This is an address presented to the 1984 graduating class of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California.
Well, you’re fully prepared for the work of the ministry now, aren’t you? You’ve mastered Hebrew and Greek and know how to do exegesis. You have all the theological knowledge, both systematic and biblical. Your apologetic approach could remove mountains. You understand all the mysteries of Church History and Practical Theology. What more could anyone need? You are now fully prepared for your task, or are you?
Records of seminary graduates are not too good. Many drop out after graduation and never find their way into the ministry; others drift away during the first few years of the pastorate; some destroy churches and are forced out. If the scenario holds true for your class, that will be the story for some of you. I’m concerned about that; I’m concerned about you. Why such a record? What’s behind this sad story? How can men who are so well prepared fail so miserably? And, more to the point, what can be done about it to prevent it?
The problem isn’t new. A hundred years ago Phillips Brooks was saying things like this:
What shall we make of some man rich in attainments and in generous desires, well educated, well behaved, who has trained himself to be a light and help to other men and who, now that his training is complete, stands in the midst of his fellow men completely dark and helpless? There are plenty of such men. We have all known them who have seen how men grow up. Their brethren stand round them expecting light from them, but no light comes. They, themselves, are full of amazement at themselves. They build themselves for influence, but no one feels them. They kindled themselves to give light, but no one shines a grateful answer back to them. Perhaps they blame their fellow men, who are too dull to see their radiance. Perhaps they only wonder what is the matter and wait, with a hope that never quite dies out into despair, for the long-delayed recognition and gratitude. At last they die, and the men who stand about their graves feel that the saddest thing about their death is the world is not perceptively the darker for their dying. What does it mean?
Yes, that is the question: “What does it mean?”
I began writing this address on a very long flight that took me almost thirty hours to complete. I got to thinking about that flight and about the ministry altogether. You know you can prepare for many things; you can get your clothes packed in the suitcase, decide what books to take along in the briefcase, and put all of the proper notions and medicines in your dopp kit, but you can’t prepare beforehand for sleep-loss. Now, I knew that I would have to stay awake for all those hours, and I dreaded it; I can’t sleep on a crowded plane because my legs are too long. I thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could do lots of sleeping ahead of time so I could be prepared to stay awake for thirty hours?” But that just won’t work; you can’t do that. No one is absolutely sure why this is, even though there are a couple of theories with which I won’t bore you. You can make up for the sleep-loss afterwards, but you can’t store up sleep ahead of time. You just have to tough it out!
Now the ministry is something like that. There are some things for which you can prepare yourself only in a very general way. Here at Seminary you have packed your suitcase and filled your dopp kit; but there are some things for which a seminary can’t prepare you, some things that you and the Lord must “tough out” together.
Some people simply don’t have the required physical stamina for such a long plane trip, and so they don’t go. Others refuse to put themselves through the ordeal, and so they won’t go. It takes the combination of physical stamina and a certain mind-set to do it. You must really want to reach the flight’s destination as well as be physically able to do so. That physical and mental preparation generally is the only preparation possible.
So, too, to make it in the ministry you must develop the spiritual stamina and the biblical mind-set that will enable you to tough it out. Believe me, there’s a long haul ahead and plenty of discouragements and heartaches. Of course, it isn’t all unpleasant by any means; but, nevertheless, there is much to endure. And without those two factors—spiritual stamina and biblical mindset—you won’t get very far before you too want to drop out. Unlike the airplane bound for its destination thirty hours away, you can get out of the ministry at any time, and many do.
