A Pastor’s Reflections: Degrees Don’t Mean Much
One of the more discouraging aspects of the pastorate is the lack of respect that people show for their pastor’s education. When it’s all said and done, a well-trained pastor will spend four years in his undergraduate studies, three to four years in his seminary training, and perhaps one year in an internship, for a grand total of eight to nine years of education and practice before he steps into a pulpit full-time. That’s almost as long as it takes to become a medical doctor.
Now in all fairness, there are many people in the church who recognize the amount of training, study, and preparation that ministers must accomplish. But there are also those who care little to nothing about your training. It doesn’t matter that you’ve studied philosophy, theology, and that you’ve poured over the Greek and Hebrew text, compared it with the Septuagint, scanned the history of exegesis, and read hundreds of pages on one verse (John Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, anyone? I see that hand!). To many people in the pew, if you say something they don’t like, they’ll simply disagree with you and often be unafraid publicly to tell you. A softer and gentler version of this occurs, for example, when you’re trying to teach the children in your church—they don’t know or likely understand how much training, degrees, and preparation it’s taken to bring you to stand before them and explain the Bible. So, there’s a sense in which degrees don’t mean much.
I’m definitely not saying that ministers should not train—I spent nearly a decade preparing for service in the church and don’t regret a minute of it. The point is, you cannot step into a church and expect people to bow down before the degrees that hang on your wall. Instead, here are a few observations about education, degrees, and serving the church.
First, your degree isn’t a terminus but a starting point—it’s your license to learn. It’s great that you’ve finished seminary, but you’re really just getting started. Never, ever, think that you’ve “arrived.” The more I have studied, the more I realize how little I know. This fact alone should keep you humble.
Second, you must pray for patience. When you preach and teach, as important as your study is, your knowledge is not what ultimately grabs people by their hearts and mind—only the Spirit of God can do this through the word. You merely prepare the meal—the Spirit enables people to consume and digest it. Think, for example, of Christ’s interaction with his own disciples. How often do we want to grab the disciples and box their ears because they just don’t get it? It seems like their spiritual dimwittedness would have driven anyone else batty. Think of Paul’s labors with the Galatians or Corinthians. Here is a man personally ordained and commissioned by Christ, yet it seems that Paul was never in want of disrespect or indifference.
Third, whatever you know, have learned, or will learn, is ultimately because of God’s grace. Therefore, you can’t take credit for it and take umbrage when someone doesn’t respect your office. You’re simply one beggar showing another beggar where he can find a meal. Don’t think too much of yourself. If Jesus, Paul, the apostles, and prophets suffered great disrespect, so can you.
Fourth, don’t be offended if people want to verify your teaching against the word of God. The Bereans did this to Paul (Acts 17:11)—they verified the things he was teaching. If your congregation isn’t verifying your preaching and teaching against the word, then they might be looking to you rather than Christ. I’ve always told my congregation and students, “Don’t believe it because I say it—verify it with the word and believe it because Christ says it.”
In the end, don’t stand on your education but rather your union with Christ and his word. Only he can give you the patience to love your sheep, no matter what they think of your education. And only he can give you the humility to esteem him and his church more than the degrees that may hang on your wall.