On returning to seminary

Two years ago, I made the difficult decision to walk away from a full-tuition scholarship at Ashland Theological Seminary, having completed half of a Master of Divinity degree at that time (about 15 classes). The combination of two major life circumstances precipitated the decision. I was about to become a dad for the first time, and a dear friend who was dying of cancer had just moved to a town near Kent. The prospect of continuing graduate school, being a new dad, and being available to sick friend, all while still working at least 40 hours per week with the church, left me fearing I would not do any of  these things well. I took the feeling in my gut as motivation to seek God and His counsel for my life. I still wanted (very much) to continue in school. With great creativity and painstaking precision, I produced a schedule of how I could pull off all of these pursuits. Yet in prayer, time and time again, I sensed God asking me to let go of seminary. The other commitments were more important. To pursue all of them would cause all of them to suffer. And I would be left spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. And though, on the surface, giving up what would amount to about $24,000 of free education makes no sense, I knew in my heart it was exactly what God was asking me to do. So I did.

Last week I returned to seminary, this time taking only one class (God again provided a scholarship to cover the cost of this class). On the hour-long drive to Ashland, I couldn’t help but think back to the decision I made two years ago. I remembered the peace in my heart as I sat in the office of the seminary Dean to inform her of my decision. But I also remembered the sadness I felt at the forfeit of a tremendous blessing and a personal passion… the disappointment that comes when God rearranges the timetables we create for our lives. Yet I am absolutely convinced God’s will was done.

Now two weeks into seminary, I am realizing how much has changed since the last time I started seminary. Tiffany and I had no kids, we had just moved to Kent to plant a church, and I was serving as a regular staff member of the church. Now we have two kids, our church has been planted and has influence on campus, and I am a pastor with a great deal more responsibility in the church. I have realized this: The blessings of these realities so far outweigh the financial blessing of a scholarship.

Seminary, for me, has always been an exercise in humility. To learn about God is to experience God, and to experience God is to be humbled. Theology is not primarily an intellectual pursuit, it’s a deeply spiritual one. When that focus is lost, seminary becomes something terribly dangerous. Andrews Walls has said “Theology is an act of adoration fraught with the risk of blasphemy.” Theology demands humility. Not only is there a risk of blasphemy but worse there is a risk of spiritual pride, the myth of intellectual ascent to a place of superiority over the authors of Scripture, or even God himself. For me, having to surrender my passion for a season and focus my attention on more important matters has produced in me a humility that I pray guides and shapes my second round of seminary.

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2 thoughts on “On returning to seminary

  1. Eric says:

    Great article! I appreciate the fact that you posted, period. But I also appreciate the reflection on difficult decisions and the way that plays out over time. I can totally relate to your experience, even if it’s not directly related to seminaries and scholarships and such.

  2. John Risner says:

    Well said, my friend. Seminary is transformation, not just information. I am happy for you to be back in action at Ashland. Let me know if you need any guidance!

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