By Dr. Jeff Blair
I want to encourage you to complete your education. I hope to show you why you should and how you can. Here are six strategies to finish your studies while “up to your armpits” in ministry.
Strategy One: Feel the Weight
I was only 23 when I first stepped foot on the campus of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1999. Each student received a copy of The Religious Life of the Theological Student by the Princeton theologian, B. B. Warfield, who said:
“Learning, though indispensable, is not the most indispensable thing for a minister…Before and above being learned, a minister must be godly.”1
Warfield was right, and this is the big idea of his speech: godliness is the indispensable attribute of the pastor. As Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” However, Warfield also went to great pains to contend Christian pastors must be capable teachers (1 Timothy 3:2). This is so central to the Christian mission that it is embedded in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) where Jesus commanded the apostles to “make disciples” (mathēteysate) and “teach” (didaskontes) what they had learned from Him. This math-root2 is a crucial concept throughout Matthew. In 11:28-29, Jesus invited hearers to “come to me…and learn (mathete) from me.” Many who learned from Jesus continued their education until they were fully trained and able to handle the whole Word of God skillfully. “Every scribe who has been trained (mathēteutheis) for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (13:52). In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher who invites disciples (learners) to come and learn (11:28-29) until they are fully trained (13:52) and able to teach others (28:18-20). This is central to His invitation and commission.
I hear an objection: “What about Acts 4:13? The Bible says the disciples were ‘unlearned and ignorant’ men.” The authorities quoted here did not mean Peter and John were illiterate ignoramuses. Their words simply indicate that Peter and John were what rabbis called am ha’aretz or “people of the land.”3 They were ordinary laymen with no degrees from accredited schools or impressive diplomas. The people said the same thing about Jesus, their master: “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” (John 7:15).
To be under the impression Peter and John were uneducated is no trivial error. These men had, in fact, recently completed the most thorough theological education in history. For three years they enrolled full-time in the seminary of the Messiah-Savior-Son of God. It took me three years to complete a Master of Divinity degree; the apostles spent three years at the feet of the Divine Master. Here’s the point: Christian ministers must be pastor-scholar-theologians, and pastors cannot fulfill the Great Commission according to Jesus unless they have first learned.
Moses was a man of remarkable learning, trained as a sage in Egypt.4 Paul was a certified scholar, instructed at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and may have additionally spent the first decade or so of his Christian life in study, reflection, and meditation in preparation for his missionary ministry (Galatians 1:14).5 Moses and Paul, the most prodigious of Old and New Testament authors, were men of exceptional formal education. Still, both felt the great weight of the work God had given them. Moses wondered, “Who am I?” (Exodus 3:11). Paul questioned whether he was sufficient for “these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16b). Their competence did not come from scholarship, as Warfield argues, but they could not have accomplished their mission without education.
I will never forget my ordination at Sulphur First FWB Church in 1999. I knelt at the altar, and men I respected laid their hands upon me: Keith Burden, Thomas Marberry, Timothy Eaton, Brad Ransom, and Darryn McGee, among others. I thought I’d be crushed. That moment continually reminds me of the weight of the gospel ministry with which I’ve been entrusted. I do not want to be weighed and found wanting because of a lack of learning.
It is possible, of course, with tremendous discipline in reading and study to learn without getting a degree, and I thank God for those faithful individuals who have done so; but it’s rare. Today’s pastor must be prepared to engage the culture intelligently on a bewildering range of issues.
When you’ve been convinced to start or continue your education, what next?
Strategy Two: Find the Right Fit
Not all schools, programs, or professors are created equal, so it’s crucial to first find the right fit.
Find the right fit theologically. Our own denomination has excellent institutions, and these should be considered first. This is especially true for undergraduate studies. It’s critical to establish a sound foundation for theological education. Also, the younger you are, physically and spiritually, the closer you ought to stay to your own tradition. Consider countless cautionary tales of the forfeited faith of young scholars who attended institutions that led them from the truth. It’s always good to ask a scholar you trust if a particular school is a good fit at this point in your faith journey.
Find the right fit for your purpose. What is your goal? To teach? To enhance ministry skills? What do you want from your degree? Make sure the school and degree you pursue fit the calling you have received. Verify that the program you choose will properly equip you and open doors to ministry opportunities or subsequent degrees.
