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.

It’s Been a Long Time: Reflections on Ten Years at SWBTS

320px-bh_carroll_memorial_building_rotunda_28southwestern_baptist_theological_seminary2c_fort_worth2c_tx29This week I will attend my twenty-first convocation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. January 1 marked my tenth anniversary at SWBTS. Over the last couple of months my wife and I have reflected on the last ten years in Texas and one point that keeps coming back up is the fact that we are still in our first post-seminary ministry. Compared to many of our seminary classmates, this is unusual.

A couple of years ago, Lifeway conducted a survey on pastoral tenure. It found that the average tenure of a pastor at a church is 3.6 years.[1] I’m not sure of the average length of time a professor stays at a seminary, but I have seen enough come and go through the years to know that transition happens on a fairly regular basis.

When I arrived at SWBTS in January 2007, I was a young 28-year-old fresh off comprehensive exams from my PhD coursework. I had a little teaching experience and a little bit more administrative experience. I jumped into the administrative side of things from day one and started teaching that fall. I’ve worn more hats at SWBTS than I can remember. I’ve had to request new business cards more often than most people. And I can rarely get through my current list of titles (of which my business card has four and one is now wrong), much less the ones I no longer hold.

How is this different than many of my seminary classmates? Some of them are easily at their third or fourth ministry assignment in the last ten years. A few may have even passed five or six. This is not to say that something is wrong with them. In many cases, God has led them to new ministry assignments for specific purposes. In some cases, the current ministry was too burdensome and a new opportunity was in order. In a handful of cases, the lure of a larger ministry with more influence has pulled them away from an otherwise effective ministry.

In my case, I have been able to work along steadily in the same place for a decade. I’ve had opportunities to perform different roles at the same institution, so that probably makes my ministry a little different than many pastors. However, I still feel that there has been great benefit in staying as long as I have. Here are just a few:

  1. Stability for my family. When we first arrived in Fort Worth, we knew just a couple of people. We set out to make new friends as our own family continued to grow. I’ll never forget one couple at our church who were hesitant to get too close because they feared that we would move on in a couple of years just like the other seminary families they had known. They were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had not come to SWBTS for school but to serve. We’re still friends today. The result of this longevity has been that my family has been able to plant roots that continue to grow deeper. Three of our four children are native-born Texans. They have enjoyed friendships with other children from their earliest memories just as I did. This is important for us as a family.
  2. Long-term investment. A few semesters ago I was teaching a night class when an older gentlemen in the class shared a memory from years earlier. He told me that he had been in my very first seminary class approximately eight years earlier. I cringed a little. I shared with him that I hoped this class was better than that one. He laughed and said that he didn’t remember much about the class except that we spent a lot of time working through Scripture (I was so relieved to hear that!). Through the years I have seen many students come and go, but I especially enjoy the opportunity to have some of them more than once in class. There are a few students with whom I remain in contact after their graduation. No matter where they go, they know where to find me. Investing in others over the long term is what my boyhood pastor encouraged me to do just months before he died.
  3. Personal growth. I am not the same person I was ten years ago. Staying at the same ministry has forced me to grow. I can’t impress people at SWBTS with my skill set because they’ve seen it for years. As a result, I have been forced to grow as a professor, mentor, administrator, and colleague. This takes time and more effort than most of us would care to admit.
  4. Constant learning. Related to personal growth is the fact that staying in one place for a long time requires constant learning. Just the other day, my wife and I were talking with another couple about how much I read and study. I told them that I read more today than I did during PhD coursework. This is required to stay abreast of the changes in my discipline. Unfortunately, I don’t read as much as I should. There is always more to learn. Had I moved on to another ministry every few years, I might have been able to get by with less, but now I have to strive for more.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the last ten years at SWBTS and look forward to this eleventh year with great anticipation. If I were to retire at 73, I could spend 45 years at one place. Who knows if that will happen, but I appreciate the opportunity SWBTS has given me to plant some roots here for the last ten years.

[1] Thom S. Rainer, “8 Traits of Effective Church Leaders,” (20 August 2014). Available at http://www.lifeway.com/pastors/2014/08/20/8-traits-of-effective-church-leaders/.

Aquinas on Friendship

Last week I went to the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Francisco, CA. I had the privilege of presenting my paper, “The Forgotten Virtue of Friendship: Thomistic Friendship and Contemporary Christian Ethics.” This paper was an abridged version of a chapter out of my dissertation. I have posted a copy of the paper on the Resources page of my blog.

Without sharing the entire substance of the paper in this post, let me describe why the idea of friendship is important. In our contemporary culture, friendship has become more of an expression of social networks than a true, intimate relationship between individuals. This new understanding of friendship has diluted the robust meaning of friendship that has historically been a part of ethical thought since the time of the Greek philosophers. Online applications, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, measure friendship by the number of followers or people in your circle. However, in most of these applications, there is no measure of intimacy or characteristics found within the historical understanding of friendship that shed any light on whether or not a true relationship actually exists.

Aquinas offered one of the most substantial discussions of friendship within Christian ethical thought. My paper was an attempt to show how we can recover some elements of this robust, love-based friendship for contemporary ethics without succumbing to the situation-based ethics of Joseph Fletcher or the community-based ethics of Stanley Grenz. My full dissertation makes these connections in a much more substantial way.

