Why Leave the Ministry to Go to Seminary?
Thomas D. Petter, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Old Testament
When I considered studying at a seminary, I was involved in full-time ministry with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) as co-director of the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) and as a member of the teaching staff.
My wife, Donna, now also a professor at Gordon-Conwell, and I had pioneered the SBS in Honolulu and in Togo, West Africa, before returning to Hawaii to lead the SBS on the main YWAM campus in Kona. So it seemed odd to think of leaving this great ministry (not to mention the location!). As it was bluntly put to us at the time by seminary graduates, we just didn't need a seminary education. Why would we want to go listen to people tell us how to study, teach and preach the Word when we had been doing precisely that for five years?
For many reasons, we decided to leave this island paradise and relocate to the northeast U.S., where, incidentally, a big "nor'easter" storm struck soon after we arrived! Beside the foundational motivation of God's guidance and provision, including a good scholarship, I wanted deeper immersion rather than episodic study times. In the busyness of my lifestyle, I craved time away, without interruptions—meetings, lecture preparation, training staff, counseling students and myriad other responsibilities. To trade the murderous pace of ministry for a frigid oasis where I could spend time to reflect seemed like real paradise to me. [Full disclosure: as a Swiss, I do love the snow.]
So, the way we rationalized our leaving the ministry was that we needed a sabbatical. Let me be clear: not a vacation, a sabbatical. The intention was always to return to the ministry sharpened, energized and ready to offer more to our students. We quickly realized, however, that for us to experience the full impact of this time set apart, a short-term study leave simply wasn't enough.
The duration of immersion turned out to be critical, and an unexpected return for the investment. In the ebb and flow of our multi-year process, lifelong relationships were forged, course contents were given ample time to marinate and interdisciplinary skills were developed and integrated. To grow the mind within a fellowship of learners generated authentic and transformational outcomes because we didn't have to rush through the learning process. We had uninterrupted time to think through issues.
Yes, there were topics we had already studied prior to coming to seminary, but the theological integration provided by a committed community of scholars as a whole brought new life to our pre-existing knowledge. And, of course, there were also plenty of other topics we had never studied before, one of which, Biblical Hebrew, ended up capturing our affections (and time!) for the years ahead.
In an increasingly hurried world where our attention spans are routinely and exponentially shortened, time itself becomes a rare commodity. Yet, the Lord still calls men and women to his service who are set apart to "rightly handle the Word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). My experience in seminary was a precious gift indeed!