Find the right fit in the professor. For graduate and post-graduate degrees especially, choose to study under somebody. The person is more important than the institution. I chose my doctoral program primarily because of the professor. On the first day of class at Northern Seminary, doctoral students in my class were asked why we chose the program. Every student replied, “Scot McKnight.” Truthfully, I had never heard of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. (I later learned it is where Leroy Forlines completed a bachelor’s degree in 1962.) But I knew that the concentration—New Testament Context—and, more importantly, the professor, were a perfect fit for me.
Find the right fit financially. Choose a school you can afford. When I attended Southwestern Seminary, the school offered no tuition loans because they did not want ministry graduates saddled with debt. If it was the Lord’s will to attend, the school reasoned, He would provide. I’m not exactly advocating that position; education is a good investment. However, I do counsel you to count the cost up front (Luke 14:27-33). The best-case scenario is to find a benefactor, either your church (the church I’ve pastored 17 years paid for my doctorate, for which I’m eternally grateful) or someone else with both the heart and means to help fund your education.
Finally, find the right format. These days, many educational options are available: online, livestream, cohort, on campus, everything-in-between, and combinations of the above. For my M.Div., my wife Jennie and I were like the Clampetts of Beverly Hillbillies fame; we loaded up and moved to Fort Worth for three years. During my D.Min., I traveled to Chicago twice a year for one-week intensives, studying at home the rest of the time.
Strategy Three: Enlist Optimistic Supporters
When it comes to completing your education, it is not good to be alone. Cheerleaders and truth-speakers are critically important. The best-case scenario is to find a friend to go through the program with you. This is a benefit of the cohort model. If you don’t start with a friend, it doesn’t take long to develop deep friendships within the cohort. My doctoral cohort from Northern is still dear to me. Friendships with professors and classmates spurred us on to finish together.
Be intentional to enlist people who will encourage you to keep going. The first name on the list should be your spouse. Mine kept me from quitting. That’s why the dedication page of my thesis starts as follows: “To Jennie—Your love, patience, and prayers have made this possible. You are the consummate אשה חכמה, ‘wise woman’” (2 Samuel 14:2; 20:16).
The support of other family members was indispensable as well. If you minister in a church, get your leadership involved. Encouragement from deacons, elders, and other church leaders makes a tremendous difference. Explain why continuing your training is important to the mission of the Kingdom. Locust Grove encouraged me every step of the way, even allowing me to take a six-week retreat at a critical moment to finish my program. During my doctoral studies, Terri, Kelli, Phil, and Craig became the MSG (Ministry Support Group). They encouraged and helped me in many ways, and their wisdom was indispensable.
One day, over Mexican food, Dr. Craig Shaw shared the story of how he stayed the course and urged me to finish my degree. It was not just for me, he reasoned, but a labor of love and service to the denomination and the Kingdom. That conversation returned to my mind many times when I wanted to quit.
Paul always kept encouragers close. And, he was nearly paralyzed when alone (2 Corinthians 2:12-13). Scores of co-laborers are listed in Paul’s epistles because even the great apostle needed encouragement. Find the Aaron and Hur to keep your hands lifted. Some days may require friends who not only lift your hands but carry you (Mark 2:3).
Strategy Four: Set Your Face Like Flint
Luke 9:51 says Jesus “set (estērisen) His face” to go to Jerusalem. That’s a Hebrew way of saying He was absolutely resolved to do it (see Isaiah 50:6-9). Set was the word used in Luke 16:26 where Abraham told the rich man in Hades that the chasm has been “fixed,” with no one going from one side to the other. When it comes to finishing our education, we must follow Christ’s example and set our minds to the task with tenacity, grit, and determination.
Luke 9:51 is the turning point in that Gospel. “The people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (9:53). He hadn’t taken a single step before He faced opposition and rejection. Jesus knew long before He arrived in Jerusalem what awaited Him, and it was a long, difficult road. I’m glad He set His face; you can set yours, too.
Strategy Five: Set Aside Seasons for Study
When I began this writing assignment, I asked my fellow doctoral students for their thoughts. Their responses all followed a similar theme:
Dr. Kristen Bennett Marble said, “Think about it in terms of seasons. It won’t always be like this craziness and extra work; it’s for a season and seasons end/change. And grace. Give yourself grace in the process. Some things are going to have to ‘give.’ You can’t simply add a degree program on top of an already-packed schedule/life. What can you share, delegate, or let up on?”
