Five Tips for Thriving after Seminary

rotundaIt’s the most wonderful time of the year—unless you’re a student. Let’s be honest, most students are in survival mode at this point of the semester. There are tests to be taken, papers to be written, and assignments to be submitted. This time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be one of the most stressful periods for any student, including seminary students. For students graduating this semester, the pressure can be even greater. They are looking for ministry positions and considering housing options after they move off campus. They may even be praying that a professor or two will overlook a few errors in their final papers.

Beyond the stress of the end of the semester, I have also seen seminary students and graduates struggle with post-seminary survival. Recently I overheard a handful of former students talking about being survivors of seminary and how difficult it was to listen to a sermon, study the Bible, and enjoy fellowship after spending years in the formal academic setting of seminary. I understand what these former students are talking about, but I also want to offer some tips for thriving after seminary that I learned during my ten years as a seminary student (yes, I said ten years) and more than a decade of teaching seminary.

  1. Be humble. I was one of those first year seminary students. You’ve seen them. They are the ones carrying a Greek New Testament to church and pretending to follow along in the text as the pastor preaches. Honestly, I was pretty good at Greek. I could translate from most passages on the fly by the end of my first year of seminary (second year of Greek), but if I got asked to read aloud in Sunday School, it might get ugly. Or if the pastor was preaching from the Old Testament, I was in trouble. Here’s deal… whether it is Greek, Hebrew, theology, or hermeneutics, seminary provides an unmatched opportunity to delve into the formal study of Scripture, but completing a few semesters of a subject does not make you an expert. When I watch some of my faculty colleagues who teach Greek or Hebrew follow along in chapel with a Bible in the original languages, I know that they have years of continued study and training beyond the basic 2-4 semesters of a language. I also know they are spending hours on their own refining their craft of translation. Even in my own field, I am constantly reading books and articles related to ethics just to stay abreast of current thought. The people in your church will be grateful for the time spent in seminary and the education you have received, but that little old lady who has been faithfully studying her Bible for the last 70 years may actually know more than you do. Be humble about your education. You still have a lifetime of learning ahead of you.
  2. Study the Bible for your personal discipleship. It is really easy to allow the formal academic study of Scripture to replace personal study and discipleship. A good friend of mine from college went to a different seminary a couple years before I did. I will never forget when he told me a story about one of his professors. He was overwhelmed with the volume of reading required in his classes so he sought out one of his professors for advice. He wanted to know how to devote time to his own devotional study of the Bible when so much was required of him already. Unfortunately, his professor gave him terrible advice. He said that there will be time for devotional study when you graduate. I think many students who lose their passion for God’s Word while in seminary do so because they forsake the study of Scripture for personal discipleship. Academic study is good and necessary, but it is not the end. Personal holiness and devotion to the Lord are more important than grades. If you are having difficulty maintaining a personal time of devotion, then schedule it just like you do for your classes.
  3. Stop being critical. After a year or so of seminary, it became difficult to listen to sermons. I paid attention in chapel and church, but mainly for the purpose of catching an exegetical fallacy or theological error. Then something very helpful happened to me—I took a preaching class. My professor required us to preach in class and receive feedback from our classmates. Most of my classmates were kind to me and only minimally critical. Then my professor required us to watch videos of our own preaching. Ouch! I was bad. I wanted to be the next Adrian Rogers, my childhood pastor. Instead I was just a cheap imitation in an ill-fitting suit. Watching myself preach was a humbling experience. I still don’t like to do it because I feel that I have so far yet to go. Will the pastors you listen to make errors along the way? Sure. Are your sermons perfect? Not a chance. In fact, those faithful but unknown pastors who put their time and study in faithfully each week will likely have a deeper impact on their people than the celebrity preachers on your podcast list. Stop being critical and start reflecting on how you can faithfully feed your people.
  4. Invest in the ministry of a local church. At least once a semester in seminary I heard Paige Patterson say that he prayed our first church would be filled with the type of members we were while seminary students. There was often an audible silence after that statement. Thankfully, I heeded his advice. I joined the choir, served as a deacon, taught Sunday School, went on mission trips, and even volunteered in the nursery occasionally. None of these roles were paid positions. Even today I volunteer as a deacon, choir member, children’s Sunday School teacher, and other roles. In those roles, I’m not Dr. Lenow. My students on Sunday call me Mr. Evan. In the choir loft, I’m just one of the guys in the bass section. It’s refreshing, and it’s healthy for my spiritual life.
  5. Share the gospel. Sharing the gospel is a key aspect of the Christian life. We don’t do it to get another jewel in our crown, but we do it because we care about the souls of other people. When I share the gospel, I realize a few things. Most people truly interested in hearing the gospel don’t really care about theodicy, eschatology, or hermeneutics. They want to hear the life-changing message of salvation. Sure, those other doctrines may become important later, but right now the most important thing is for them to hear a clear articulation of the gospel in the style of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. If you can’t share the message of the gospel in a clear, straightforward fashion, it’s time to get some practice.

