What They Don’t Teach You in Seminary, Part 2: Personal Repentance

What They Don’t Teach You in Seminary, Part 2: Personal Repentance

by Jack King

Image courtesy of enchiner1 via Flickr.com; Creative Commons 2.0

Image courtesy of enchiner1 via Flickr.com; Creative Commons 2.0

There is no theology apart from experience; it is necessary to change, to become a new man.’ –Vladmir Lossky ‘If you are a theologian, you truly pray; if you truly pray you are a theologian.’—Evagrius Ponticus If you visit any seminary website, schools will speak about the importance of spiritual life for their students. They must do this. They are a seminary, after all. Most seminaries emphasize the importance of chapel services and spiritual formation groups, encouraging the devotional life of their students beyond their intellectual formation in the classroom. But does that mean seminaries produce young leaders with wise and discerning hearts, ready to serve the Church after graduation? It certainly didn’t for me. But that’s more an indictment on me than a massive failure of the seminaries I attended.

Seminary: A Place for Sinners Like Me

The array of students that attend seminaries and divinity schools are about as varied as the personalities that you find in a local church. Seminary students attend their studies with different goals in mind. Some are called to priestly ministry in a traditional setting, others to church planting; some are called to global missions, others to youth ministry. Some are called to works of justice and mercy; others to scholarship. All are sinners—forgiven sinners, needing the sanctifying grace of God in their lives. And it was that awareness of my own sin nature that became deadened through my years attending seminary. As I was falling deeper in love with the Scriptures, theology, church history, and liturgy, I didn’t detect the subversive effect of vainglory on my soul. I was more fearful of submitting late or poor papers than I was about developing an arrogant spirit. Second things can become first things in seminary very quickly. This will come as no surprise, but seminary students can become really fired up about what’s wrong with the world and the Church. And I was one of those classic seminary students who fell in love with the beauty of God, speaking passionately about what I wanted to change in the Church for the sake of the Church’s witness in the world. And the greatest change that needed to happen in the world was my own hubris as a servant of God.

The Most Important Practice in Pastoral Ministry

The most important thing I needed to learn entering seminary was that I am loved in Christ. Thanks to some excellent professors, pastors, and friends, I learned what it means to receive the love of God anew in my own heart. But I needed to learn another fundamental lesson as a future leader—that my personal repentance is the most important work I do in ministry. Through the faithful care of pastors, friends, and spiritual elders in my life after seminary, I had to un-learn the ‘essential’ skills of the priestly craft. They are not erudition, intellection, and omnipresence. The essential skill I had to re-learn is watchfulness of my own heart. Learning to experience holy grief and lamentation in my own heart is essential preparation for leadership in the local church. Unless I grieve and lament my own pride, I will become impatient and unmerciful in my care of others. Unless I mourn my spirit of self-interest, I will be reluctant to take up the cross of Christ as I lead his people in mission. As St Gregory Nazianzen said, ‘It is a great thing to speak of God, but still better to purify oneself for God.’ It has taken me ten years to learn that a pastor’s personal repentance affects all things in his or her ministry. It is a skill which I will never master, but it’s a skill that should have been emphasized each day in seminary.

Speaking a Critique in Love

As I mentioned in my first post of this series, I don’t wish this series to be an ongoing rant about what’s wrong with seminary. Seminary is a brief season of preparation and the broader Church must come alongside new leaders after graduation to encourage lifelong formation into the likeness of Christ. Yet there is a respectful critique I would offer here for academic leaders. When you overwhelm students with unreasonable amounts of reading and writing papers, it diminishes their ability to read prayerfully. When exegesis and translation of biblical languages becomes solely technical, clinical work, expect that students will become inflated by knowledge. That is never a good thing. A sharp mind without a humble heart is not a good combination. Minds may be transformed by excellent arguments, but fascination with theological argument may very well create a fissure between the mind and heart. Though my memory isn’t great after ten years, I do not recall anyone teaching me the practice of self-examination while I read theology. Yet moments of confession and worship should occur regularly while pouring over the Greek New Testament just like they do on Ash Wednesday. Over the past ten years, the Holy Spirit introduced me to saints like St. Peter of Damascus who have shown me a reliable way of learning the craft of pastoral ministry. If only my 24 year-old self could have read and received this counsel:

“We cannot properly understand the full significance of what we read because of the darkness induced by the passions; our presumption often leads us astray, especially when we rely on the wisdom of this world which we think we possess, and do not realize that we need knowledge based on experience to understand these things, and that if we wish to attain the knowledge of God mere reading or listening is not enough. For reading and listening are one thing and experience is another. One cannot become a craftsman simply by hearsay: one has to practice and watch, and make numerous mistakes, and be corrected by those with experience, so that through long perseverance and by eliminating one’s own desires one eventually masters the art.” (Philokalia, vol. 3, p. 92)

Students need teachers who embody Evagrius Ponticus’ ancient wisdom that ‘a theologian is one who truly prays.’

Seek the Gift of Tears

I don’t remember many ordinary days in seminary, but when I think back on the ordinary days that stand out, I recall the days when my professors were moved to tears. I will never forget Dr. Sandy Richter telling us the heartbreaking narrative of Jeremiah calling Israel to repent in the very moment of her removal from Jerusalem. I recall Dr. Chuck Gutenson jettisoning the lecture schedule for the day to linger in the heartache of Rich Mullins’ music, a musician who spoke of Christ’s love for human beings on the margins of society. I’m not hoping for more emotive professors in seminary. Every day can’t be moving and memorable. But I pray that seminary students will be formed by teachers, both in seminary and beyond, who are also being purified and transformed in their own hearts. Throughout the Church’s history, our best spiritual teachers have taught that holy tears are a sign of God’s purifying work in our hearts. The desert fathers especially speak about ‘the gift of tears.’ Tears are a gift because they heal our vision. St. Peter of Damascus said, ‘He who has been purified of the passions through inward grief perceives the hidden mysteries in all the Scriptures and is astonished by them all.’ Is there any more important trait for a spiritual leader? That is why I’m learning from the saints the importance of seeking the gift of tears. The most important prayer I can pray is, ‘Lord, grant me the grace to see my own sins clearly.’ I will get many things wrong in pastoral ministry. I pray that I will not neglect the pursuit of Christlikeness in my own heart. It is the treasure hidden in the field and it will take a lifetime to acquire this treasure. It is the best gift one can give to the church he serves. Why wouldn’t that be the goal of every seminary student from day one?

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