It is good to be here this morning and visit with you on the front end of your time at Midwestern Seminary. This semester we have about 180 or 190 people who have been admitted to the school and the vast majority of those will become students this semester.
It is a nostalgic day for me, and that is because I still remember so very vividly my new student orientation. When you are a seminary president in your mid-thirties, trust me, it was not that long ago that I was at new student orientation. I still remember all that went on in that setting—and all that went on in my call to ministry—not just in a general sense, but the Lord calling me and my wife to go to seminary. We were a young couple. We had been married three years when we actually made the transition. It was the summer of 2001. We had a little house we bought the year before, and we had to go through the process of selling a home. Our home actually had not sold when we went to seminary, so we had to go through the process of seeking to rent it and that became a nightmare in and of itself. We went through all those different kinds of logistics that gum a person up. We still loaded everything we owned in a U-Haul. We lived in Mobile, Ala., and we were going to seminary in Louisville, Ky. We set out for Louisville, and it was a 630-mile drive straight up I-65. It is hard to miss. It was about the first week in August, and it was about 112 degrees and 118 percent humidity and our air conditioning went out in the first mile of that road trip. My wife will tell you that we drove the whole way up that interstate with no air-conditioning in our vehicle, so it was terribly hot in that U-Haul. It rained the whole way up, so we went intermittently getting fogged up windows and driving with them up to keep from getting wet. So we were hot and dry with fogged up windows, or we were hot and wet with the windows down so we could see. We moved up to campus, and over the period of years there I studied and got two degrees. We had five children along the way. Those children live on this campus with me so I trust you will have occasion to get to know them and our family. For me and for us as a family, it was an incredibly fruitful, encouraging, and worthwhile time. As I am here today with you, I am thinking of what I want to say to you as a president and also what I wanted to have said to me many years ago as I was on the front end of the seminary experience.
When I think about my own interactions and encounters with our students, I have different entry points and opportunities to speak into the lives of students. That is, broadly speaking on the front end as we have different events and campus preview days where I am talking about the school and who we are, what we aspire to do, what we commit to do for you and in you while you are here. That is an important conversation. Then I speak to students intermittently throughout their time here at convocations, chapel sessions, and other occasions where I am seeking to encourage and reinforce that which we are seeking to accomplish in them. Then I get those times at graduation to have that parting word to encourage, exhort, strengthen, challenge, to call as to what we would desire God to do in your life and ministry. So, you think about those different points, but chronologically, this is just as important as any of those. It is perhaps more important because by the time you walk across the stage at graduation, you are looking toward what the Lord is doing in you next, and what you desire him to do in you by way of ministry. I want to speak to you today as one who is rooting for you—not one who is trying to recruit you here—you are here; not as one who is trying to charge you in a certain way as you go—that will come in due time; and not as one who is trying to incrementally encourage you as you are a student. Rather, I speak to you as one who wants to encourage you to think of yourself and to think of this season in a certain way so that you are optimally prepared for ministry. This is an incredible stewardship that I have, that we have as a seminary, and that you have as one who is now a part of this community. We take it with a great deal of seriousness. We are happy warriors. We are sober in what we do, but we are happy about doing it.
What is a Successful Seminary Experience?
In our time together this morning, I want to challenge you with God’s Word to think through some different priorities during seminary for you. I want to read a few verses from Ephesians chapter four as we think about why we are here: what we are seeking to do, what you are seeking to do, and why you are here. Then, as I read these verses and after I read these verses, I want to challenge us in a few ways on the front end of your seminary time. We will start reading in Ephesians chapter four, beginning in verse 11.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Begin with the End in Mind
It is a joy to speak to you this morning. I want to invite you to think with me about what a successful seminary experience entails. I think any major life engagement—like seminary, college, marriage, having kids, taking a job, taking a church to serve—for that to be most faithful, you begin with the end in mind. That is Leadership 101: to think about tasks and objectives, to define roles and goals, and to look forward as you look presently. I want to think about concepts such as why are you here? Why are we here?
