In August of 2010, my wife and I left our hometown in Virginia to move to Dallas, Texas, a place we had visited only once—a month prior, to find an apartment—so I could start my studies at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). We left everything we had ever known to make this move. Now, I find myself on the precipice of graduation having learned a great deal, both inside and outside the classroom.
Here are 12 things I want every new student to know as they begin their seminary studies:
1. Souls Over Papers
I never once regretted putting an assignment off to care for my wife, my church, or my soul, for that matter. I had to remember that failing to love my wife disqualifies me from ministry just as much as preaching heresy. Make every effort to minister to family, friends, classmates, and the people in your church. If your heart hardens to the plight of others, as you acquire head knowledge, you’re missing the point of a seminary education.
2. Get Involved in the Local Church
Seminary does a great job equipping students for ministry, but the local church prepares you. There’s a difference. For your own good, stay under the authority of a pastor/elder board/etc., as you learn to serve before you lead. The paradox of the kingdom of God is that the most significant leaders are the greatest servants. Serve the best you can. Gain knowledge in the classroom, but develop your spiritual gifts in the church.
3. Get Out of the Echo Chamber
There is tremendous value in hearing the perspectives of those who differ from you. There’s no growth in the echo chamber. If you surround yourself with people who think, believe, or share a similar background with you, you will only learn to love yourself more. You don’t need to endorse a different view, but you should listen to it and respect the individual.
4. Ask the Professors to Coffee or Lunch
Take advantage of the faculty’s knowledge and their experience. Again, preparation for ministry is the goal. When I first started at DTS, I believed I only needed education and then I’d be on my way. I was wrong. Seminary students need mentors, seasoned saints to share their life lessons and experiences. The faculty has far more to offer than academia. They will love you because they love Jesus, and they want to help students become effective ministers, not just smart ministers.
5. Remember Seminary is not Monolithic
No two seminary experiences are the same, yet there’s always someone who can empathize with you. For as many prominent alumni the seminary has, there are just as many cautionary tales. Do not get discouraged by the struggles of another, nor should you bank on the successes of someone else. Follow the Lord’s leading and make the experiences your own.
6. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
In my seventh year at DTS, I found myself contemplating ways out, exhausted from the length of the journey, but my friends got me through it. I had assumed everyone I knew from student orientation, had already graduated and now served in ministry. I felt alone. But, by God’s grace in year seven, new relationships formed and I experienced a resurgence in my heart because of it. Again, souls over papers.
7. Seek Out the Struggling Student
There are people on campus who are struggling. They could be international students who are in the country for the first time or students who are questioning whether or not they belong at seminary. Seek them out, serve them, love them, learn from them, and fight for them. Jesus always took the side of the struggling soul and so should you.
8. Theology with Open Hands
Learn to die on the right hills. Continuationism versus Cessationism. Complementarianism versus Egalitarianism. Reformed versus Arminian. Convenantalism versus Dispensationalism. Plenty of room exists in orthodoxy for all of these. Understand that, accept it, and love your brothers and sisters in Christ.
9. Ask the “Dumb” Questions
If you do not understand something when it feels like everyone else does, say something. If you have the temptation to stay quiet because you feel like you’re the only one who understands, say something. Chances are someone else feels the same way. Staying quiet reinforces shame. Shame has no place among the people of God.
10. Be Known
If you are struggling in any way—with sin, with your course load, with homesickness, whatever it may be—confess to friends, your church community, and your professors. There is a grace in the people of God, and the classroom should be no different.
11. Suffering for Your Good
Suffering isn’t necessarily the devil trying to keep you from graduating. It could be God-ordained suffering because he wants to wring something out of you that is not surrendered to him. God uses the brokenness of this world to sanctify his children, to teach us more about himself, and mature us. Without question, suffering prepared me more for ministry than anything I learned in the classroom. It may be the case for you as well.
You have received a generous gift from the Lord. You will get bogged down, you will experience fatigue, you will have hard days and days of small things, but remember: you are studying the written, self-disclosed revelation of God. What a gift! You are there to know God in a more profound way so that you might worship and enjoy him all the more. Enjoy the journey! Consider it all joy.
The last eight years, my wife and I have served as covenant members of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, and for the next year, I plan to complete an internship there in the Institute Department. I’m grateful that in this transition, I won’t have to leave everything behind as I once did, and I won’t have to find a new home. Instead I’ll get to serve in a place that’s already home. I hope to do so in a way that honors our great God and all that he taught me during my time at DTS, both inside and outside the classroom.