Dr. Doug McPherson advised, “Have a plan to carve out time and space to work. For me, some work was best done in small, steady steps one or two hours at a time. Some tasks really were best done in larger chunks of time away from home or office to minimize interruptions. Know how you work and plan accordingly. I’d tell my wife what I needed in terms of time, and we would schedule big chunks. And I worked hard to make sure that she wasn’t the only one sacrificing time; the church had to give some as well.”
Dr. Amanda Hecht counseled, “Plan ahead; carve out space. I always found that if I was reading and researching that I could fit that in smaller chunks around other things, but when I need to write, I need a longer dedicated space of time. And practice grace toward yourself, for the things you need to delegate or let go for this season.”
Professor Scot McKnight said simply, “Blocks…of time…Tranquility in your family life permits deeper concentration.”
Finally, and most colorfully, Dr. Ben Tertin recommended, “Take a for-real Sabbath every week. And don’t try to ‘get it done’ ASAP so you can get on with real life; go slow, like the turtle carefully eating all the nutritious food while the rabbit runs over that food and straight off a cliff…into a lava pit.”
My church gave me several weeks off to finish my dissertation and time away from the office to study at home. The deacons and others took up the slack in preaching, visiting, and other pastoral responsibilities.
Strategy Six: Finish the Race
Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This point is directed toward those who think it’s too late to start. Consider Rabbi Aqiva, the first century teacher considered the greatest Torah scholar of his day. Aqiva had no formal education until age 40, when he pursued formal schooling in Torah and tradition and spent several years immersed in study. He eventually became an eminent scholar with thousands of disciples.
What drove him to that choice? According to one account, Aquiva observed the hollow worn into stone by constantly dripping of water. He pondered that if drops of water have the power to bore stone, how much more the Torah would change his heart. He immediately turned to the study of the Law (from Tosefta on Avot by Rabbi Nathan).
In the Free Will Baptist movement, many of our most influential teachers and leaders did not complete their studies until well into their forties or beyond. Keith Burden, my father-in-law, completed his M.A. in Ministry at 49. Dr. Tim Eaton completed his Ph.D. at 53. Dr. Janice Banks, missionary to Japan from 1972-91 and professor of ethics and missions at Randall University, completed her B.A. in 1969, M.A. in 1989, and doctorate in 2009.
In 1996, while I was studying contemporary American history (1945-present), one fellow student was especially helpful. He had been an adult through that entire period of U.S. history. He was in his 80s and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Later, when preaching a revival at a local Free Will Baptist church, I learned he was a member.
As you decide what to do about schooling, whether to take the first step or to finish the race, consider the advice H. Jackson Brown received from his mother:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”6
Finally, I hope you’ll take to heart what New Testament scholar Nijay Gupta shares at the conclusion of his excellent book, Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies and Beyond, which applies to every level and aspect of formal education,
Remember the privileges of what you are doing. In broader perspective, only a small percent of the world’s population will have the chance (and honor) to study…In those smaller moments of failure and difficulty, I encourage you to remember the blessing it is to have done the kinds of things you have done and to have the resources and support to participate in the privileges of higher education.7
About the Writer: Dr. Jeff Blair has been lead pastor of Locust Grove FWB Church since 2002. He is married to Jennie, and they have three children: Keith, Jackson, and Julia. Jeff was ordained in 1999. He received a B.A. in Theology from Randall University in 1999, an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2002, and a D.Min. from Northern Seminary in 2018. Contact Jeff: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Emphasis mine. Originally a discourse delivered by Warfield at Princeton Theological Seminary, October 4, 1911. Find it online.
2 The manth/math-root has to do with learning, as in “polymath,” one who has learned much, in many areas.
3 See Sota 22A, which describes the am ha’ aretz and includes, “Even if one recites Scripture and repeats Mishnah-sayings, but has not attended upon a disciple of sages, such a one is an am ha ares.”
4 See Acts 7:22: “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.” Philo says Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, was “worthy of a royal education…attending diligently to every lesson of every kind” Vita Mos. 1.20–24; Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged. Hendrickson, 1995, 461.
5 See Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, vol. 41, WBC, Word, 1990, 34; and David A. deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians, NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018, 158. Recall also Agrippa, who charged Paul, “Your great learning has made you mad” (Acts 26:24).
6 H. Jackson Brown, P.S. I Love You. Nashville: Routledge Hill, 1990, 13.
7 Gupta, Nijay K. Prepare, Succeed, Advance, Second Edition: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond. Cascade Books: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
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