We understand underneath it all that we are here by the grace of God and by the call of God. We preach a big, bold, promiscuous gospel that whosoever shall call upon the name of Christ will be saved. If you are in the room today, not only have you responded to that big, promiscuous, general call to the gospel, but you are here because you believe God has also called you in a personal and specific sense to ministry. The call to ministry is not a promiscuous call. I say that not to enflame our pride, but to charge our sense of stewardship. If you are here today as a student of Midwestern Seminary or as an employee of Midwestern Seminary, you are here as one who perceives that sense of call. You show up here with that abiding sense of stewardship—the sense of purpose in your heart and soul. So, you come here today not just as a student who has stumbled into the University of Kansas or the University of Missouri, or even a Christian college where you go in and dabble and find yourself and what you want to do with your life with no real harm done if you stumble through there for four years without an end in mind because you will probably sort that out along the way in life. No, we enter the room with a greater sense of intentionality and greater sense of purpose because we have been called of God, and we believe ourselves to have been called of God. I want to challenge you this morning with nine priorities of a seminary student for you to most optimally benefit from your time with us.
The first priority of a seminary student is to love the Lord Jesus Christ with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength. Do you know what the first priority of a seminary president is? To love the Lord you God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind and all of your strength. If you are a Christian, you never outgrow that simple purpose. If you are a minister, you never outgrow that simple purpose. One of the key metrics for me and for you is that you leave this place more Christ-like than you came—that you graduate knowing Christ more personally, more intimately, more deeply, more fully than when you showed up. That evidences itself in character that is refined, and refined, and refined again. That evidences itself in passions that are godly and desires that are scriptural and lives that are more and more reflecting the glory of Christ. I say that with a biblical sense and a theological sense, but I also want to encourage you that it is a very practical thing.
Listen closely—for you to be able to serve in ministry, you must first have character that is worthy of that ministry. Any church or ministry that is worth its salt, that may one day hire you, their first concern should and most likely will be your character. In I Timothy 3 those qualifications of ministry are all about character—who a person is in the heart, what that life looks like. So your ministry is first and foremost not dependent upon your gifts, your skills, or your degrees. Your ministry is first dependent upon your character. You can graduate here summa cum laude with every degree we offer, but if your heart has become corrosive along the way, it is all for naught. Number one: prioritize your love for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Love your Family
Number two: prioritize your family. We went to seminary not that long ago. We showed up with no children and throughout the years at seminary we had what amounted to an annual child. We had a kid in 2002, a kid in 2003, and they were stacked. By the time we had our fifth child we had 5 kids five and under. Our oldest two are 13 months apart and our youngest two are 11 months apart. When our third child was a baby we had three kids in diapers, but our third kid was so prolific he had to wear double diapers. So, when it came to buying diapers, we were buying diapers for four children at one time. Some of my family just migrated to the room. There is my wife back there, the resplendent Karen Allen; our youngest child, Elizabeth, who just turned five; and our youngest son, Alden, who just turned six. He has an older brother, William, who is 8; and an older sister, Caroline, who is 10; and another older sister, Ann-Marie, who is 11. I have to tell you, I love you guys and I love the seminary, but I do not care what people around here think of me ultimately anywhere near as much as I care about what my wife and children think about me. I want to please the Lord and I want to be a man of integrity for this family in such a way that they know the gospel I preach is real, the Scripture I preach is real, and that we are honoring these things in our home first. I realize that as I say this, many of you are not married and perhaps most of you have no children. But hear me, the likelihood of you getting married while you are here is rather high. And there is something in the water in seminary if you are married. You actually tend to have children. Without being too descriptive, it is maybe because you cannot afford to do much else but sit around the house and have children. Love your family. Gentlemen especially, know your wives. Get an “A” in the house and a “C” in Hebrew if you must, but never get a “C” in the house and an “A” in Hebrew even if you can. Love your family.
