Author Archives: Bryan Cribb
“Ninety Percent.” As a young aspiring minister-in-training, I remember hearing this number frequently—and annoyingly—as I packed my belongings and life and headed to seminary. According to well-meaning mentors, this oft-quoted number represented the percentage of seminarians no longer in full-time ministry after 10 years. They were the “drop-outs,” I was told; don’t be like them.
For me, the number functioned almost as a “Hebrews 6-like” warning: “Once you have tasted of the heavenly gifts of ministerial training and then fall away from the ministry, it is impossible to be restored again.” Indeed, even scholarship applications made us promise to pay back the money if we did not end up in full-time ministry.
Now, whether that 90 percent stat is accurate is highly debatable. But what is indisputable is that, with the number of students obtaining ministry degrees these days—whether from seminaries or from Christian colleges and divinity schools like Anderson University—we undoubtedly have huge numbers of “trained up” people who aren’t actively participating in vocational ministry.
I can’t tell you how many times I meet people in my limited travels who say, with eyes averted, “Oh, I went to seminary as well, but I’m not in ministry anymore.”
Many reasons exist for such a turn of events in a former seminarian’s life—anything from moral missteps to difficult domestic issues to change of calling to simply bad experiences in church and ministry. But I fear that the result is that many have experienced discouragement and depression from within and cold shoulders and condescension from without. Indeed, some in this category may be reading this article.
What can we say to and do for this neglected, forgotten, and often snubbed subcategory of “former seminarians”?
First, if you are in this category, I would say to take encouragement.
Every situation and story of the former seminarian is different, but just because you are not in active full-time ministry does not mean that you are in disobedience against God. For every one “Jonah,” there are many more Jims and Jennys, who have honestly been led in different directions by God.
For instance, I have had women seminarians who are now “just” stay-at-home mothers tell me that they feel a tinge of guilt because people have told them they are not “using” their training in a church or ministry-related vocation. False. My wife falls into this category, and I try to encourage her regularly that she is using these ministry gifts in the primary mission field divinely granted to us as parents—the home.
Second, see ministerial training as a stewardship.
Receiving specific instruction in Bible, theology, ministry, leadership, and counseling is a gift from God. And while you may not be using that gift in the manner that other Christians deem normative, you still have a responsibility and privilege to use it in a manner that glorifies God and serves the church. Lead a small group. Lead your family. Lead a life of evangelism and gospel fervor.
Third, similarly, if you are pastor and have “former seminarians” in your congregation, seek them out.
Encourage rather than exclude. Provide them opportunities to teach and serve. Use their gifts. You have a stewardship as a shepherd of the resources God has provided your church.’
Finally, for former seminarians, be open to where God may lead in the future.
Just because you are not in full-time ministry now does not mean that you are forever banned. Always be prayerful and watchful for new opportunities to use your gifts and training.
As to the “90 percent”? Let’s try to make the standard for who fall into this category not those who are “full-time” ministers, but instead those who are “full-time” disciples of Christ.
How does the old adage go? If you want a barometer for the spiritual health of a Christian, check his or her checkbook. Perhaps this is true. But let me propose another barometer, this time for the spiritual health of Western Christianity—the Amazon.com top-selling Christian books list. And its measurements are not encouraging.
This list’s array of Amish romance novels, mend-your-life manuals, and tales of heavenly-experiences present a picture of popular Christianity that is, well, shallow, superficial, and self-centered. One has to look far down the list to find any thoughtful, theological treatises. For better or worse, we, as believers, are what we read.
The books on the best-seller list that are most indicative of this dangerous narcissistic drift are the “how-to” volumes, dealing with the keys to the “blessed” Christian life—infamously telling you how to “your best life now.” Even those words betray the evident egoism and self-absorption so common in our culture.
Yet, when you look at the Scriptures, one finds a much more simplistic and selfless understanding of the key to “blessedness”—an understanding that is less focused on materialism and “under the sun” profit and one that perhaps doesn’t need book after book to address it.
The most well-known of these descriptions is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5—The Beatitudes. But another clear, though lesser-known set of “Beatitudes” is found in Psalms 1 and 2.
When you read these two psalms together (as they should be, since they provide a dual-introduction to the entire Psalter), you find that the two compositions are framed by a repetition of the word “blessing” (1:1 and 2:12). In other words, these psalms focus on blessing as the foremost theme.
Two questions emerge upon noticing this.
First, what does it mean to be “blessed”? And second, what is the means of receiving the “blessing”?
The word “blessed” in these psalms is often translated “happy,” which frankly is a poor translation, since in English, “happiness” is a feeling. For the Hebrews, blessedness is more a state. It is a state of being in a right relationship with God in covenant—that deep, committed, loving, redemptive relationship between God and his people. Just as the wisdom is something grounded in the fear of the Lord, blessedness is something grounded in right relationship with the Lord.
But how does one achieve/receive this right relationship?
Psalm 1 asserts that blessing comes not by living life (walking, standing, sitting) as those who consciously and constantly rebel against God and his precepts, but instead by consciously and constantly delighting in and meditating on Torah. For the Hebrew people, the path to right covenant relationship and covenant blessing must necessarily follow the way lighted by the Word of God (Joshua 1:8). Just as marital joy happens when spouses faithfully keep their vows to one another in covenantal love, so also the believer finds peace with God when, in response to his love, we love him by keeping his commandments (John 14:15).
Psalm 2 adds a second element to the equation. This messianic psalm begins with a statement about the kings of the earth raging futilely against God’s Anointed (2:1-2). And it closes by promising blessing to those who give homage to and take refuge in this messianic King (2:11-12). In other words, to have blessing found in right covenant relationship, one must submit to the Lord of the covenant relationship.
But one must remember that these psalms are not meant for merely individual consumption. And neither is God’s relationship with us in covenant meant to “happen” individually, as “Lone Ranger” Christians. Psalms 1 and 2 are corporate songs and communal confessions, and so biblical blessing is only achieved when a believer is in right fellowship with fellow believers. Such a community—where members of the Body sacrifice for each other, love each other, encourage each other—presents a ready remedy against the secular self-love saturating our society.
So, believers should not ultimately look to popular books for the blueprint for blessing. Instead, they should meditate and delight in one Book in particular. They should submit desires, hopes, and happiness to their benevolent new covenant Lord. And they should do each of these while in fellowship with other Christians in a local church community.
If they do this, they will “be like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:3).