I entered Duke Divinity in the fall of 2006 with aspirations higher than the spires that donned Duke Chapel. Armed with the knowledge that God had called me here and emboldened by the affirmations of others confirming the same, I was determined to make my mark in seminary. I was blessed to be offered a student pastorate position which convinced me further of my duty to transform the world. In the four years it would take me to get my Mdiv I knew that with some hard work and a little luck I would turn a rural Methodist student pastor parish into a thriving, racially integrated, progressive congregation. By year three we would most likely need to rebuild in order to fit all the worshipers hungry for my erudite sermons, install a professional kitchen to feed the hungry and homeless and increased acreage to manage a community garden. All this while reading every book my professors assigned, writing papers that would no doubt get published in theological journals and wowing my homiletics professor into begging me to preach at chapel.
Needless to say, my seminary career was an epic fail. The scene my family and friends were forced to watch looked, I imagine, like Lucifer falling from heaven. I was run out of town three months shy of finishing my four year appointment. My diploma, granted only because of the graciousness of professors allowing me to finish coursework via correspondence, was mailed to me.
Given all of this it seems strange that I would be writing to you about how to make the most of your time at seminary. Many of my friends and colleagues seemed to manage it well enough without succumbing to the darkness pride left unchecked inevitably brings. Their advice would be well worth heeding. Had I to do it all over again, however, I hope I would be smart enough to listen to the one thing I’m convinced is most necessary:
There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her (Luke 10:42, NLT).
That one thing Mary discovered was total abandonment and devotion to Jesus. Seminary will afford you all sorts of opportunities to do, do, do and learn, learn, learn. No doubt these things are important and have their place, but none of them will be more important than the care of your soul. You are entering into a time of life which is a tremendous gift. You are being granted an opportunity to prepare for ministry through fellowship with other like-minded (and not so like-minded) disciples while reading the best books written about God and learning from the best teachers about God. But all of it will be for naught if you are not daily subordinating all of it to the time you spend at the Master’s feet, learning to adore him more and more.
The great Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said “The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.” I learned this lesson the hard way since getting my Mdiv, and have discovered it’s reality in the church I’m now privileged to serve. The people you will one day shepherd will not care what grade you got in church history or how many papers you had selected for peer review. They will care, however, about how well you know the Good Shepherd and that the authority from which you speak each Sunday comes not from book, but heart knowledge.
To do this one simple thing – stay in love with Jesus – will appear to be the obvious and natural thing to do while in seminary, but it is not. That there is even a Martha in the story above is evidence enough that there is a way to be in the presence of Jesus (a good thing) but going about it wrongly.
We need seminaries full of eager students dying to become holy, who are growing in love of God and neighbor, who will answer “yes” with humble authority that they are indeed going on to perfection. We need churches full of Mary’s, leading from a soul saturated less from a healthy GPA but more from the aroma of being with Christ. May God richly bless you and keep you on the journey ahead, and may you never lose the awe of Him who called you there.