Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Support Foster Kids with a Suitcase

What They Didn't Teach You In Seminary

  • Dr. James Emery White Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
  • 2012 2 Jul
What They Didn't Teach You In Seminary

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from What They Didn't Teach You In Seminary by Dr. James Emery White (Baker Books).

Introduction: What they never taught me in Seminary

What they never taught me in seminary—sounds like I’m going to pick a fight. I’m not. My life has been lived largely in two vocational worlds: the church and the academy. I am the founding and senior pastor of a church; I am a professor and former president of a seminary. So I would only be picking a fight with myself.

More than that, I loved seminary. I loved learning about church history and theology, philosophy and ethics. My pulse quickened the first time I was able to stand behind a podium and say, “In the Greek, this word means . . .” I loved building my library with works from Augustine to Zwingli. 

Adding entire multivolume reference sets, such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, made my hormones bubble. I was the classic three-year, residential MDiv student. But toward the end of my seminary studies, just before I started my doctoral work, I received a call from a church near the school asking me to consider coming as their interim pastor. It was an established denominational church in a county seat town near the seminary. The interim turned into a full-fledged invitation to serve as their senior pastor.

Some of you grew up in the church, so you had some experience with the inner workings of church life. Not me; I was pretty much unchurched for most of my life until the age of twenty. Even after I gave my life to Christ, I didn’t get involved in the life of a church until a year or so before heading off to seminary. Thus when I, as a new pastor, was asked to officiate my first wedding, my first funeral, my first baptism, and my first communion, I was totally clueless. So why did they ask me to be a pastor in the first place in order to do such things? It was assumed that since I was nearing my graduation from seminary, I knew what I was doing. 

I didn't .

So in panic mode I ended up buying every “minister’s manual” the local Christian bookstore offered.

It didn't get any better.

I needed to raise money to meet the church’s budget, and I had never had a class on that. I wanted to try to grow the church numerically by reaching out to the unchurched, and my course work had never touched on it. I had a problem with a combative and disagreeable deacon, and I searched through my seminary notes and found nothing. I found I needed to be in the office for administration, in my study to prepare my talks, in people’s lives to stay connected to the community, and in my home to raise my family—and there hadn’t been any instruction on how to manage that.

It was becoming painfully clear how little my seminary education had actually prepared me for the day-in, day-out responsibilities of leading a church. 

I knew about the Council of Nicea, but no one had ever told me how to lead my own council meeting. I knew about the Barth-Brunner debate but not how to handle the breakdown between two Sunday school teachers when one was asked to start a new class, for the same age group, from the existing class. I knew the significance of the aorist verb but not how to parse the culture to know how best to communicate. I could tell you the leading theologians of the sixteenth century but not about leading and managing a staff. 

This is why so many people look back on their seminary education with a critical eye. It’s why pastors will go to a two-day leadership conference headlined by seasoned pastors passing on their insights for effective ministry and feel like they gained more in those two days than they did in their entire three years of seminary education. It’s why quickly after graduation, Melanchthon gets dropped for Maxwell, Luther for Lucado, and the seminary’s continuing education program for the latest megachurch conference. 

Like so many others, I had gone to seminary to prepare for ministry, and I was not prepared for ministry. I was prepared academically to begin a life of teaching, which is, of course, invaluable. But in terms of the vocation of ministry beyond teaching? And even in regard to teaching, how to teach effectively? Not so much. Even worse was how ignorant I was about the life of ministry. I did not know how to manage my time, care for myself spiritually, or raise my kids in a way that was sane.

In other words, I never learned to do the things that I would actually have to be doing every day for the rest of my life. 

We need seminary. But in fairness to a seminary education, there are certain things it will never be able to impart, even if it tries. God bless professors, but most of them have never been the pastor of a church. They may have been interim pastors or had a short-term pastorate while in seminary, but they are, in truth, academics. They are not practitioners. We need them, and we need the academic education they give us. But we also need what they don’t teach you in seminary. We need insights and wisdom on leadership andrelationships,emotional survival and communication, hiring and firing, sexual fences and our struggle with envying the pastor across town. We need best principles about money and time, decision making and church growth.

