The Seminary Bubble and Pastoral Counseling

2 03 2008

One of the things that I get frustrated about myself is that when I’m on campus here at seminary, I am in academic mode. It frustrates me when I see others in this same frame of mind as well, but the least of what I want to do here is point fingers because I have failed in my duty to approach others one on one to discuss this problem. Therefore, I just want this post to serve as a reminder to consider why it is we are here, and not as an accusation of any past event. To be honest, I have no past events in my mind that I could point my finger at, save times that I can remember myself being in.

Let me explain what I mean by “academic mode.” I am not saying that academics and scholarship don’t have a place in seminary. That is, in fact, part of why we are here, and to deny that is to be antithetical to the purpose of higher education at a seminary. Studying theology, languages, and other such subjects in an academic setting is what we are doing here. When I say “academic mode” I mean a mindset wherein we forget WHY we are studying such academics, the actual reason we are in seminary in the first place: to train to become a better minister of the Word AND to train to be better shepherds of God’s people. When we lose sight of these things, we have entered “academic mode.” Let me give an example. I think that eschatology is a subject that is far more important than people give it credit. I think learning whether the Bible teaches amillennialism or premillennialism is important to know (if you’ll excuse the obvious systematic categories used), especially to those of us who will be preaching through the text. If the Bible shapes our worldview and theology, we should strive to know, as best we can, what it teaches. But when we spend so much time debating what place the nation of Israel has in the eschaton that we neglect discussing what we as pastors should do when someone comes into our offices wanting counseling because they are addicted to cutting and don’t know where else to go because they are feeling hopeless and don’t know how much longer they can go on, we’ve missed the point. What do we say to that person? Certainly it wouldn’t be “man up emo-boy” would it?

Most of us would cringe of the though of such “counseling,” and well we should. The thing is, isn’t that on par with some of the advice that we give each other on campus? Would we dare treat the people of our churches the way we treat our friends on campus? No, it’s not always that extreme, but sometimes I feel like we attempt to treat each other as if we all have it together because we are going to be pastors and teachers, and that is what is expected of us, so we downplay the crises in our lives to portray that characterture. I say this to my own and our shame. If anyone should know that we of all people don’t have it all together, and we struggle, that we are of the same sinful nature as everyone else, it should be the theologians who are spending their seminary lives studying such things. When I follow some of the conversations that I have, as well as ones I hear, I can’t help but think how far we are from what is most important to this calling. If we can parse every word in the Greek New Testament, but can’t talk to the girl who just had an abortion because she had premarital sex with a boy who just left her, what good is it my brothers?

I say the next comment to my shame. I can be at the ready to discuss at length why I’m an amillennialist, but I’m afraid to come up to that same person and say “hey, I really need someone to talk to, I was really battling some depression and hopelessness last night, and I had a bunch of thoughts that I know aren’t right, but I couldn’t shake them off.” If I’m not willing to be open and vulnerable, how can I expect others to be? And if I’m feeling this way, I know others are just as afraid. But if we can’t make these connections in a safe place like seminary, how can we make these connections with the people outside our walls? The ones who are addicted to heroin and meth, the ones who just got through a messy divorce and don’t know what to do, or the ones who have questions on what it means to be a man or woman, and what exactly is masculinity and femininity? Is our response to the man whose wife divorced him really going to be “well anyone can see that Jesus teaches that it is wrong for anyone to be divorced and so unless you are single the rest of your life you will be living in sin. It’s just that obvious in the Greek”? Is that true? Well the exemption clause notwithstanding, yes. Is that how we present it to that person? I sure hope not. Is that how we present things to one another when in academic mode? Most of the time.

Some of you might be thinking that I’m saying there’s never a time for academic study, or something along the lines of not telling people what the bible actually says. Please don’t! I am saying that academic study is of the upmost importance, and that we should always explain what the Bible says, but that there is a time and place for debate, and there is a time and place for frank explanation of Biblical teaching, in a way that is Christ-honoring, and church-edifying. “Man up emo-boy” isn’t it. Some others might be thinking that when they take the pastorate, they will handle such matters that way, but while here at seminary, in a different environment, it’s not so important. Friends, your ministry doesn’t start when you get out of seminary. If you can’t allow yourself to be pastoral when you’re training to be pastoral, how can you expect to be pastoral when you are expected to be? When I played soccer, my coach always would tell us that we would play as good in the actual game as how hard we would practice. If you went through the drills with no enthusiasm and intent, you would play the same way.

Again, here me out. I am not saying that we should forgo studying, or that discussions on whether the correct mode of baptism is immersion or sprinkling is unimportant(its immersion by the way). What I am saying is that we cannot forget that there is practical application that arises from such academic study. If our theology does not produce both doxology and application, it is a dead academic pursuit. May you all forgive me for the times I have been stuck in academic mode, or have portrayed myself as someone uncaring about what you are going through in your personal lives. May we recognize that we are a community of broken people, being conformed daily to the image of our Lord, for His glory alone.



4 responses

3 03 2008
Just a Guy


I stumbled upon your blog through my “Google Alert” for the term “seminary.” The title alone made me click the link. As a fellow seminarian I am continually reminding myself that the seminary environment does not naturally lend itself to training the whole pastor. What you have said here is really important and something that all seminarians need to wrestle with. The academics are important, but they are only one piece of the puzzle. You can exegete till the cows come home, but will you respond with pastoral care and concern when someone is in your office explaining how they were molested by their father as a child? There isn’t a class that teaches that…

For those interested in further reading and grappling with this topic, I recommend a dissertation written by Charles Degroat from RTS Orlando on Expectation Versus Reality in Seminary and Beyond. I wrote about it on my blog and posted a pdf you can download. It is interesting to hear these pastors talk about their seminary experience and explain how they view it in light of actually living out the pastorate.

Sorry for the long comment, but this is a long topic to be discussed. Thanks for the honesty.

8 03 2008
Southern Baptists & Cultureal Engagement | Said at Southern Seminary

[…] tries to burst the seminary bubble. […]

14 03 2008
Bursting the Seminary Bubble :

[…] Lilly wrote a great post about the pretension and unreality that is bred by the academic environment at seminary. He calls […]

14 03 2008
Paul Fuller


This is exactly what our fellow seminarians need to hear. By God’s grace I went in to seminary be warned of this and throughout the process have had plenty of shepherding to make sure that I don’t go the route of distanciation and losing touch with reality. The sad thing is that some graduates carry this into their pastoral ministry and never get in touch. I highly recommend reading the following essay by David Powlison in Whatever Happened to the Reformation: “A Flourishing of Fresh Wisdoms: The Call of the Hour in the Ministry of the Word.”

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