May 8, 1970 was the day when I knew everything. On that day, I received a master of divinity degree after three years of study at an accredited theological seminary. I had received good grades (well, I did get a C in one evangelism course) and had benefited from learning under committed professors, sharing ideas and talking with other students, and building an acceptable theological library.
I knew how to prepare and deliver an expository sermon, lead Bible studies, develop a budget, and provide Christian counseling. I knew more about theology, biblical backgrounds, and theology than anyone would ever ask me. I was a fully equipped minister of the Gospel.
Well, that didn’t last long. Soon after I landed in my first full-time ministry setting, I discovered several things. First of all, people were asking questions about the Bible that I had never asked myself and they expected me to have answers. Second, when I began counseling people about life issues, I realized that their issues were more complex and deeply ingrained than my seminary classes or life experience prepared me to handle. Third, I began to struggle with balancing life, family, and ministry in a healthy way.
Looking back now, I came to realize several things.
- If a minister is not committed to being a lifelong learner, he or she is doomed to disappointment and failure. As we encounter new challenges, we discover what we don’t know. If we are wise, we will strive to learn more. A lifelong learner knows that he or she never stops learning because the challenges of ministry continue to stretch one who is serious about doing it well.
- I came to realize that I had to seek out and depend on the wisdom of mentors. Certainly, I had been in informal mentoring relationships since I was in high school, but I had to take the initiative to nurture those contacts and add even more. Others who had walked a similar path had much to teach me.
- I quickly found that being part of a support group of other ministers can provide not only encouragement but help in time of need. Such a group is not always easy to find but it is worth the effort. Becoming part of a healthy support group requires intentionality, commitment, and vulnerability. Trust within any group develops only with the passage of time and with faithful practice among its participants.
- Although I had faithfully practiced some basic spiritual disciplines for years—prayer and Bible study particularly—I discovered that what I was doing was not sufficient to sustain me in the practice of ministry. In order to dig deeper and be more open to God’s leadership, I had to find new ways to be present with the Spirit of God.
- I had to learn a new way to invest in the lives of others. In seminary and denominational training experiences, I had been exposed to a content oriented Christian education model rather than a developmental Christian formation model. I discovered that those I encountered in my ministry were all over the map when it came to their spiritual experience and understanding. Many often surprised me with the depth of their comprehension, while others who had been exposed to the faith for years exhibited an indifference or unawareness of their own need or that of others.
Perhaps a sign of maturity in life and ministry is coming to the point of understanding how little one actually knows and then seeking both divine and human help to remedy that situation. Both in life and in ministry, everything is fluid and requires an ongoing commitment to learn and to grow. To fail to grow means abdicating to stagnation and death.
At this point in my life, I have come to understand how little I really do know!