And we need it from someone who has done it. We need the raw street smarts that can only come from someone who has been educated in the trenches.

This is why the United States Army has instituted a complete overhaul of its basic training regimen—the first such revision in three decades. Largely as a result of what has been learned from Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, the army is dropping five-mile runs and bayonet drills in favor of zig-zag sprints and exercises that hone core muscles. Why? Because soldiers need to be prepared for what really happens in war. And in today’s world, the nature of conflict has changed, and it demands a new kind of fitness. Modern combatants must be able to dodge across alleys, walk patrol with heavy packs and body armor, or haul a buddy out of a burning vehicle. Soldiers need to become stronger, more powerful, and more speed driven. They have to know how to roll out of a tumbled Humvee. They have to know how to crawl for their weapons. Sergeant Michael Todd, a veteran of seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, said, “They have to understand handto-hand combat, to use something other than their weapon, a piece of wood, a knife, anything they can pick up.

So from someone who loves and appreciates what a seminary education offers but who’s been deployed in the war for a while, here’s what they never taught me while I was there—and in fairness, never could. 

Chapter 1 Emotional Survival  Qualifications of a pastor: the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros. -- Stuart Briscoe

I was having coffee with a fellow pastor who needed more than caffeine to pick himself up. Summer attendance was down. Key people were leaving because of disagreements about the direction of the church. And money was very, very tight.

 I felt nothing but empathy. Yep, been there, felt that. 

“Jim,” he said, “I knew seasons like this would come. I just didn’t know how stressful they would be.”

 Neither did I. To this day, the disappointments can still blindside me. Nothing prepares you for how ministry can drain you emotionally, leaving you in pain or, even worse, feeling numb or in despair or with seething anger. This is why so many good men and women in ministry have careened into moral ditches and many more still soldier on with plastic smiles and burned-out souls.

A few years ago, my wife Susan and I were part of a mentoring retreat with about a dozen couples, all well-known leaders of large and thriving churches. We started off with an open-ended question: “What are your key issues right now?

As we went around the room, the recurring answer in each of their lives was “emotional survival.” We shared our stories about the hits and hurts that come our way in ministry as occupational hazards and how they tear away at our souls, sapping our enthusiasm, our creativity, and our missional stamina. They leave us dreaming of finding ourselves on a beach with a parasol in our drink—permanently.

What makes ministry so emotionally hazardous? That’s easy. It all starts with overbuilt expectations. When you enter ministry, you can’t help but dream. Many of us dream big. That’s one of the marks of a leader—a compelling vision for the future. But for almost everyone, it’s not long before the dream collides with reality.

When I planted Mecklenburg Community Church in the fall of 1992, I just knew (though I wouldn’t have said so) that we would be a church in the hundreds, if not approaching a thousand, in a matter of weeks. Willow Creek, eat our dust. The reality was starting in a rainstorm with 112 people, and by the third Sunday, through the strength of my preaching, looking out at 56 folks. Actually, 15 or 20 of those were kids in another room, so maybe 40 were actually in worship. Yes, our numbers did eventually increase, but I don’t care what kind of growth you have—you usually had hoped for more.

Then there are the day-in, day-out realities of serving in a church that is very real, very flawed, and very challenging. No matter how well it goes, you have problems, issues, hassles, struggles, defections, setbacks, barriers, and defeats. You have to live with a level of quality about ten miles below what ignited your dream. Coupled with this is the work—hard work—and you realize that it could take years for even a glimpse of your dream to become reality. And those are just the emotional hits from your expectations. Then there are the hits that come from the people you are working so hard to serve. This is the heart of the emotional drain. We are shepherds, and sheep are messy. Unruly. Cantankerous. Smelly. They are a chore to care for.

