Regular readers of this blog have by now figured out that I harbor more than a passing interest in the study of theology. Although I first professed Christ as a young child and have always been an active church member, my interest in theological study did not begin until I developed a greater interest in reading generally after my first year as a university student. By my mid-twenties I had begun taking in some fairly heavy works, and just before my thirtieth birthday I began a certificate program in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary via distance learning, which I completed in less than two years. At present my theological library rivals those that I have seen in some pastors’ studies, and I have written and published small theological and devotional articles and reviews not only on this blog but in a few magazines and journals. With this evident interest and aptitude, a few years ago I began to seriously question whether I should abandon my present career and enroll as a full-time seminary student, and then seek to become a pastor.
There were some definite benefits of pastoral ministry that appealed to me. As a university professor in the performing arts, being a conservative Calvinist puts me in a very different place philosophically, politically, and socially than many of my colleagues and students. Conversely, my fellow church members do not always understand exactly what it is that I do for a living and why it matters. The idea of ceasing the straddling of two worlds that I sometimes felt and still feel was appealing. Also contributing to my consideration was the impact of state budget cuts at the regional university where I was teaching at the time. A part of me seriously began to wonder whether our Lord would use the elimination of my teaching position to push me into the seminary.
I read—and re-read—a little book entitled Called to the Ministry by Edmund P. Clowney, a volume intended for men evaluating whether or not they may be called of God to enter the pastorate. Clowney does not mince words, stating that “The call of the Word of God to the gospel ministry comes to ALL those who have the gifts for such a ministry.” (79) Examining my own self, and knowing myself to be possessed of at least some aptitude in theological matters, I continued to wonder whether Clowney’s challenge was indeed applicable to me. I even began to inquire into the possibility of transferring the eighteen credits I had earned at PRTS to the Jackson campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, which is near my hometown.
Still, seeking further counsel, I contacted Dr. Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and the professor for the courses I had taken in systematics. He kindly agreed to speak with me via telephone, and in that conversation confirmed that he believed, based upon my academic work at the seminary, that I had the necessary theological aptitude for seminary work and perhaps the pastorate. But, he asked me another question: Could I do something else? Could I stay out of the pastorate and still be content with life as a Christian layman, pursuing my secular profession for the glory of God? If the answer was yes, his counsel was that I continue my current career rather than abandon everything and enter the seminary. Dr. Beeke reminded me of how often Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), that great British preacher, so often invoked the Apostle Paul’s statement “woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16) If I could not say the same, if I could sleep at night without immediately setting out to become a pastor, then full-time ministry was likely not for me.
I was taken aback by Dr. Beeke’s counsel, but appreciated his honesty. After all, had I left the secular academy to study for the pastorate and attended PRTS the institution he headed would gain several thousand dollars in tuition. Still, I think his counsel was wise and correct. Enjoying the study of theology does not alone make a pastor. Those men entrusted with the care of souls must also be able and prepared to bring that theology to bear upon the lives of real people, in their preaching, prayers, and counsel. People with real problems, real challenges, real fears, real conflicts, and real sins. It is a high and difficult task to which the pastor is called, not a life of ease and leisure as some folks sometimes think. Sure, the work is not physically draining most of the time, but intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually it is a daunting task, not at all for the faint of heart, or those not called by God to it. I found the prospect of time in the pastor’s study very appealing, but was I ready for the real work of ministry? Perhaps not.
Should I have been a pastor? I’m certainly thankful that I did not enter the seminary just out of the university at age 22 (nor had I even thought about it at that time). Having been blessed with several pastors in my life that were either second-career men or bivocational, I can say from my own observations that those men who enter the pastorate after some time in the “real world” bring a maturity and perspective to their work that the younger men sometimes (though certainly not always) lack. After experiencing a great deal of blessing on my work as a musician and teacher in the four years since my serious consideration of pastoral ministry, I am confident that remaining in my current vocation was the correct decision, though I remain ready to serve the church in whatever capacity I might be called. And I still enjoy sitting behind my keyboard and sharing my ruminations with the tens of people that read my writings on theological topics. (Seriously, statistically the articles about music receive many times the number of views that the ones about theological topics do.)
And yet, that nascent desire for the pastorate lurks in the back of my mind, and sometimes comes out for a bit of fresh air. I have every intention of remaining in my current vocation until I retire; it is a challenging and fulfilling one, to be sure. But, who knows, besides the Lord Himself?