Love your Call
The third priority is to love your call to ministry. Kindle it afresh again and again. It is a precious and a holy thing you have received. As we admit students, we are looking for academic credentials and boxes that must be checked, but a part of our responsibility is also sifting through—the best we humanly can—to say, “Yes, we believe this person specifically, or to some degree generally, perceives God’s call on their life.” So we look for things like a church affirmation form and personal references that say, “This guy or gal is not perfect, but we believe God’s hand is on them.” Love your call. Kindle it afresh. Never get over the fact that you have been set apart by God unto ministry. Read the Pastoral Epistles frequently. Read through them daily, I would encourage you, because there in I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus especially, you are confronted with verse after verse of what it means to be a minister of Christ. Never get over that. Love your call, privilege your call, guard your call, because most of the people I know that started in the ministry and are no longer in ministry, it is not that they spectacularly, and or scandalously flamed out. Rather, it is that they slowly, incrementally withered away. Yes there are always the tragic stories we read on the internet, newspapers, and periodicals about a person leaving with their church secretary or some other scandalous act like that. It happens way too much. But most people that I know who were once in ministry and are no longer slowly grew cold in their call and that which once seemed so urgent, pristine, right, and noble was gradually undermined by not tending and stewarding that sense of call.
Love your Church
The fourth priority I want to encourage you towards is to love your church. Do not be a hypothetical minister. Love your church now. We exist for the Church. You know that if you have read much about what we have done or seen many of our materials. We are big, bold, and up front about that. Again, that is not a hypothetical church service. I realize—again, I was there not that long ago—the full pressure of jobs and academic studies and the time constrictions that take place. Nonetheless, make sure your church knows your name and you know the people in your church. I do not mean that merely by way of vocational commitment. Many of you are serving in ministry or will serve in ministry. They will even maybe kindly pay you to do it, which is great. But if you are not serving your church in a specific, formal ministry position while you are here, involve your church to the max. Listen carefully, churches love seminary students. They are proud of you; they are glad you are studying for ministry; they want to encourage you; they want to love you; they want to support you. Old people might have you over to their house for lunch if they know you are a seminary student. They might give your kids Christmas presents if they know you are a seminary student. Be there, be exposed to them, and let them be exposed to you. Love your church. One cannot contrive a love for the church. You do not graduate and then all of the sudden say, “I really think I want to go serve the church.” No, that love is being strengthened, emboldened, and burning deeper and deeper day by day. That is our rationale—our purpose—and I trust it is yours as well.
Love your Ministry
Number five, do not only love your church, love your ministry as well. Why did I divide the two? Well, they do not have to be divided, and often times your church is your ministry and your ministry is your church. Many of you will be a part of a church while you are here that may not have a specific ministry position, so you will be there more as a taker. I do not mean that in a bad way, but you are receiving, you are being ministered to in the church context. As you are here preparing for ministry, find a ministry to take up. How did I become a preacher? I preached. How did I become an evangelist? I shared my faith. I did not read a book about how to succeed in ministry. I just sort of intuitively thought, “Well I think God is calling me to ministry, so perhaps I should try to preach and see what happens. I think I enjoy teaching God’s Word, so maybe I should seek out opportunities to teach God’s Word and see what happens.” So I spent several years serving in the oddest contexts because I just wanted to get to preach and serve.
My wife will tell you, we drove a little beat up car every Sunday and Wednesday for months about an hour and a half back to Mobile to serve in a little tiny church in a little dying town. I went many Thursday nights to preach and minister in a prison context and would go bunk to bunk talking about Christ. Some buddies and I would take turns preaching those Thursday nights. No one paid us to do that. Many Sundays, more than I can count, I went in the afternoons to a half-way house ministering to ladies there who were recovering from addictions and men who had troubled pasts as well. No one paid us for that. But what was happening, without even realizing it in that context, is that call to ministry and those abilities to minister were being refined.