And they can hurt you more than you could imagine—in particular, through the relational defections of those you trusted and the crushing crises from those who throw you into disaster mode. You’ll understand if I change a few details in what follows. In fact, most of the stories I’ll tell throughout this book will be altered a bit to protect the guilty.

It was a Friday night in July. We were getting ready to leave for a vacation the next morning, and the phone rang. It was one of our staff. For him to call me at home on a Friday, much less the night before I was leaving for a vacation, was not a good sign. 

Jim,” he said, “I have a roomful of people here at my house. There’s a crisis. They thought you had already left, so they came to me.”

“What is it?” was all I could manage to say. He gave me the name of another staff member and said, “Jim, they’re here because they’ve discovered she’s been having an affair.” And then he named the man she was involved with, who happened to be on our worship team. Let’s just call them Jane and Bob.

I collapsed on the side of the bed as I held the phone in my hands. Thus began one of the worst experiences of my life and of the life of our church. After a night of no sleep, the next morning I met first with Jane. Then I met with Bob.

So much for vacation.

It turned out to all be true, and it had been going on for several weeks. Jane ended up resigning, and Bob and his wife left the church. It rocked our church’s world. And mine. The ripple effects were incredible.

On a purely organizational level, it tore the guts out of our then fledgling music ministry. She was the leader of our band, our main musician, and our lead female vocalist. Her husband was our tech person. Bob was our lead male vocalist, and his wife was our only keyboardist. Our band no longer existed. Suddenly we found ourselves using recorded tracks for our weekend services.

But that was nothing compared to the emotional hit. There was the pain of the two families with a husband and a wife who felt utterly betrayed. Then there was the pain I felt as a pastor. When something like this happens, you feel violated, sick to your soul. You feel sick as a leader to see this church that you’d lay down your life for suddenly ripped apart. And you are supposed to sew things back together.

But the greater emotional hit is how you can quickly become the enemy, the bad guy, the adversary. In these situations and so many others like it, no matter how you handle the folks involved, some people will think you went too far on the side of grace, and others will think you went too far on the side of discipline. Change the story, change the people, and it’s often the same. Pastors get caught in the crossfire of people’s messes and often become the scapegoat. It’s like the first person to rush to the side of a dog that has been hit by a car. In the midst of the dog’s pain and frenzy, the person can often count on being bit—even though they are only trying to help.

We got through it as best we could, and with as much truth and grace toward both parties as possible, but Bob and his wife left very upset with us. They felt Bob should have been allowed to return to the platform after just a couple of months of counseling, and they accused us of showing partiality to Jane because she was on staff. So in the end, after we had poured ourselves into them for their reinstatement and loved them as best we knew how, they rejected us and left angry, taking with them four or five families who were their close friends.

I felt like I had been kicked by a horse. 

There are so many other emotional hits in ministry: the stress of finances (both personal and in the church); the unexpected departure of staff; the pain of letters that criticize your ministry; the pressure of people who want to redefine the vision, mission, or orientation of the church; the relentless torrent of expectations; and the agony of making mistakes. And then there’s this little thing called your marriage and family. So how do you manage your emotional survival?

First, the bad news: there’s not a quick fix. Ministry is just flat-out tough and often emotionally draining. You won’t ever escape the hits and the hurts. They come with the territory.

Now, the good news: you can develop a way of life that protects, strengthens, and replenishes you emotionally. You can cultivate a set of activities and choices that allow God to restore your soul. Some things are obvious, like regular days off and annual study breaks if you can get them. And you’ll need to get a lot more savvy about people and how to deal with them, which we’ll talk about later.

But for now, here are two choices I wish I had made much earlier in my life. They may seem far removed from what caused the emotional hit in the first place, but they are key to ensuring you have a full emotional tank and can keep putting gas into it for the long haul.

