“Don’t be a ‘dropout.’” As a young aspiring minister-in-training, I remember hearing this caution frequently – and annoyingly – as I packed my belongings and headed to seminary. “Many seminarians are not even in full-time ministry anymore after 10 years,” I was warned. “Don’t be like them.”
For me, the warning functioned almost as a “Hebrews 6-like” threat: “Once you have tasted of the heavenly gifts of ministerial training and then fall away from the ministry, it is impossible to be restored again.”
Now, exactly how many former seminarians are out of full-time ministry after 10 years is unclear. But what is indisputable is that, with the number of students obtaining ministry degrees these days – whether from seminaries or from Christian colleges and divinity schools like Anderson University where I teach – we undoubtedly have large numbers of “trained up” people who aren’t actively participating in full-time vocational ministry, though many serve in a wide range of leadership and service roles in their churches.
I can’t tell you how many times, though, I meet people in my limited travels, who say, “Oh, I went to seminary as well, but I’m not in ministry anymore.”
Many reasons exist for such a turn of events in a former seminarian’s life – anything from a change of calling to bad experiences in church, difficult domestic issues or moral missteps. But I fear that the result is that many have experienced discouragement and depression from within and cold shoulders and condescension from without. Indeed, some in this category may be reading this article.
What can we say to and do for this neglected, forgotten and often snubbed subcategory of “former seminarians”?
First, if you are in this category, I would say to take encouragement. Every situation and story of a former seminarian is different, but just because you are not in active full-time ministry does not mean that you are in disobedience against God. For every one “Jonah,” there are many more Jims and Jennys who have honestly been led in different directions by God.
For instance, women seminarians who are now “just” stay-at-home mothers have told me they feel a tinge of guilt because people have said they are not “using” their training in a church or ministry-related vocation. False. My wife falls into this category, and I try to encourage her regularly that she is using her ministry gifts in the primary mission field divinely granted to us as parents – the home.
Second, see ministerial training as a stewardship. Receiving specific instruction in Bible, theology, ministry, leadership and counseling is a gift from God. And while you may not be using that gift in the manner that other Christians deem normative, you still have a responsibility and privilege to use it in a manner that glorifies God and serves the church. Lead a small group. Lead your family. Lead a life of evangelism and gospel fervor. I know as a pastor, I would love to have a congregation full of theologically trained laypeople.
So, third, similarly, if you are a pastor and have “former seminarians” in your congregation, seek them out. Encourage rather than exclude. Provide them opportunities to teach and serve. Use their gifts. You have a stewardship as a shepherd of the resources God has provided your church.
Finally, for former seminarians, be open to where God may lead in the future. Just because you are not in full-time ministry now does not mean that you are forever banned. Always be prayerful and watchful for new opportunities to use your gifts and training.
In the meantime, use those gifts of ministerial training, wherever God places you, as “Soldiers of Christ in truth arrayed.” Being a “full-time” disciple of Christ is just as important as being a “full-time” vocational minister.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bryan Cribb is associate professor of Christianity and chair of undergraduate Christian studies at Anderson University in Anderson, S.C.)