Students at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary have unique call stories, hopes and fears related to their studies and dreams beyond their course work. I did as well when I first arrived at our seminary over 40 years ago. Unlike most of my students, I’ve never really left seminary!
Back in January, I was invited to share with current students some thoughts on “coming” and “leaving.” I share them with you, trusting these comments are relevant to non-seminary students as well. After all, we are all called. We all experience times of coming and of going as we pursue the mission of God. And most of us will eventually retire from one ministry only to be called to another. Here are a few of my thoughts on these things.
When did I come?
I arrived in Fresno, Calif., in August 1976 to begin my seminary studies. Like many seminary students, I had just finished my undergraduate degree and was preparing for whatever was next. During my last semester in the spring of 1978, I submitted applications to work for Mennonite Central Committee, MB Mission (now Multiply) and a Bible college in Canada. I ended up doing none of those things. I planted a church, and then, not many years later, became a seminary professor.
So, when did I leave seminary? I guess I never really did. I’ve just been temporarily gone a few times—from 1978 to 1986 to plant and pastor a church and then to get some more education; from 1990 to 1993 to co-pastor a church in Bavaria; and from 2001 to 2003 to be a house husband and a traveling preacher across German-speaking Europe. But I always came back. I’ve moved to Fresno four times! When will I leave? I suppose I will leave when I retire in a few years, but God only knows.
Why did I come?
Students come to seminary for many reasons. Some have sensed, tested and confirmed a clear call from the Lord to a very specific future ministry; they come to prepare for a life of service in God’s kingdom. Some are far less sure what their ultimate calling will be. They come to learn, to discern options and to check out what might be an appropriate ministry or career. Some even come to test out the Christian faith: Does it hold up to honest scrutiny? Is the cause of Christ worth investing one’s life in?
I came to seminary because my church community and some experiences alone with God had convinced me to give up my first dream—to be a math teacher—and to dream a new dream—becoming a Bible teacher. My motives and perspectives were not all that pure. I had become very good at arguing with my Bible teachers in Bible school. And then I developed some pretty haughty and judgmental attitudes when I majored in philosophy in university.
I came to seminary convinced I was among the best defenders of “True Evangelical Faith” anywhere around. I hadn’t yet discovered that “true evangelical faith clothes the naked, comforts the sorrowful, binds up the wounded, becomes all things to all people….” (For those who don’t recognize it, this is a quotation from Menno Simons, whom I never really met until I got to seminary. Well, even at seminary I didn’t exactly meet him personally; he died 459 years ago).
I came to seminary quite convinced that my mission in life was to nail in place the last few boards in my theological construction and then proclaim and defend it against all detractors. I came to learn how best to convince the most hardened atheists that they were just plain wrong, and I was right. Now that I’ve divulged why I came you can also see pretty clearly how I came.
How will I leave?
How did I leave seminary the first time? How do I anticipate leaving again? I thank God I did not leave the way I came. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve struggled with those haughty, know-it-all attitudes all my life. I’m sure many of my students have noticed them. I know my family has.
But seminary began to do something to me that desperately needed doing. It called me to be more like Jesus, to respect people who see things differently (and not assume that they “just don’t get it”) and to love the Christian community as it is, not only as I think it should be.
When I finally leave seminary, I hope I will continue learning these important things. I’ve set three goals for myself, and they are the same ones I encourage my students to aim for in the few and occasionally many years that they share this seminary journey with me.
I want to leave more humble than I came. True followers of Jesus learn to be humble. As we learn to be humble, we are able to learn more and more, while at the same time discovering how much we still need to learn and how important it is to learn from others. Humility helps us realize our personal convictions are not actually the final word.
I want to leave more grounded than I came. Oh, I thought I was pretty grounded when I came. I thought I had the Bible and the Christian faith pretty much figured out. All I really still needed was to get better at convincing others that my foundation was the right one. When I finally leave seminary, I want to leave more convinced than ever before that the only sure foundation for faith and life is the person of Jesus Christ: Jesus as presented and interpreted in holy Scripture. Jesus as loved and trusted by sincere followers. Jesus as the one who keeps drawing us back when we try to build our lives on anything else.
I want to leave better equipped than I came. Now you might be thinking: Well, that applies to students, not their professors. Students come to get equipped; professors equip them. If I am still getting equipped now, I must have started my teaching career about 33 years too soon, right? Wrong. That assumes students come to seminary ill equipped and leave fully equipped. Not so.
We are always being equipped—before, during and after seminary. My seminary training helped equip me to be a church planter and pastor. My years as a church planter and pastor helped ready me to teach seminary. My years of seminary teaching are getting me ready for whatever comes next. Followers of Jesus never retire, they just keep discovering new ways to serve faithfully as long as life will last.
I recently told a group of seminary students: “When, why and how you came to seminary is water under the bridge. You are here now. And I’m planning on spending the next few years on this journey with you, this journey of becoming humbler, more grounded and better equipped. Plan to stay on that journey after you graduate; I plan to do so after I retire.”
I hope some of this connects with the journey you are on, even if seminary is the farthest thing from your mind.
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif. He is also a member of the U.S. Board of Faith and Life.