Andrew Reid, our Old Testament lecturer, has shared some thoughts on how to get the most out of theological education.
What’s the point?
Theological education is about training to serve others, which involves things like:
1. Tools, not answers The point is not to collect ‘the right answers’ but to develop a set of tools with which to think coherently about the big questions of life and ministry.
2. Brain education Theological education is just the beginning of a lifetime process of theological thinking. It doesn’t leave us fully formed but, as a period of dedicated study, it should set us on the right trajectory.
3. Ministry networks This period of study provides invaluable contact with others who are thinking through the same stuff, forming a wonderful support for future ministry life.
4. Lifetime habits Tying in with the above, theological education provides key personal formation for ministry life.
Making the most of it
1. Establish a spiritual life in the midst of study Don’t assume that something will change later — there will be no magical day when you’ll ‘have time’ for God! Work hard to develop devotional habits that stick. There is no danger of legalism here, only the nutritional value of discipline. Be aware of how your attempts match up with your personality and don’t try to force yourself into unmanageable habits.
2. Read your Bible well and widely Your personal Bible reading will shape your prayer life and form your single best resource for ministry. Ensure you are regularly covering the whole Bible and making your reading count, whatever form your reading takes (you might cover a book a week or a chapter a week, you might listen at the gym, etc.).
3. Choose essay and exam topics carefully Choose broad topics rather than ones with narrow focus, even if they are more difficult and may lower your result. The reason: this is the level on which ministry happens. You are more likely to be asked, ‘What are the Gospels?’ than to be asked to explain whether logos attributes deity to Jesus!
4. Make friends for life Commit to people with whom you will continue to share relationships — this is especially significant for men.
5. Start writing your own gravestone What will shape your life? What will your values be? What is important to you and what goals will you set? What will you be remembered for? Epitaphs are only short: ‘A good husband’ or ‘A prayerful man’. Importantly, this is a question about who you will be, not what you will do — and who you will be flows into whatever you will do.
6. Choose subjects for skills Where possible, pick subjects that will develop the skills you know you particularly need to develop — evangelism, thinking, exegesis, etc.
7. Develop reading habits If you’re not ‘a reader’, learn to be an adequate reader. Christianity is a ‘book faith’, inevitably involving reading of some kind.
a) Read more broadly than your subjects and set texts require. This will keep your head ticking over alongside your subjects, adding to your formation.
b) Choose a few key books to read that are not required for essays. By the time you’ve finished a degree, plan to have covered five types of ‘extra’ books: (1) a history of Israel and/or the church, (2) a book on doctrine/theology, (3) a NT and an OT introduction, (4) a book on the area of ministry you’re heading towards.
c) Choose a single thing to be your area of expertise — a topic or ministry area that you will become most well-versed in. Why? It makes your learning manageable and satisfying. Trying to keep up with everything in detail is a burden that leads to anxiety and feelings of failure (unless you have a Carson-sized brain and study leave). This is for your own wellbeing more than anything, providing something about which you can be particularly alive and purposeful. While broad expertise certainly promotes intellectual alertness, it probably has less ministry significance.
Who will you be?
There are perhaps three types of people in ministry:
- Some take a haphazard approach because they lack self-reflection and a rationale.
- Some rare people are broadly multiskilled, having above-average skills in a range of areas (eg, admin + preaching + pastoring).
- Some are single-skilled people who know how to do one or two things well, even exceptionally.
The point is this: make sure you self-reflect so that you and others may benefit and grow.
… Some previous thoughts on all these things are here.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.