bits from bob....

Things I Did Not Learn in the University

by Bob Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

I initially prepared for ministry by completing an undergraduate degree in Bible coupled with minors in Biblical Languages. Because I began my undergraduate studies in music and mathematics (I later dropped the music major in favor of a double major in mathematics and chemistry), my undergraduate studies have an unusual breadth. After two decades of ministry, I returned to the university and completed two graduate degrees.

After forty-plus years of ministry and a dozen years in Christian higher education (where I helped train ministers and taught ministry courses), I can reflect on the things I did not learn in my university training. Maybe these things were said and I was not listening. Or maybe they were said in courses I did not take. Our ministry training programs today are much better than they were 40 years ago, but areas of deficiency still exist. Some of the things that have served me best were not part of my ministry training, but were part of classes I took as I pursued other interests. In this article, I am thinking about my undergraduate experience. Thankfully, many of these items were a part of my graduate school experience.

Here is my list of things I did not learn in the university--twelve things in no particular order, with a few comments.

  • I did not learn how to handle the times of spiritual dryness. I do not remember this ever coming up in any class. In graduate studies the topic was touched, but often in terms of spiritual dryness in the lives of those among whom we minister.
  • I did not learn the significance of relationships. Fortunately, relationships seem natural to me (although sometimes I think I would make a pretty good hermit). From the beginning, it was clear to me that effective ministry depends on establishing relationships-both inside and outside the church. But I do not remember this as a part of ministry training.
  • I did not learn how difficult life can be. I was not required to take any undergraduate counseling courses. I took a couple of psychology courses as part of my core curriculum. My own naiveté did not realize that some people's lives are too broken to mend by human reasoning. Growing up as a child of divorce, in a single-parent home, I knew life was not always pretty. But I did not understand how difficult life can be, and what tangled messes Satan can produce. Perhaps life has become more difficult through the years, but this was something I did not see or hear about or talk about in undergraduate training.
  • I did not learn how difficult it is to overcome human nature. Human nature has a firm hold on us humans, and overcoming our natural tendencies is not a matter of merely knowing what to do. In a religious heritage heavily focused on knowing, it took me a long time to learn that knowledge is not enough.
  • I did not learn long-range sermon planning. In my early days of preaching, I remember how glad I was to find an idea or sermon outline that I could develop into a sermon. I preached from week to week. I had little idea of plot-either in individual sermons or in a long-range preaching plan. My desire for organization soon led me to long-range sermon planning which sought balance and sermon development over a longer period of time, rather than week to week.
  • I did not learn conflict management or crisis management. These were needed skills almost as soon as I arrived at my first ministry assignment. I learned these things "on the fly". Today's ministers need training in these areas.
  • I was not prepared for the loneliness of ministry. I can live with a certain amount of isolation, but there are times when the sense of being in the battle all by yourself are overwhelming, and most of the time in such situations, you do not want to tell your wife, either because of confidentiality matters, or because you don't want to be a burden.
  • Not much was said about the value of collegiality and fellowship shared with other ministers. I found such luncheons, lectureships, and various ministerial meetings vital, even when they did not seem profitable at the moment. It is likely we still need to say more about the importance of having confidants outside the congregation, and developing friendship with other ministers and church leaders. Across the years, I have been amazed at how many local ministers do not attend area events.
  • There was not much talk about family matters. A good (required) course in parenting would have been helpful. The minister's family doesn't automatically turn out okay just because one is serving the Lord.
  • I did not learn personal financial management. I am grateful that some training programs have begun to include financial training in their curriculum. In my case, the tools that have served me well in this area came as a result of my mathematical backgrounds, and from an eldership that got me started down the right road.
  • I did not learn how important it was to develop my own style and my own personality. I tended to imitate my heroes. I did not appreciate the fact that God uses many different people with different approaches to life. In ministerial training programs, we must be careful that we develop ministers according to their own unique personality and skills, and that we do not simply clone ministers. I fear that some ministries have been short-circuited because cloning removes the joy whereas personal spiritual development thrills the soul.
  • Finally, no one told me that ministry was hard, demanding, time-consuming, at times limiting, and often frustrating. Perhaps we do not say this in ministry training for fear of having students drop out. But effective training must always distinguish between personal care and a professionalism that is in danger of turning ministry into only a job. Thankfully, ministry was the means by which I followed my heart-to make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible, among God's people and among those longing for the more abundant life available through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    What are your experiences? What advice would you give to today's ministry training programs?

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    Last updated May 5, 2011