By the way, a prison context is a great place to preach a bad sermon. Work your kinks out there; refine yourself there. Do not make your first church a victim of that. I got to preach in places where the people were thrilled to be there because their choices were either to come hear me preach or sit in a bunk and look at prison bars. They came and they were eager to receive, and it was so encouraging to get to do that. Do not wait for a job to compel you to undertake ministry. Undertake ministry now. Learn in the laboratory of life as you also learn in the laboratory of the school room, whether it is your church, a prison, a nursing home, or Sunday school class. Whatever it is, do it now. I cannot say this emphatically enough.
As a kid growing up in Mobile, I had two older brothers and all three of us played college basketball. One of them is considerably taller than I am and the other is about my height, so I think my dad’s college business plan from an early age was to get his boys to play basketball or we were going to have to save money for college. Well, basketball is what we did. We grew up playing sports and my dad encouraged that. He would say this to me 1,000 times when I was 8, 10, 12, and 13-years-old; “You do not walk on the court one day and decide to be a college basketball player when you are 18. It starts now. It starts when you are 12 and you are practicing, it starts when you are 13 and you are competing, it starts when you are 14 in the weight room, it starts when you are 15 and skipping rope, it starts when you are 16 competing in summer leagues. So, when you become 17 or 18 it is not that you are hoping that you will walk on to a college team and they will give you a scholarship. No, they are looking for you. They are coming to your games and giving you letters because over the years you have demonstrated fitness and ability for this.”
Most people who do not transition from seminary into a ministry do the exact opposite. They hang out on the margins of the seminary community. They will not engage in ministry. They play Xbox in their room, and they just dabble in the things of ministry. Then they graduate and they cannot figure out why churches and ministries are not calling them. They get bitter at the Lord, bitter at themselves, and maybe even bitter at the seminary because they say, “I have done a degree but no one is calling me.” Let me tell you something, if you wait to begin to undertake ministry when you already have a degree, you are about three years too late. Not only does that apply to the cultivating of the heart for ministry, and not only does that refine the skills of the hand for ministry, but any pulpit committee, any youth minister search committee, any counseling center, anybody that has two brain cells that connect, before hiring a person out of seminary is going to ask not merely what degree you have, but what ministry you did during seminary. If you cannot say anything except, “I occasionally showed up for church the past three years,” then why in the world would they want to hire you? I wouldn’t. But if you are able to say, “I completed a degree and I am proud of my grades, I worked hard, but what I am really proud of is the fact that I served every Thursday night in the nursing home and I went on a mission trip every summer. I was not a paid staff member at my church because they did not have a budget, but I functioned as a volunteer staff member that worked with the youth every week.” You show me a person like that and I will show you person who has about a 99.9% placement rate. Love your ministry. Do not be a hypothetical minister. Be a minister now.
Love the Seminary Community
Sixth, prioritize loving the seminary community. If you are here, you have an incredible leg up. By the way, if you are here, you are here—astute observation. We are one of the top ten largest seminaries in North America, which is an incredible stat when you think about it. The average accredited seminary in North America has about 150 students. We have about 1,500. At the same time, we are a family here. If you are on this campus much, you know there are not thousands and thousands of people. There are hundreds of people. There are not 3,000 people in chapel. There are a couple hundred people. I say that to say, we have the resources and the infrastructure as a major institution to bring to you the amenities, experiences, and opportunities of any institution on the planet, but we are small enough to bring those to you not while you are a cork bobbing in an ocean of students that cannot get recognized and no one knows your name. We bring those to you with a small church feel. Any chapel speaker you want to meet after chapel, you can walk up to and do it. Any guest lecture speaker who you want to shake their hand and get to know them, you can do it. Any professor you want to drink coffee with, I promise you, you can do it. And if they tell you no, tell me, and they will tell you yes. We build that culture here. You can do it. I want to posture this school in such a way that any lack of gaining anything from this seminary is your fault, not ours. Do not let it be your fault. Take advantage of every lecture, take advantage of chapel, build those relationships and friendships of life. The professors will know your name, so get to know theirs. You will have experiences here that you can have nowhere else and I promise you, you will be blessed by those. When you look at our spring chapel schedule and see what we are doing, you will see there is some incredible stuff there, and it is only going to get better because I am determined to bring the best people on the planet here to supplement what I believe to be the best faculty on the planet. You can gain from that. Love the seminary community. Hang out here, especially in the summer, spring, and fall when it is so conducive to being outside. Let your kids play. Interact.