My desire is for this graduating class of seminarians to thrive after they graduate. I don’t want them to look back on these years as some from which they need to recover. These five tips are not a magic solution to some of the difficulties of life after seminary, but they should help ease the transition.

Religious Liberty as the Foundation for Pro-Life and Pro-Family Policies

Just over three weeks ago, I spent several days in Salt Lake City attending the World Congress of Families IX. I was privileged to speak during one of the plenary sessions on the closing day of the congress. The title of my session was “Religious Liberty as the Foundation for Pro-Life and Pro-Family Policies.” Video from my session (and many others) is now available on the WCF YouTube channel.

As part of my presentation, I noted that there are three distinct areas where we can see the influence of religious liberty in support of pro-life and pro-family policies. These three areas are marriage, healthcare, and education.

In my conclusion, I noted the following:

At the end of the day, religious liberty sets the foundation upon which we can build the best pro-life and pro-family policies. However, these policies are not simply going to come about because a nation has religious liberty protections. Such policies are still dependent upon people of faith exercising their beliefs in the public square to give a convincing argument for why God’s design for life and family is the most beneficial for the good of society. It is when people of faith practice their faith in a society that respects their right to freely exercise such faith that we will see the most effective pro-life and pro-family policies.

I was honored to be a part of the program for the World Congress of Families. The mission of WCF is to “provide sound scholarship and effective strategies to affirm and defend the natural family, thus encouraging a sustainable and free society.” This was the first congress held in the United States. I attended my first congress in Warsaw, Poland in 2007.

On a personal note, it was fun to “teach” a little Baptist history to such an ecumenical group. In fact, most of the questions I received throughout the rest of the day related to church history. It reminded me how little people know about the history of Christianity and how important it is to continue teaching our history as Christians (and Baptists).

Guest Post: Homeschooling: 3 Things I’ve Learned

This is a guest post from my wife, Melanie. She originally wrote this post for Biblical Woman, the blog site for the Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The post originally appeared here.

This fall, we are entering our fifth year of homeschooling. Our third child will start kindergarten, so we will officially have more children in school than not. Over the last few years, I have learned many things about my children’s learning styles, temperaments, and intellect. However, in the same way, I have learned a great amount about who I am and how God created me.

As a mom who teaches my children at home, I have come to understand that it is vital for me to know who I am and be content in who God created me to be. If you are familiar with “The Four Temperaments,” I am a sanguine. As such, I like to make the home fun. I can handle any disaster with humor and a good dance session. However, I struggle with hyper-organization. Oftentimes, my children have an easier time of staying on schedule than I do. Embracing these observations in myself and diligently not comparing myself to others of different personalities has given me the freedom to run my house in a way that works for us and accomplishes God’s purposes at the same time.

These are a few tips that I have begun to use that make homeschooling work for us.

  1. We have a rhythm, not a schedule. As I mentioned before, firm day-to-day schedules overwhelm me. Therefore, my family functions on a rhythm. We all get up at the same time, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then start school. My benchmark for this is 9:00 a.m. It is my goal to transition from household duties into our school day by this time. Once our school day gets started, each of my kids has a different order in which to do their work. This allows me to work with each of the children one-on-one at various times of the morning. Again, the most important concept to me is not that we stay within the exact time frame, but that the children know, once they finish a certain task, it is time for the next. At 10:30, we all take a break. They play outside while I usually switch the laundry from washer to dryer or something exciting like that. I have found that I do better when I can see tangible accomplishments throughout the day. So in the midst of working on reading with my first grader (a more long-term task), I feel accomplished because I completed a load of laundry. After break, we come back together for more schooling. We break again at lunch, and then the older children finish whatever schoolwork they haven’t already completed. They also practice their musical instruments or play sports. Therefore, a specific time might look different each day, but there is a rhythm that stays the same.
  2. Everyone has time alone and time in a group every day. Just like me, my kids all have different temperaments. For my introverts, they need to work with others in the room. However, they also need time alone to refocus and recharge. For my extroverts, they need to understand the benefit of quiet and alone time as well as enjoy the fun of everyone being together. My youngest, at age 2, is already a definite extrovert. It is hard for her to be by herself. However, last year, I carved out 30 minutes on every homeschool day for her to practice playing by herself. She did not like it, but it benefited everyone. Even I take a time out after lunch to have my quiet and Bible study time. I put my little ones down to nap, my older children begin their school work again, and I grab a cup of coffee, and sit down with God.
  3. It takes all kinds to make the world go around. Some of my kids excel at academics, some don’t. Some work well in groups, some don’t. Some thrive on schedule and organization; some (like me) are more creative and relaxed. After four years of homeschooling, this idea has become paramount: We are different, but we are good for each other. Oftentimes I wish I was more detailed-oriented or naturally organized. But God reminds me that He created me for a purpose. I can encourage my daughter who is very task oriented to notice people more and consider their feelings. However, she is good for me and helps me stay on task and inspires me to work on ways to improve my organization skills. This training in the home is very applicable in the world. In the church or in the workplace, we will encounter different personality types. In each situation, we can appreciate each of our strengths and learn from each other to improve on our weaknesses.

