My Advice for Young Men in Seminary
Wesley Barley is a 2013 Master of Divinity graduate from BJU Seminary who now serves as Dean of the seminary of Instituto Práctico Ebenezer y Seminario, in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico.
When I did my internship at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, we often had sessions with missionaries or pastoral staff on the topic “What I Wish I Would Have Known When I Was Your Age.” I always enjoyed those sessions because they were unique, practical, and shared with passion, often out of real-life experience. Here are a few suggestions of mine for young men in seminary.
1. Go ahead and get married. I am not kidding either. Do not wait six more years to get serious about looking for a wife. It is the will of God for most men to be married. It is also the responsibility of a man in marriage to be a leader. I suspect that a significant reason some of you are not married right now is a reluctance to lead. Your leadership starts before the wedding day. It starts when you approach a young lady and ask if she would like to start a friendship.
Prolonged adolescence is bad. Especially for young men. It is a breeding ground for sexual temptation. It is commonly wasted in hours and days and weeks of entertainment and “fun.” A young married couple can waste their life on entertainment too, and many do, but the responsibility brought on by marriage and children work against that.
You were created for leadership and responsibility. Every man must exercise this in his relationship with his wife and children, not just by physically providing for them but also by spiritually leading them. Your ability to do this is more important than your formal education. A man may be apt to teach without an MDiv, but he will never be above reproach if he cannot manage his own household (1 Tim. 3:4). This is not something you can learn in a class; it is a skill that is acquired through use and practice. Our culture does not encourage responsibility or leadership in the family, so it is not necessarily something you already know. You need to get started on it.
A lot of people wait until seminary is over to get married in order to finish faster. But if you do not get married until after your degree, it will be years before you meet the requirement of managing your household well, and the time saved does not pay off. I suspect that when it is all over, you would have done better to do your maturing and your schooling together. So, go ahead and get married.
2. Slow down. I know I just told you to hurry up and get married. But now I am telling you to slow back down. I certainly understand the desire to get out there and get to work. I am on the mission field right now, and I wish some of you would come help me. But the most important work you will ever do for God is not out there somewhere. It is inside you—your private love and adoration of the Creator. God can get someone else to pastor that church or reach that individual. But there is one thing God can never use someone else to get, and that is your worship of him. So, you do not need to get done with seminary to do something that matters for God. Everything you hope to do for Christ depends on who you are with Christ. Do not get so distracted by achieving academic goals that you forget what the real goal is.
You may die at any time anyway, and the ministry you have right now is all the ministry you will ever get. Do not minimize it in an effort to get to something bigger and better. Give it your best. You need time to develop your gifts. A church needs time to recognize your gifts. You cannot rush these processes and get a product that is excellent.
I am not encouraging you to avoid reality by lingering in seminary for the rest of your life. Some guys need to be whipped up. Others need to be reined in. This is a reminder for the second group. What good will your MDiv do you if you cannot remember the things you studied? What good is your degree if your marriage is ruined? What good is your degree if you are bound to debt when it is over? Do not end up with one of these common problems because you were in a hurry to get a degree. Slow down!
3. Do a long internship. Or something like it even if it is not called an internship. You need context for what you are learning in the classroom. I taught at a Bible college in Mexico for a year after I did my MA and before I did my MDiv. That real-world experience showed me just how much I did not know and motivated me to work hard. An internship will also give you opportunities to develop certain skills in teaching or administration. You will be earning the reputation you have to have to be qualified as a minister.
Besides this you will have the wonderful opportunity to be invested in personally by a man or men you respect (you should not take an internship with a ministry you cannot respect). We all need older men to evaluate and advise us. We need their experience and their perspectives. “He who walks with wise men will be wise” (Pro 13:20). An internship should allow you to get close enough to the leaders of the church to really learn from them. The things you learn there often cannot be taught in seminary.
I must add that this should be a long internship. At least a year, maybe more. If I may be allowed to reference my previous point—you cannot rush things. It takes time to learn these skills and be with a variety of people and in a variety of circumstances. I am not suggesting that the internship be poorly organized or given minimal attention and that time will somehow make it all good in the end. I am only saying that experience, by definition, requires time.
Not only your experience but also your character needs time. Everyone likes the intern when he shows up. When everything is new and exciting and the people think you’re great, your flesh is not being put to death. But as the weeks stretch into months and the novelty wears off, you start to get frustrated by the way things are done or by the way so-and-so acts. You get tired by the late nights and weekend shifts. And people stop noticing you. Instead of the awesome guy who just showed up, you become some of the furniture, unnoticed and unappreciated. Those kinds of conditions will be good for you. They will help you grow in important ways. So, plan on a long internship.
4. Learn to read the people around you. This last one is harder to describe, but I become more convinced of its importance every year. I heard a pastor recently say that a man whom God is calling to the ministry has an ability to read the text and an ability to read the people around him. It is possible to see what is right in front of you and not understand it or forget about it. But if you want to be a minister, you must learn to read or interpret what is happening around you.
In other words, a faithful minister knows which families in the church are very close friends; he recognizes that a certain young man is always showing off; he notices that sister so-and-so will eagerly come on Saturday to practice special music but never comes on Saturday to clean the fellowship hall. He does not necessarily form a negative opinion about these people; after all, there may be good reasons for their behavior. But he is not oblivious to the facts.
You do not need to feel bad about noticing behaviors or words, even negative ones. They are a part of the world we live in. If a lady shows up at church looking disheveled, it is not a sin to notice it or to remember that she came that way once before. It would be wrong to mention this fact to someone else over a cup of coffee and laugh about it. But paying attention to people and even evaluating them scripturally is not wrong. A young man who is frequently flirting with girls needs to be kindly corrected, not overlooked by someone who cannot recognize flirting.
Someone who can read people around him does not necessarily take things at face value. He has learned that he and other people do not always know their own motives and that immature people usually assume the best about themselves. This helps him formulate questions when talking or counseling with others and keeps him from jumping to conclusions when he hears about what someone else did or said.
Certainly, a part of this discernment is supernaturally given. Paul prayed that God would give the Philippians great discernment (Phil. 1:9-10). But part of this is natural because even unsaved people can be discerning (Lk. 16:8). It is also something that age and experience will give to us. But it is possible for a younger man to possess this (1 Kings 3:12), and you should seek to have this kind of wisdom.
Thankfully, the Lord does a unique and personal work in the lives of each one of us. I hope that some of the things I have learned in my own life and the lives of those close to me will help you to become the man of God you ought to be.