Love your Studies
Seventh, prioritize your studies. That is seventh. It is not first, second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth. It is seventh for a reason. I have a Ph.D. degree, but I still put that in this order very intentionally. It is important or it would not be on my list. There are hundreds of things that can be on this list. It is not the most important, but it is very important. I wish I were looking at a room full of people who, when they got a “B” in a class and not an “A,” or a “C” in a class though they had the gifting to get a “B,” it was because they were so committed to their family and church that they just did not have any other margin. Of course, that is usually not the case. It is that they are watching Monday Night Football so they are not studying for their Hebrew quiz on Tuesday or they are playing a game or hanging out with people or whatever they are doing, something that is rather lazy so that they are not as committed as they should be.
Within the context of loving Christ, loving family, loving your call, loving your church, loving your ministry, loving and taking advantage of this community—after all, you did move here to study—get your degree. Do your best. We say, “Prepare for three years so that you are prepared for 30 years.” Those are wise words. Take advantage of it. Let me tell you, theological education is like putting money in the bank—compound interest takes place. You will never have a season of life quite like this. You have made some commitment to move, to get here to do it, and subconsciously or consciously you have structured your life to be able to access this, to get training, to get equipped. The rest of your life I pray that you are a life-long learner, always reading, thinking, and growing. But usually that is, frankly, a bit of accruing interest. Think with me in economic terms. Let’s say you worked a sales job for three years knowing that you can make as much money as you want for the three years as long as you worked as hard as you could. Whatever you make for those three years you could put in the bank and make interest on it. Let’s say you worked like crazy for three years and made $1,000,000,000. You said, “I’m going to work 80 hours a week for 3 years, I’m going to get all of this money in the bank and then I can invest it and live off that interest for as long as I am alive.” Or you said, “I am going to yawn, hang out, and be complacent, and I am only going to make $100,000 in these three years.” You will get a little bit of interest off that the rest of your life, but it is not going to be nearly as much. I want to encourage you to be like the former. Think—to borrow an analogy from the economic world—accrue, build, stockpile. As you build that reservoir, as you dig those wells, as you stack that warehouse, you draw from that as long as you are in ministry and the benefit you draw year by year will far out-strip the guy to your left or the gal to your right who is here with the same IQ and same abilities, but who was not intentional about it. You have a leg up on them, on everyone else, and on your otherwise lazy self, as you do that. So, love your studies.
Love this Season
Eighth, love this season of time. I have intimated this sort of already. This should be a really fun season for you. There are a lot of young faces in here. You have friends here. You are building relationships, making friends, accessing campus event. There is an old saying about college—you are old enough to make your own decisions, but you are not so old you are held accountable for them. That is a funny saying about college and it is not true here because we are going to hold you accountable and in ministry you have a track record now. You are certainly held accountable for what you do, so do nothing stupid. But you are in that unique season. You are an adult, but you are still learning, so there are certain graces and margins you have that you will not have in other seasons. Many of our best friends in life we met in seminary, we keep up with and are held accountable with. Take advantage of that.