Maybe you can identify with some of the lessons I have learned in the last four years. Have you been trying to be someone you are not in your homeschooling? Have you accepted your kids for who they are, complete with the personalities God gave them? After these first years of homeschooling, there are still areas where I want to improve, but the lessons God has taught me about myself have been priceless.

Public Education and the Homosexual Agenda

This past week, a few different news outlets reported about a highly unusual anti-bullying program at Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, NY.  According to Todd Starnes, “Young girls at a New York middle school were instructed to ask one another for a lesbian kiss and boys were given guidance on how to tell if women are sluts during an anti-bullying presentation on gender identity and sexual orientation, angry parents allege.”

How does an anti-bullying program lead to role-playing homosexual behavior? According to Paul Hooks, superintendent of the Red Hook Central School District, the program addressed “improving culture, relationships, communication and self-perceptions.” Specifically, the presentation was intended to draw attention to discrimination against homosexual students.

The scary part of it all is that parents were not informed in advance about the homosexual role-playing and were not given the opportunity to opt the children out of participation.

While bullying is certainly not acceptable in any context, the role-playing forced upon the students creates a bullying of a different type. For those students who had convictions against homosexual behavior, their convictions were implicitly labeled as bullying. Thus, students were bullied into believing their personal, faith-based convictions were discriminatory.  By contrast, the homosexual agenda in the program was to normalize homosexual behavior.

The quest to normalize homosexual behavior is alive and well in the public school system, and this is just the latest example.

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Todd Starnes, “Middle School Anti-Bullying Lesson Includes Lesbian Role Play,” Fox News, April 18, 2013.

Jessica Chasmar, “Girls instructed to role-play lesbian relationship in workshop at N.Y. middle school,” Washington Times, April 25, 2013.

The Impact of Marriage on Income Inequality

Source: Vital Statistics Birth Data, 1990 and 2009, Via ChildTrends.org

An article ran in The New York Times over the weekend about the impact of marriage on income inequality. The journalist followed the lives of two mothers who work at the same company—one is married and the other is a single mother. What he found, along with conclusions from research, was that marriage plays a significant role in determining on what side of the income inequality divide a family will be.

With a presidential election upon us in a few months and the political machines in full swing lobbing ad hominem attacks back and forth, one of the major issues is income inequality. While both political parties blame one another, research has demonstrated that there may be other causes at play than just the tax code.

The NYT reports:

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns—as opposed to changes in individual earnings—may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

There are a number of factors that play a role in the discussion of marriage, family, and child-rearing on a societal level. For instance, the education level of the mother influences the likelihood that she will have a child out of wedlock. Even though the national numbers across educational levels show that 41% of all children are born to unwed mothers, only 8% of births to college-educated mothers are outside of marriage. The numbers for mothers with high school education or less are around 60%. In addition, these trends transcend racial lines.

The staggering changes in family structures witnessed in the United States in the last few decades have impacted people dramatically during the recent recession. The article notes:

Economic woes speed marital decline, as women see fewer “marriageable men.” The opposite also holds true: marital decline compounds economic woes, since it leaves the needy to struggle alone.

“The people who need to stick together for economic reasons don’t,” said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist. “And the people who least need to stick together do.”

Changes in family structure do not explain the gains of the very rich—the much-discussed “1 percent” and the richest among them. That story largely spills from Wall Street trading floors and corporate boardrooms.

But for inequality more broadly, Mr. Western found that the growth in single parenthood in recent decades accounted for 15 percent to 25 percent of the widening income gaps. (Estimates depend on the time period, the income tiers and the definition of inequality.) Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution found it to account for 21 percent. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, comparing lower-middle- and upper-middle-income families, found that single parenthood explained about 40 percent of inequality’s growth.