Paul suffered what was probably the most difficult accumulation of hardships that any minister of Christ has ever had to endure. Here is how he described them:
… but as God’s servants, we commend ourselves in all sorts of ways: by enduring much, in suffering afflictions, through hardships, under various pressures, by being lashed, by being locked up, by going through riots, by laborious efforts, by sleepless nights, by going without food, by purity, by knowledge, by patience, by kindness, by a holy spirit, by genuine love, by a true message, and by God’s power; with the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, through slander and commendation, as deceivers and truthful persons, as unknown and well known, as dying and yet, here we are, still loving, as punished but yet not killed, as deeply pained but always rejoicing, as poor but making many rich, as having nothing but possessing everything.[2 Corinthians 6:4–10]
And then he declares:
I have labored harder, been in prisons more often, suffered innumerable lashings, and have been in the jaws of death frequently. Five times I received 39 stripes from the Jews, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked, a night and a day I have drifted at sea. I have taken a great number of journeys, in which I was exposed to danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own countrymen, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers. I have been involved in labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, many occasions when there was no food, cold, and nakedness. And besides these outward trials, there is the daily burden of oversight that grows out of my concern for all of the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who stumbles, and I am not upset?[2 Corinthians 11:23–29]
How was he able to stand up to this? How did he go on? What kept Paul from becoming a ministerial dropout? This is what he has to say:
We don’t give up, even though our outer person is decaying, because … our inner person is being renewed daily.[2 Corinthians 4:16]
There is the source of his power: inner strength and freshness. Physically Paul was coming apart, but within him there was a continual flow of spiritual energy that propelled him on. He was fortified for the ministry by a spiritual stamina that he received from God through His Word and His Spirit. Elsewhere, referring to this same phenomenon, he wrote: “I can do all these things by Him Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). And he prayed that his converts would be “empowered with every sort of power that is in keeping with [God’s] glorious might [so] that with joy [they would be able to] fully endure and learn to be completely patient” (Colossians 1:11). It takes spiritual stamina to persist in a world of sin.
But listen further to Paul’s explanation of his amazing endurance:
Therefore, since we have this service to perform as the result of mercy, we don’t give up.[2 Corinthians 4:1]
That is a biblical mind-set. There is no ‘ho-hum,’ ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude toward the ministry in those words. No, Sir! What you hear Paul saying is: “God graciously called me into the ministry, and He has not withdrawn that call. Therefore, I shall push on.”
It was that mind-set that kept Paul going when many others would have dropped out. Listen once more to his words:
We are afflicted in all sorts of ways, but not crushed; perplexed, but not given to despair.[2 Corinthians 4:8]
Paul was often down, but never down and out. Paul discovered that the ministry can be a long, arduous journey; but he finished the course, kept the faith. At the end of his trip, when he had reached his destination, Christ was there to meet him and to crown him with the victor’s wreath.
What counts in making this long trip, then, is not only what’s in your suitcase but also what’s in your heart. God has used men with small suitcases and large hearts; but it is rarely the other way around. You must prepare your heart day by day, and I hope you have been doing so. The way that you live life before God and your neighbor does that. No seminary can provide this general preparation for you. You alone are responsible for it.
So, then, it is because of such factors that men fail. Brooks answers his own question. Speaking of those well prepared failures, he declares:
… they are … elaborated, cultivated, finished to its very finest, but lacking the touch of God. As dark as a row of silver lamps, and wrought with wondrous skill, all filled with rarest oil, but all untouched with fire—so dark in this world is a long row of cultivated men, set up along the corridors of some age of history, around the halls of some wise university or in the pulpits of some stately church, to whom there has come no fire of devotion.
Success in the ministry (what God calls success) involves your relationship to Christ, your goals and dedication, your faith in the promises of God, your concern for the lost, and your love for Christ’s church.
Now, then, let me ask you once more: are you prepared? Do you have the spiritual stamina and the biblical mind-set that will carry you through your ‘Jerusalem councils,’ your ‘Thessalonicas,’ or your ‘Lystras?’
If not, or if you are not sure, let’s talk a bit about the general preparation that is necessary. What is this spiritual stamina and this biblical mind-set, and how can you get them? First, let’s be clear about one thing: if you drop out, it will be for one of two reasons: either you don’t belong in the ministry or you weren’t prepared for it.
If you finally discover that you don’t belong in the ministry after all, it will be a shame that you didn’t know this sooner. If men considered this matter more seriously before entering seminary and if churches gave better guidance and helped men to discover and test their gifts, there would be far fewer dropouts.
It will be a shame, but it’s better to leave the ministry for this reason than to make everyone (yourself included) miserable for years to come. There are few things worse than for a man to continue in the ministry who doesn’t belong there. There are too many such men already, one fears.
This is an honorable reason for leaving. All the preparation in the world won’t help if God hasn’t called and gifted you. Seminary can’t do what God must. We will all gladly grant you an honorable discharge.
But, as I have indicated, there’s another reason for leaving the ministry. If you don’t leave because you don’t belong, you will leave because you weren’t prepared. That, too, is a shame, and shameful! Have you spent three years here engaged only in professional preparation and neglected personal preparation altogether? Have you failed to build the stamina and develop the mind-set that the ministry demands? Has God granted you gifts that you’ve neglected?