Why I Attend the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting

I am preparing to go to Phoenix this weekend. Under any other circumstances, I really have no need to travel to the desert. The Texas Rangers are not playing the Arizona Diamondbacks this summer. The NFL lock-out will probably prevent the Cowboys from playing the Cardinals. And I have never traveled to watch professional sports teams play anyway. If I want hot weather, all I have to do is step outside on a blistering summer day in Fort Worth (yes, I’ve heard that Phoenix is a dry heat—dry like an oven). The reason I am going to Phoenix is for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Earlier today I received a phone call from a vendor who specializes in marketing to religious groups. She wanted to schedule a time to talk in more detail about the “greatest marketing idea ever” that could help the Riley Center, and she preferred to do so next week. I told her that next week was not an option because I would be in Phoenix for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. She replied, “I would like to go to that one day. It sounds like fun.” I retorted, “It’s basically one long business meeting. I don’t know if I would call it fun. But I enjoy it anyway.” After hanging up the phone, my response to the vendor made me start thinking about why I attend the SBC annual meeting each year. I didn’t grow up in the home of a pastor who planned family vacations each year around the location of the meeting (don’t laugh, there’s a good reason why the Orlando convention last year was one of the better attended conventions in years). I had never been to the meeting prior to the Nashville convention in 2005. I missed the 2006 convention in Greensboro and have been to everyone since then. I don’t serve on a board or committee whose attendance is required. So why do I go? Here are a few reasons.

1) Fellowship

This is an easy one. I enjoy the fellowship at the SBC Annual Meeting. I have received all of my post-secondary education at Baptist schools. For fourteen years, I attended Baptist institutions of higher learning. I sat in classes with fellow students who now pastor churches, serve denominational entities, or simply have an interest in attending the convention. Each year, I have standing lunch/dinner/dessert appointments with classmates from college or seminary. I look forward to those times each year.

In addition, I have served as an administrator and professor at Southwestern Seminary for over four years. It was probably last year that I had my first run-in with former students. I have officially taught long enough here that my students see me and come tell me what they are doing in ministry since graduating from SWBTS. The funny thing about that is I still do the same with some of my former professors at Mississippi College and Southeastern Seminary.

Even though I am on the low end of the age scale at the annual meeting (I turn 33 on the final day of the convention), I find the fellowship with both the younger and older pastors, students, messengers, etc to be a motivating factor for wanting to attend. Contrary to popular opinion, the annual meeting is not simply composed of “gray-hairs.” There are those of us younger folks who like to attend as well.

2) Encouragement

The next reason to come to the annual meeting is the encouragement I receive. This comes in a few different forms. The first is related to the fellowship mentioned above. I am encouraged to hear what my friends, classmates, and students are doing and how God is using them. I typically come away from those conversations energized.

Another form of encouragement is found in the sermons that are preached during the pastors’ conference and as part of the convention. Typically, this is an opportunity to listen to some of the greatest preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention. Now my standards are pretty high since I was privileged to hear Adrian Rogers preach multiple times a week growing up. Certainly, the preaching does not always live up to his standard, but rarely am I disappointed. Most people bring their “A-game” to the Southern Baptist Convention.

The last form of encouragement comes from various reports. Yes, you can be encouraged by listening to reports that take up the majority of the time at the convention. Listening for the nuggets about what God is doing in different places gives me encouragement that we are trying to reach the world for Christ.

3) Conviction

It is hard to attend a meeting full of pastors, professors, and others interested in the life of the church without stepping back and evaluating your own spiritual maturity and commitment to serving God. It sometimes feels like Joshua addressing the people of Israel in Josh 24. In v. 14, he tells the people, “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” The people express their agreement to Joshua’s challenge, and then he responds in v. 19-20, “You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” So what’s the deal? Why challenge them if they can’t do it? They could not serve God on their own. I think the same holds true for us. We cannot serve God effectively in our own power. We must depend upon the Holy Spirit working in and through us. The conviction I receive at the convention is much the same. I hear how God is using others, and I begin to ask why I don’t see the same in my life. Upon reflection I am then convicted that perhaps I am trying to serve God in my own power. This is a helpful reminder each year.

4) Relevance

I don’t really care what people say, the Southern Baptist Convention is still relevant. Any student of Baptist history will see that the SBC has changed, adjusted, and morphed through the last 166 years. We don’t look the same. We don’t act the same. But we do have the same message—the unchanging message of the gospel built upon the inerrant, infallible Word of God. The gospel message never loses relevancy.

The question for the Southern Baptist Convention this year (and every year) is: Are we effectively communicating that gospel message to the world? The baptism numbers in the Annual Church Profile seem to suggest the answer is no. Of course, numbers are numbers—they can say lots of things. However, the future of the Southern Baptist Convention and the church is dependent upon the proclamation of the gospel (Rom 10:14-15).

How will we best utilize our collective resources to proclaim the gospel? Those decisions will be made at the annual meeting of the SBC. And that is why I attend. I hope to see you there. If not this year, hopefully we will meet at one in the future.

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