Clear Boundaries Regarding Giftedness 

First, how you serve is critical. Ministry is tough enough. But if you consistently serve outside of your primary areas of giftedness, you won’t last very long under the stress and strain that comes with the territory. I really don’t hear this talked about very much, if at all. But there’s something about large amounts of time spent serving against the grain of your natural gifting that saps your emotional and spiritual energy.

I do not rank very high with the spiritual gift of mercy, not to mention how that plays itself out in, say, extended pastoral counseling. If I had to invest in that area with ongoing, regular blocks of time, it would wipe me out. I’ve had to learn to be very up front with folks about my areas of giftedness and how those gifts are supposed to operate in the mix with other people’s gifts in the body. That’s because what happens  in a church, even one where spiritual gifts are taught and celebrated, is that the pastor is still expected to have them all—and to operate in them all. The danger is that you’ll let yourself try, and soon you’ll be wiped out with little or no reserves for the daily toil.

Related to this is operating outside of your personality type. A surprising number of pastors are, ironically, introverts. It’s not that they don’t love people or aren’t good with people—most are even charismatic in terms of their leadership and speaking ability—but they are, in fact, introverts in terms of emotional makeup.As a result, many pastors get their emotional energy from being alone. If such realities are not acknowledged and managed, you will find yourself emotionally spent and soon burned out.

Yes, even as a pastor, you need to guard how you serve.

Emotionally Replenishing Experiences 

Second, I’ve had to learn to intentionally pursue emotionally replenishing experiences. When you hurt, if you don’t find something God-honoring to fill your tank with, you’ll find something that isn’t God-honoring. Or at the very least, you’ll be vulnerable to something that isn’t. I am convinced this is why so many pastors struggle with pornography—it offers a quick emotional hit.

To prevent that, I’ve had to learn to do things that channel deep emotional joy into my life. For some folks it’s boating, or golf, or gardening. For me it’s travel, reading, time alone with family, and enjoying anything outdoors—particularly the mountains.

Several years ago, a man I had invited into my life in a mentoring relationship asked, “Jim, what do you do that really puts gas back into your tank? If you could do one thing that would rejuvenate you spiritually and emotionally, what would it be?”

I didn’t have to think very long or hard. I knew the answer: 

“I would go to the mountains and be alone.” For as long as I can remember, the mountains have held significance for my spirit and emotions that I cannot explain. Being there alone is particularly rich, as I gain my deepest emotional energies apart from others. 

He said, “Good. You should do that once a month.” 

I laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. Once a month? The mountains? I don’t have the time! My life is too busy, too full, to put something like that into my schedule.”

Then he said something I will never forget. “If you don’t, you will end up in a ditch. You will burn out, lose your ministry, perhaps even your family, and become a casualty of the cause.”

I knew he was right. I was already seeing the edges of my life fraying and knew how easily my world could unravel.  I went to the mountains. 

My first trip found me staying in a budget hotel, just overnight, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I remember it to this day. It was like water on a dry desert. I felt energy and emotional renewal flowing into the deepest recesses of my inner being. I came home walking on air. I entered our foyer, hugged my kids, and kissed my wife. She thought I had been drinking. I had—from the well of emotional renewal from which God intends for all of us to take deep draughts of living water.

Now I escape to the mountains to a little bed-and-breakfast monthly. Every month I leave on a Thursday afternoon, and as I drive toward the cool air and clear skies, I feel the weight of the world fall off my shoulders. I feast off of it for weeks. Four, to be exact, until I venture to my precious emotional retreat once again. 

On the front end I would have told you that it was impossible to put this into my life. Looking back, I will tell you that it is unthinkable not to have it.

So here’s my question for you: If you could do one thing that would rejuvenate you emotionally, what would it be?

Now here’s my challenge: for your sake, and your ministry’s, do it.

Published by Baker Books 
a division of Baker Publishing
Group P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287 

Printed in the United States of America 


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.