April 06, 2017
I sat at lunch with a distinguished looking man in his early 60’s. He, the seasoned and respected pastor of a church in the north hills of Pittsburgh, and I, the ironically titled 23-year-old “Senior Pastor” of a church in the south hills of the same city. I listened with interest as he told me about his family and his church, lessons he had learned in both the easy and difficult ways. I was shocked when he told me about the next big thing in his ministry: he was going back to school.
Why would anyone want to go back to school? Was the preparation of two sermons, a Bible Study, and a Sunday School lesson each week not enough for him? Certainly, pastoral journals, commentaries, and dozens of how to manuals could keep a minister busy and growing in their ministry. Was he going to start a new career as a professor? Was this an ego booster? Having just completed a Bachelor’s degree, I could not imagine what would possess this man to go back to school at his age. If we could fast forward about thirty years, I think I might be able to answer some of those questions that the early twenty’s me was asking: Why would a minister go back to school later in life for a degree or training in Bible or Theology?
- Sometimes we lack the basic tools. A biblical and theological education does not provide all the answers to the questions of life and faith, but it should provide the tools that one needs to discern the answers. One who will be a teacher or minister of the gospel must be able to rightly handle God’s word (2 Timothy 2:15). Some have suggested that the reason pastors do not stay long at a church is because they only had to sit through 3 or 4 years of chapel sermons and when those have been preached, they must move on to another church that has not heard them before! While that is hopefully not true, it is true that some ministers never really get the tools of Bible study, sermon preparation, or theological synthesis that is needed to preach and teach effectively, and a return for more education might be a great gift to themselves and to their congregation.
- You cannot pull water from an empty well. While many love to confuse the words cemetery and seminary, but there is something refreshing, or there ought to be something refreshing, about being in God’s word with others of similar interest. Many pastors find themselves teaching the same basic principles over and again. When discussing, and even arguing with others in an academic setting, a pastor might find a fresh approach or a deeper meaning that eventually gets communicated to the people of the church.
- The pastor is no longer a twenty-something. We mean this in a positive way! When I look back at what I taught and how I taught it as a 23-year-old, I am amazed that anyone put up with me. I did not even know what I did not know. As one matures, there might come a time when they realize that they finally have something to say that is worth hearing. Youthful brashness has given way to a humbled realization that God has been faithful, despite our failures. Often the more seasoned pastor can become a mentor, a teacher, a Paul to a willing Timothy’s, and an advanced degree can give them the standing to fulfill that role.
- God’s word challenges us where we are. Nehemiah 8 records how the people listened to God’s word being read aloud in front of the water gate. They were moved to weeping, fasting, and repentance as they heard what God had to say. We read in chapters 8 and 9 that the listeners were a broad swath of people from different ages and backgrounds. God might just call a 50, 60, or 70 something to a completely new and challenging ministry which requires new tooling and skills.
Formal education is not the only way that a person can grow in God’s word. I should point out that the pastor of the church where I am a member does not hold advanced degrees, and week after week I am impressed with his depth and precision with God’s word. Education is never a substitute for a growing relationship with God. Education alone will not cause a bitter person to exhibit the love of God. For some, though, ongoing theological education can be a powerful way to grow in the knowledge of divine truth and ministerial effectiveness.