Love your Time
Ninth and finally, love your time. You say, “What does that have to do with the previous eight?” It has everything to do with it because every one of the previous eight has something to do with time—your family, your walk with Christ, campus events, your church, your ministry, your studies, your time. I learned many years ago, and if I have any word of ultimate, final wisdom to put a bow on this, it is this—to treat my time as miserly as I can. I hoard it. I am like a miser with my time. I think strategically about every minute of my day, every hour of my day, what I do when, how I do it, where I go, where I do not go. I am a miser when it comes to my time because if I am going to approximate faithfulness in family, in Christ, in my church, in my preaching, in my writing, in my personal stewardship and relationships here on this campus, the only way I can begin to approximate the type of fruitfulness I want is through time, through careful time stewardship. What you find is, you will never have more time margin that what you have right now. I think we can say that at any season of life, because I think there is a diminishing aspect of time you have. Each year you have less time. Obviously, ultimately you are closer to meeting Jesus this year than you were last year, but even practically how it feels because each year you have more relationships than you did the year before. You tend to accrue more responsibilities than you did the year before. You tend to have more children, not less, if you have a family, and as those kids get older, they do not go to bed at 7:30 anymore, they go to bed at 10:30. The different commitments build, and build, and build. Do not fall into the trick of thinking, “After seminary, then I will become the man of God I need to be, then I will become the husband I need to be, then I will become the wife I need to be, then I will learn to serve my church as I need to.” Build those structural disciplines and commitments now. Sure, it will take different contours, flesh itself out in different ways, and flow in different areas over the years, but build those structures now thorough priorities, disciplines, and patterns so that you are set up for optimal faithfulness going forward.
My mind goes back to that road up I-65 that we took and I shared about at the beginning of our time together. I still remember, so vividly, us loading up that U-Haul and going, the optimism we had, the anticipation we had, and the Lord seeing us through that time with kind providence after kind providence. That was not the last time we drove I-65. We drove I-65 many times over twelve years. Two or three times a year we would go home for Christmas, vacation, weddings, or funerals, so we knew I-65 well. It was 635 miles from Louisville to Mobile for us. We knew it backwards and forwards. We knew where every Chick-fil-A exit was, we knew where every rest area was, so we had our little system down. I am one of these real task-oriented people. So we would take the 635-mile drive, and we would always do it in one day. We would leave early in the morning. I would tell my wife, “Sweetheart, whether you need it or not, I will give you one stop along the way.” I’m kidding; we stopped more than once sometimes. We would drive down the road and we had all of the kids in the back, and a long road trip. It is a long day and we knew that at exit 247 there is a Chick-fil-A there if we wanted to stop for lunch and exit 351 is BBQ if we wanted to stop there and literally, we knew where this stuff was because we had done it. And we made an ongoing decision, do we want to stop at this exit? Because if we do not, it will be another hour before there is an exit we really want to stop at to eat or where our kids can play and burn some energy. We found ourselves negotiating these stops in our mind and in conversation and choosing.
That is a metaphor for life. There are only so many exit ramps in life and ministry. Frankly, there are remarkably few. They tend to be when you are saved, called to ministry, when you get married, or when you have a first kid and it prompts you to really evaluate. They tend to be when you start a new ministry serving a church or go to a different locale of service. As I look back in my time on this globe, the exit ramp for me going to seminary proved to be a big one. I did not even fully understand all of that then. But my prayer is for you that it will be a big one. You have chosen to study, you have chosen to prepare, you have chosen to come. I don’t know when your next exit ramp is going to be when you are going to be prompted to evaluate, reflect, prioritize, reprioritize, and intentionally think of life, time resources, and ministry. I do not know when your next one will be, but I know this—I am determined, to the best of my ability, to make this moment one of those. I want to challenge and encourage you: get the most out of seminary. Make sure you do not miss a life exit ramp as you are here and that you leave this place when a degree is done, knowing there is really no ultimate regret, but knowing you have been prepared during a season for a life of ministry.
I am so grateful to God that you are here. I want to know each one of you. I want to know your name, your story, and your kids if you have them. I want you to feel comfortable on this campus. I want you to feel comfortable to stop by my office. I have an open-door policy. Do not get too excited though, I am rarely in it, but I do have an open door policy and I want you to stop by any time. I would certainly love to hear your story better. We want to serve you. We are here for you. We are here for the Church and the way we transact that commitment to the church is by investing in men and women who are called to serve the church. You are a blessing to me, you are an encouragement for me to see, and we desire to do that for you.topicsOther