There are other intangible, non-economic factors in marriage that contribute to the stability of the family. Having two parents in the home means that there are more people to spend time with the children. While single parents find themselves pulled between jobs and children’s school and activities, two-parent families can “divide and conquer” when necessary. This lowers stress levels and promotes working together in the family.

In addition, the presence of both parents in the home brings a positive influence for the entire family. Brad Wilcox and Carlos Cavallé report:

For children, marriage matters. Children reared outside of an intact family are significantly less likely to acquire the human and social capital they need to become well-adjusted, productive workers. Those from intact, married families are more likely to succeed in school, graduate from college, and be gainfully employed as adults. And men who get and stay married work harder, smarter, and longer hours, and they earn between 10 and 24 percent more money. This is the case in countries as varied as Israel, Italy, Mexico, and the United States. For men and women alike, marriage fosters financially prudent behavior, including higher rates of savings and greater accumulation of assets. In these ways and many more, marriage is an important generator of social, human, and financial capital for economies around the world, and countries that enjoy a comparatively strong marriage culture—such as China, India, and Malaysia—are likely to reap long-term economic dividends.

It is always fulfilling to see when secular social science confirms God’s intentions for the family—even when they don’t set out to do so. In Genesis 2:24 we read, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” From this point forward, God clearly communicates that his design for the family is one man married to one woman for a lifetime. They work together to rear their children and provide lasting stability to their family that will hopefully be reproduced in the next generation.

Of course we encounter the fall of mankind in Genesis 3 that creates new difficulties for subsequent generations to fulfill this God-given design. However, we can even see in this article that God’s design is the best plan for marriage, family, and economic well-being.

As we endure the burdensome political process leading up to the election in November, we will hear politicians proclaiming they have the answers to our society’s economic woes. Most of their “solutions” will revolve around taxes, job creation, and government programs. Perhaps they should look at something else—the intact family.

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Jason DeParle, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,’” The New York Times, July 14, 2012.

W. Bradford Wilcox and Carlos Cavallé, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend,” in What Do Marriage & Fertility Have to Do with the Economy? (National Marriage Project, 2011).

Book Review: The Liberal Arts A Student’s Guide

Gene C. Fant, Jr., The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 121 pages; $11.99.

In his new book, Gene Fant makes the case that a liberal arts education can play a significant part in shaping the Christian community for both the marketplace and the mission field. In an age when many people are moving away from liberal arts to specialization in education, Fant seeks to recover the importance of the liberal arts. He states:

An emphasis on liberal learning is of critical importance to our era, as we seek to engage our culture with the great Christian intellectual tradition that continues to provide a fertile culture for thought and action.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of the book comes when Fant demonstrates the connection between faith and several of the core disciplines of a liberal arts education. He connects mathematics, science, literature, and aesthetics to their theological foundations and demonstrates how each provide a link to God through general revelation.

Fant also makes some predictions regarding the nature of education in the future particularly as it relates to the traditional church-related vocational enterprises. He predicts:

Fewer “career” missionaries with theological degrees from seminaries will be commissioned by denominational agencies; rather engineers and chemists will take positions with corporations that will position them in regions where there is little gospel platform. Full-time church employees who supervise inner-city ministries will become rarer; instead, teachers and social workers will target urban areas as places to build careers so that they may serve populations with particular challenges that may be remediated by the gospel. Business leaders and entrepreneurs will find ways to generate profits in ways that reflect their Christian principles and will fund philanthropic activities through these funds. Church planters will target unreached areas, armed with both theological education and practical platforms, where they will run coffee shops, manage arts agencies, and coach athletics while building relationships that may lead to spiritual transformations in the context of local church fellowships. A liberal arts education will be critical to developing skill sets necessary for success in these kinds of ventures.

Crucial to the success of these “new ventures” will be the integration of theology into the various disciplines of the liberal arts curriculum.

Fant’s ideas and conclusions are worth your time to read. He offers plenty of material to think about related to the current state and future of the liberal arts education. Take some time, pick up the book, and read what he has to say.

New Book from Gene Fant: The Liberal Arts A Student’s Guide

I just got a new book in the mail today, and I am looking forward to reading it. The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide by Gene C. Fant Jr. just came out from Crossway. Gene Fant was my British Literature professor at Mississippi College and has continued to have a huge influence on my life as a friend and mentor. He currently teaches literature and serves as VP for Academic Administration at Union University in Jackson, TN. I hope to give some thoughts on the book when I have an opportunity to read it. The book is available on Amazon and other retailers.