My new friend from the Work In Progress blog who comments here frequently asked me an honest question recently, which reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I was somewhat judgmental as a pastor before my fall. I also discovered that I was self-righteous. I think those two things go hand in hand. After talking to several other fallen pastors from across the country, I’ve discovered that these qualities are very common. Let me give you some back story before I explain that.
When I got the call to ministry, the logical step for me was to attend seminary. I attended a very conservative Southern Baptist seminary. I didn’t have a strong religious educational background except for what I had learned in Sunday School and a few undergraduate religious classes.
I went to seminary with the expectation it would prepare me for a pastoral career. I hoped it would get me ready to minister as I learned practically how to care for people. That a Master of Divinity would transform me into the man of God who magically knew how to pastor a congregation.
Let me give you a quick disclaimer. I don’t have a problem with seminary. I loved my seminary and I’d do it all over again. I’ll get to what went wrong in a minute.
I got a seminary education bereft of spiritual formation. Now, listen to what I’m saying first. It was ultimately my fault that I didn’t get the spiritual benefit. There were about four to six practical classes in the whole mix. They urged us on several occasions to make sure we were part of a good church where we were getting fed. They told us that seminary education was no replacement for spiritual growth. They told us that sermon preparation was not the same as edification for our soul.
Got that part.
But during an 18 hour class schedule, most students don’t take the time to do the spiritual work.
There were professors who made you do the spiritual work. I had several professors who forced us to do written quiet times and reflect on certain passages and hand them in on a daily basis. I’m still not sure what to think of that, but their hearts were in the right place.
Here was where I failed. And this is tough for me to write, but I write it hoping it will help someone else out there, because I know there are some out there who will benefit from it. So here goes.
The first day of seminary, they herded us into a room to do some preliminary testing to see if we needed some extra classes. One of the PhD students addressed all of us newbies: “50% of you will not graduate. Of those of you who do, 50% of you will not make it past the first two years of ministry.”
I pondered why 50% of seminary students didn’t make it through. I found out in a hurry. Most of them said they couldn’t afford it anymore. That wasn’t the truth, though. I found out for myself.
Seminary is made up of a lot of factual information. Theology. History. Ecclesiology. Hermeneutics. So forth. A lot of stuff that I had never heard. It was stuff that challenged my own beliefs. My own system of thought. It challenged my faith.
Can you believe that? That in seminary they would challenge your beliefs? (That was sarcasm.)
In my early second year, it got so bad for me that I was questioning the existence of God. Honestly. We were learning so much, so fast that our heads were swimming. It was more than a lot of people could take. More than I could almost take.
When I talked to students who were leaving, I’d ask them, “Why are you really leaving?” When I got past the first five minutes of, “I can’t afford this anymore,” they’d finally say, “I just miss the old time religion. When things were simple.”
Their faith had been challenged too severely.
I’d encourage them to stay and work it out. But they’d leave. It was tough. It was tough for me.
Obviously, I finally worked it out. But my faith had been shaken to the core. But I probably didn’t work it out the way I should have. From the moment I “worked it out,” I began to “study” God. No longer did I have the same reverence for God, but I looked at God like a thing to be studied and not a God to be worshipped.
It was an easy thing to do, too. Especially in an environment when all you do is study. When all you do is break down the atonement, theories of the fall, whether you’re a trichotomist or dichotomist, argue over open membership vs. closed membership, study the history of church thought, examine document sources, read the Puritans, study and debate ethics, and fade away to sleep every night with a 20 pound book on your chest due for discussion the next day.
What’s even worse is that hardly anyone at seminary is immune from “studying” God. There were super seminary students who kept it all together. They did. They kept their spiritual level high while grinding out the papers. I don’t know how.
You know what happens when you study God like that? Even if you don’t mean to? A horrible thing begins to happen to your soul. You begin to think you’re a little better than people who aren’t seminary trained. That’s called self-righteousness.
Some of you who read this who went to seminary may disagree. That’s fine. You may not have had the same experience. God love you. I’m glad you didn’t. Seminary doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. But it has this effect on a lot of people. And again, seminary doesn’t necessarily do this to people. But if self-discipline isn’t enacted, it’ll happen.
Case in point, seminary students had a reputation at local churches. Especially in Sunday School classes. People from the town had the feeling and generalization that seminary students were arrogant know-it-alls. Now where would they get that idea?
From the handful of students who felt that a seminary education made them better than the general public. They showed up at these churches, sat in their Sunday School classes, told the layman teacher why they were wrong every Sunday and got cocky about it. A rotten apple spoils the whole bunch. That’s why a lot of the churches had “Seminary Classes.” Not to cater to the seminary students, but to get them out of general population.
Heck, I was the same way. I had a first-class Southern Baptist education and I let it be known. I wasn’t flaunting it, but sometimes, I had the need to be arrogant about it.
But I should have exercised humility. Especially in public. Especially in my ministry later. Especially in life.
Next time I’ll talk about the long-term effects of the self-righteous behavior I learned and really where it all started for me.