If so, where have you gone wrong? There are several areas at which we might take a look. Have you failed in the area of goals and dedication? Many men do, you know. They build their seminary life around getting grades rather than gaining competence. They spend their time psyching out teachers (like discovering the kinds of papers they like, the sorts of tests they give, etc.) and consequently pay little or no attention to what they are supposed to be learning, except for the value it may have in obtaining high grades. They are looking forward to graduate work rather than ministry! A man like that is not prepared for the ministry.
Some set their goals too low. They have little faith in God’s promises or in the gifts that He gives. As a very young man, while preaching in the New Park Street Baptist Church, Spurgeon pointed to the wall behind him and declared: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, and by faith that wall will come down too.” Soon the church was so crowded that the wall did come down and the church was enlarged.
On February 12, 1545, referring to the government and morality of Geneva, Calvin wrote to Viret:
Already I have broken ground upon the internal state of the city in ten sermons.
This is a significant statement. It clearly shows two things: first, Calvin intended to change the life of the city to which he was ministering and, secondly, he proposed to do it through preaching. Perhaps one of the reasons why preachers today have so little impact is because, unlike Calvin, they have so little vision and so little faith in God’s gifts or in His blessing on the preaching of His Word. They set their goals far too low.
Paul thought globally. It’s clear from the pages of the New Testament that he had not only Asia Minor and Greece on his heart but even Rome and Spain (and who know where else?). A man of small goals and limited objectives, who has little hope to accomplish much in the ministry, is unprepared. His smallness of vision will soon rub off on his people and, as a result, his anticipations of smallness and failure will be realized. Let me say it again: a man like that is not prepared for the ministry.
Perhaps the problem has to do with your lack of concern for others. I’ve noticed in recent years that there is a strange complacency about some seminary students. They seem to be in no hurry to get into the ministry. They’ll “take a few more courses somewhere, perhaps.” Or, possibly, they will “work as an assistant for a while—who knows?” “Something or other will turn up.” There is in such men a sort of cold professionalism. They are the ones who speak about “my career” rather than “God’s call.” They seem to have no passion for ministry to men, women, and children who so desperately need the Word of the living God.
Any mind-set in which a man is not chafing at the bit to get out into the work, in which he does not long to serve God and His people, in which he has little interest in winning the lost, is bound to lead to failure in God’s sight. That man has an unbiblical mind-set; he is not prepared for ministry.
Where are the men who are ‘constrained’ by the love of Christ, who are so overwhelmed by His love that nothing else but His service attracts them? Where are the men who are pressed into ministry, who are ‘thrust forth’ into the harvest? Where are the men who cry, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel?” Only such men are fully prepared for the ministry.
“But,” you say, “if I lack that biblical mind-set and I don’t really have much spiritual stamina, is there any hope for me? Can I do anything about it? Can I change?”
Of course you can change. Your very question with its concern is evidence that you are ready for change. If you are not prepared for the ministry, that’s a pity and a shame, but it isn’t too late. All is not lost. Better to realize it, admit it, and do something about it now than when you find yourself at the helm of a congregation on rough seas!
Then you will find yourself caught up in the daily everyday grind and the myriad of details of the ministry, which (though you won’t believe it until you’ve experienced it) will be more demanding than the work that you have had to do here at Seminary. If you have been waiting for “more time” to put your spiritual life in order, supposing the rigors of seminary was the reason you didn’t, you’ll soon discover that the pastorate provides even larger excuses. No, you must begin (late, but not too late) what you should have begun long ago.
“But how?” you ask. Simply by doing two things. First, repent. Repent because of your own life before God and its miserable condition. And repent because of your whole mind-set and group of habit patterns. Ask God’s forgiveness and begin to focus on ministry rather than on yourself. The question is not “What should I do with my life? but “Where should I serve God?” Start looking for your slot; then apply and test your gifts and the call of the church. Secondly, fix your heart on Christ’s cross. Remember what He did for you. Study the latter chapters of the Gospels once more. Read those passages from Paul or Peter or John which tell about the wonderful salvation you have so freely received. Read, pray, think until once again your first love grows. That love is a sense of gratitude that says, “I love Him because He first loved me.” That’s what you need; that’s the real preparation!
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