One of my students graduated recently from Palm Beach Atlantic University, and he is heading into seminary and then the pastorate. He took a full platter of classes from me, and we had excellent discussions in and outside the classroom. As a graduation gift, his girlfriend asked another professor and me to write him a letter, passing on “words of wisdom” to a rising seminarian. Having attended seminary myself (Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois for my M.Div. as well as M.A. in philosophy of religion) and having served on the pastoral staff of a church in upstate New York, I wanted to pass on to him what has, by God’s grace, stood me in good stead over the years.
I had just one page to get all of this onto PBA stationery, but, as Shakespeare said, “’Tis better to be brief than tedious.” So if you’re interested, you can look over my shoulder to see what I wrote.
I was asked to pass along some “words of wisdom” in light of your graduation from PBA and new start in seminary. I’m certainly honored to do so, as it’s been a joy to have you as a student in my classes and to know you as a brother in Christ. You have stood out above your peers not only in your gifts, intellect, and eagerness to learn, but also—and most importantly—in your dedication to Christ. May you ever pursue Him with pure, simple devotion and cultivate your gifts for His glory.
As you go on for further pastoral training, continue to develop Christ-oriented, soul-shaping habits outside the classroom. Seminary students often neglect spiritual nourishment, falsely assuming that doing homework in biblical studies and theology will suffice. Meanwhile, their spirit shrivels or, at best, becomes stunted. So that the Word of Christ becomes deeply embedded within, make time for Scripture memorization, meditation, and prayer. I suggest reading through the Bible each year—in addition to specific book or topical study. Be a Scripture-saturated pastor and pilgrim! And set time aside for reading insightful, stimulating books to keep your horizons broadened and your mind sharp. Let these priorities become a pattern for life.
Seminary has been a snare to many a would-be pastor and theologian, pride perhaps being the greatest danger. A classic for all seminarians is Helmut Thielicke’s An Exercise for Young Theologians. In it he writes, “Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession.” With increased knowledge comes greater temptation to pride. An important theme that has been something of a motto in my life is, “Walk humbly before God and others.” May it be yours as well. Personal experience has been a good instructor here: As I look back on my own pilgrimage, I have moved away from certain strongly-held theological positions during college and even seminary days (all within Christian orthodoxy). Be prepared for and open to such changes. Beyond this, the heart of theology is not the accumulation or systematization of propositions, but humble worship and wise living, at whose heart is love for God and others.
The Pastoral Epistles are a rich, vital resource to reflect on and to help guide you through the challenges of ministry—and there will be many. Paul told Timothy: “in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:12). During my early college years, I began to cultivate the habit of mental purity (adultery begins—or is stopped—in the mind). As someone has said, “You can’t help the first look, but the second one is yours.” Vigilantly guarding your thought-life will preserve you and (when you marry) will also be a precious gift to your wife.
Other “words of wisdom”—without much elaboration—are these: Be a good listener. Don’t burn bridges. Make every effort to relate to people from different cultures, walks of life, and socio-economic backgrounds. Give the benefit of the doubt to others as much as possible. Don’t be quick to judge, recognizing that “those people” strongly resemble you (and me) in all the weaknesses and frailties that come with our condition (Heb. 5:2); it’s easier to hold others to a higher standard than we apply to ourselves. Be quick to forgive. Remember how sinful you are and how gracious God is. Live in His grace by the Spirit’s enabling; legalism is a deadly trap. Be bold in praying for physical healing and other manifestations of the Spirit’s power. Show magnanimity to those who may not like you or the way you do things—and even learn from your critics. Be winsome and encouraging in your speech. Guard against anything that can mar your character, your Christian reputation, and (most importantly) the cause of Christ. Your life will be a living letter, known and read by others (2 Cor. 3:2).
I pray that these reflections and lessons, which have benefited me, will be of some assistance to you as you journey on with the Lord.
May Christ’s grace and peace go with you—and keep in touch!