Balancing Seminary and Ministry

Balancing Seminary and Ministry

By H. Daniel Zacharias & Benjamin K. Forrest 

Today, many seminary students have to balance their studies with their roles as full-time pastors, part-time assistants, or lay leaders within their church. Even those who are not already engaged in active ministry will usually be involved in field education as part of their degree program. 

That being said, it’s completely understandable for students to struggle with balancing study and practice. After all, you feel called to ministry. You want to pour yourself into people. And more can always be done. More hurting people can use your encouragement, another program can be run, another phone call can be made. It is very common for students to face temptations to overexert or overcommit, which leads to burnout. 

As a seminarian you are called to live in the tension between studying and ministering. Below you’ll find some practical advice for managing those two responsibilities well.

 Don’t separate  seminary from ministry 

Do not go through this season of life waiting for ministry to start; it already has. You are charged to minister wherever you are.

Ministry is simply equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry (Eph 4:11–12). Thus, if you’re involved in learning, you’re in the ministry of equipping. This will eventually mature into your ability to equip others. 

Ministry is not something that magically happens on graduation. Ministry is something that is cultivated and disciplined into your life as you go. Practice the skills of ministry right now, starting today.

 Invest in relationships

Ministry is inherently relational. 

In order to prepare yourself for ministry, you need to prepare yourself for people. 

We want you to be sensitive to your friendships and encourage you to always value people. If seminary takes you out of the world, then you’re learning how to do theology in a vacuum. Theology is meant to be lived and practiced in relationship. 

Here are some particular relationships to invest in while you’re in seminary:

  • Existing relationships. Seminary will change you and will therefore impact the people around you. Prepare close friends for the changes in your schedule and your life. Explain to them why you’re pursuing this education and where you think God is calling you. This may even be a chance to share the gospel.
  • Relationships with fellow students. Be deliberate about being enriched by the array of fellow students you will meet at seminary. God calls a wide variety of people to ministry; seek to learn from them. Deal respectfully with students you disagree with. Share your story and listen to the stories of others. In particular, go out of your way to cultivate friendships with international students. 
  • Relationships with professors. One of the best ways to prepare for ministry is to cultivate relationships with your professors. The lives of your professors—though not perfect—should be a modern incarnation of ministry at work. On a related note, we challenge you to involve yourself in the life of your institution as much as you can. Not only will you benefit from the community, but you will also be a benefit to the community. 
  • Relationships with ministry mentors. Just as Timothy was discipled by Paul, you also need a mentor to help you understand some of the practical aspects of ministry. Mentorship is not just something that you pursue while you’re young in your career or ministry. It is something you pursue as long as you want to grow and be shaped for greater effectiveness in ministry. 
  • Relationships with those you mentor. Who are you mentoring? If you can’t answer this question, you need to create a plan for practicing what you’re studying. Find someone to pour into so that you’re using the life-giving water that you’re taking in. As you pour this water out, you will find that you’re personally being refreshed. When you store up the water without pouring it out, you will build up stale water that becomes lukewarm and even bitter (or cynical).
  • Relationships in the church. Christ loves the church, and thus we need to love the church. However, seminary is focused on discussing and theologizing about the ideal church. This means that what we find in actual churches never lives up to the ideals we see in our classes. This is because the church is made up of people and not just words. These people who make up the church are like us—sinful, selfish, and broken. In spite of this, each imperfect congregation of sinners is part of the bride of Christ, and therefore you have a role to play in her sanctification. Embrace this role and find ways to serve the church out of obedience to Christ and reverence for his name. 

In regard to churches, we have two additional pieces of advice:

  1. Find a church for your seminary experience and commit to it. Too many seminary students “date” different churches, waiting to find the church that will (a) hire them, (b) set them up to be hired, or (c) fulfill their immediate needs. If you’re tempted to be a serial church dater, give yourself one month to find a church; then commit to that church for the duration of your seminary experience or until God clearly moves you elsewhere. Instead of looking for a perfect church, look for a church in which you can serve. 
  2. Reject cynicism and superiority. While you’re in seminary, some of you will attend large churches with well-run and well-staffed ministries, but there are many more churches with a country pastor who serves bi-vocationally. Whatever church you may be in, keep any attitudes of superiority in check. Instead, cultivate a humble attitude and a servant’s heart. 

Practical tips for juggling study and ministry 

If you’re pursuing ministry practice as well as academic study, then you’re busy. 

This busyness doesn’t go away upon graduation. It will change and grow with you as your life and your abilities grow. 

So here are four practical suggestions to help you balance the many tasks that make up your journey through seminary and beyond: 

  1. Be realistic. If you’re a full-time student, you simply cannot pour yourself fully into your studies and ministry. Choose where to best invest your time for the season you’re in. 
  2. Be stingy. If you’re in ministry part time while studying full time, then ministry will inevitably creep into your study time. Being stingy with your time does not mean that you lessen your effort in your ministry. Rather, you need to guard your time from being taken up by nonessentials. If there is a meeting or church function that is outside the time you’re paid for, ask your ministry supervisor, “Is it 100% necessary that I be there?” 
  3. Find someone to hold you accountable. These are people who will help you with decisions and help you stay committed to decisions you have already made. Ask your professors, your ministry supervisor, or your spouse to help hold you accountable for your time and efforts. Your fellow seminarians are also great accountability partners as they understand the current pressures you’re facing in the classroom as well as in your ministry context. 
  4. Be ready for hard decisions. There will be times when you really want to be involved in something at church, but you don’t have the time for it. Make the hard decision to stay out of things and be okay with it. Conversely, sometimes you will need to make the hard decision to drop an assignment, not complete that reading, or even drop a course because of unforeseen circumstances in your ministry. If you have carefully thought about it, sought counsel from friends, your ministry leaders, and professors, and feel that the ministry must take precedence over your studies, then be okay with this hard decision too. 

 Looking ahead 

We commend you for accepting God’s call to pursue preparation for ministry. If the church is Christ’s bride, and we believe it is, then it is a high and holy calling to lead his bride as part of your vocation. Preparation for this role requires wisdom and diligence. 

Seminary is not a time-out from investing in ministry; it is the laboratory for whole-hearted, experimental ministry practice. So, challenge yourself to pursue what Christ has laid before you. Take full advantage of the opportunities you have before you for intentional investment in kingdom ministry.    

This article is adapted from H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest, Surviving and Thriving in Seminary: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017.