studies, and for our being Christian: Christ.

He is our Source and our Joy, and the One whom we desperately need. Without Him we will perish, and with Him we can endure all things. Cultivating this relationship is essential in seminary as in all of life. For without Him we can do nothing (John 15:4). We can get a new church, retake a course, but we have no other Savior. Cultivating the inner life of our souls is key when hitting the books and preparing for ministry. The motives and habits we form now will continue for decades and influence all whom we come into contact with (not the least our families).

On this point, Robert Murray McCheyne offered some essential advice to a young seminarian more than 150 years ago:

“Do get on with your studies. Remember you are now forming the character of your future ministry in great measure, if God spare you. If you acquire slovenly or sleepy habits of study now, you will never get the better of it. Do everything in its own time. Do everything in earnest; if it is worth doing, then do it with all your might. Above all, keep much in the presence of God. Never see the face of man until you have seen His face who is our light, our all. Pray for others; pray for your teachers and fellow students.”[1]

Although McCheyne never made it to 30 years old, in his pastoral ministry he saw great fruit. The key, however, was not in the fruit, but in his own faithfulness, brought about by heading his own advice, to “above all, keep much in the presence of God.” He took the call to know, love and enjoy our Triune God above all else, and saw it work out in a thousand practical ways. His character was deeply rooted in Christ, the result of daily faithfulness in the small things.

While in seminary, are you likewise knowing, loving and enjoying God, intentionally in His presence, and watching Him daily transform your character as you stare at Him? (2 Cor. 3:18).

[1] Robert Murray McCheyne, letter to seminary student, 1840. Memoirs of McCheyne, edited by Andrew A. Bonar (Chicago: Moody, 1947), p. xvi.

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Jeff Patterson
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  • I wish all seminarians understood the point McCheyne was making. I am reminded of Helmut Thelicke’s small pamphlet “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians” in which his core advice is not to preach or teach for the first couple of years of theological training mainly due to the fact that many young theologians gain much knowledge but little wisdom in how to employ the knowledge responsibly and end up doing greater damage to the faith of other Christians than any good.

    As many a Greek professor often says in class, “After one year of Greek you know enough to be dangerous in the pulpit.”

    I think McCheyne understood this when he said, “Above all, keep much in the presence of God. Never see the face of man until you have seen His face who is our light, our all.”

  • James, you took the words out of my mouth. That little pamphlet by Thielicke is a must read for any seminarian or beginning minister.

    I think we should look at seminary as laying the foundation of our future ministry which should be laid on the even deeper foundation that is found in Christ.

    Jeff, thanks for this reminder. We all need it more than we admit.

    Terry Delaneys last blog post..The Longest Day of the Year

  • James,

    Good reminders. I’ve had to resist the urge to be “dangerous” with any limited Greek skills.

    Need to look into Thelicke’s essay, and am reminded of B. B. Warfield’s The Religious Life of the Theological Student, another worthwhile read.

    Sometimes we can think in such simple terms, an either/or duality (rather than both/and), that if we are studying with all our minds then our hearts aren’t or won’t be impacted. One of Warfield’s points appears to be that the mingling of mind and affections can co-exist in our life and studies (it’s not either/or but both/and), and it seems McCheyne labored to help us realize it won’t happen by default. As Edwards would often recommend, “Labor to be brought near to God.” McCheyne gives us a practical tip to each day not see the faces of other people before we have seen in prayer and His Word the One from whom everything comes.

    With minds authentically in love with God He will transform our whole person from the inside-out. Humility and dependence are not automatic, and cannot be produced in a vacuum (enter: suffering, disappointments, frustrations and the like without which we will not learn). Thank God His grace is so able to cover our shortcomings in these areas and see us move towards maturity.

    Jeff Pattersons last blog post..Seeking Balance or Rhythm?

  • At Asbury we often remind students that the building in between the library and the main Classrooms is the Chapel. Through the encouragement of my mentor I always try to enter the school through the chapel, even when it means parking in one place and circling around to get where I am going. I think it continually centers me everyday.

    After a semester into Greek, our professor notices that we were using our new skills in classroom devotions and he told us the quote about “being dangerous”, and from that point on continually reminded us about our private life with God.

    Great post.

    chads last blog post..Found elsewhere….

  • I see this from the other side of seminary, as a member of a church community. I feel sometimes pastors lose focus of what is important and start to use their position for their own gain. I wrote an article in my blog called “Church Cancer: People Worship”. Remember this is all in the service of God.

    I once heard a doctor talking about students who fast-track medical school. He said the doctor’s knowledge had depth, but no breath. Imagine how much more important it is for a seminary student to give their knowledge life.

Written by Jeff Patterson