Ministering to the Forgotten Former Seminarians

Bryan CribbBryan Cribb, Church, Leadership

“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.

Header image provided through creative commons. Adaptation from a photograph by a4gpa