11:00 am this Saturday, another group of future ministry leaders will join in a seminary processional to be inspired, cheered on, prayed over, and sent out. After the pictures, graduates will set aside their gowns and get on with life. Some (hopefully most) will tack their diplomas on a wall and flourish in ministry.
There will be curves along the way, not to mention the real possibility that a call will not be immediate. After completing my second master’s degree in theology, I found myself working for a property management firm, spreading bark dust at various rentals, keeping the books, and waiting by the phone. The year went forever. It was a humbling time. I came to seminary with a sense that God was preparing me to advance God’s kingdom and change the world. At times, I wondered if God got distracted and forgot me. Instead, He was intimately involved in training me in ways seminary could not.
Every graduate has his/her own crossing. In 1989, Rick Atkinson wrote The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966. The title intrigued me, having once been a cadet in military school. The book is a sobering account of a generation of officers who graduated with their own idealistic dreams. They pledged themselves to Honor, Duty, and Country, but they found that living up to West Point’s iron standards was difficult, if not impossible. The book focuses on a few of the cadets, most of whom graduated into the crucible of war in Southeast Asia. One minute they were on the parade grounds; the next moment they were in the jungles outside Da Nang. As I recall, this West Point class had one of the highest mortality rates of any.
I went on to seminary—instead of a military career—and I have often wondered what became of my Western graduating class. I know of a few, and most are not in church ministry. I ran into one of my classmates last weekend in Palmer, Alaska. He is a psychologist, working with many difficult lives. We reflected on some of our peers, a few who have gone on to lead churches or teach in seminaries. Some stepped into dysfunctional churches and never recovered, quitting the ministry and never looking back. Others turned to alcohol to cope. At least one took his life after moral failure.
If Atkinson applied the same historic research to tracking down the graduates of my class, my guess is it would be good material for a similar book (perhaps The Long Black Line: The Spiritual Journey of Western’s Class of 1975). It would also be an account of high-spirited men and women who graduated with a certain innocence. We studied Bible and Theology, memorized passages of Scripture, and worked through the rigors of biblical languages. We walked through our own halls, with inspirational markers like “For the Equipment of the Saints for the Work of Ministry.” Heroes of the faith inspired us in chapel, and some of us began to dream of being saints like them. Ministry would be glorious. But from our “parade grounds,” we too were dropped into the jungles of worship wars, board battles, and congregational skirmishes. Some never came out.
The graduates who march this weekend will be a similar mix. They too will step into the same war, one that is not against flesh and blood, but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). They will have to hold fast to their faith and their training. Hopefully, they will have gained the advantages seminary education offers, something discussed in a recent post by Greg Lanier—
-the ability to think self-critically
-the skillsets to interpret Scripture with wisdom
-the competence to integrate biblical exegesis, systematic theology, and church history
-the cultivation of deep and responsible friendships
-the capacity to read and write with depth
-the discipline of grinding out a degree
-the heart to stay fixed on God
-the determination to develop patterns that will last a lifetime
More than ever, our present culture needs such hearts and minds.