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Tips for Seminarians: Writing Notes and Letters

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My first attempt to become a candidate for ministry stalled in the early 80s. I was a member of a rural church in Middle Tennessee, and my session enthusiastically recommended me to Presbytery. We were an evangelical congregation in a theologically liberal Presbyterian denomination and that was a problem.

Far from home, studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, the Presbytery informed me that my candidacy would not move forward. I was so disappointed. Soon, notes and letters began arriving from members of my congregation telling me how proud they were of me, assuring me of their prayers, and urging me to persevere. Notes and letters from caring people were God’s gift to me – just at the right moment when I needed that encouragement to persevere.

Throughout my life people have taken time to write me. A grandparent and aunt, a father, and many, many members of my church families. Depending on the situation, they have buoyed my spirits, comforted me in sadness, and inspired me to achieve. Some were sent just to make me laugh – which, I’m told, is pretty good medicine.

I’ve been blessed by notes and letters, so it’s not surprising that I want to bless others through my own writing. And I want to encourage you to write as you serve the church while preparing for ministry.

Why write? After all, it’s so easy to call or email.

Several reasons:

  • Notes and letters take time and effort to compose, a fact not lost on me when I discover a letter in my mailbox. Someone has given of himself in my behalf.
  • Notes and letters are easily accessible. Put them on your desk or nightstand. Read and reread them. “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24).
  • Notes and letters endure. I have letters that I’ve kept for more than fifty years. One, a lengthy letter from my Dad, was written to answer questions I asked about military service. Though he’s no longer with me, his voice continues to speak through the written word.

When to write:

  • To say “thank you.” We should thank others for gifts of kindness. We owe it to those who’ve gone out of their way to be kind to us. And saying thank you is good for us. Isn’t thanksgiving the remedy for a complaining spirit? Writing thank you notes is one way to cultivate a lifestyle of gratitude.
  • To congratulate. Celebrate promotions, achievements, and recognitions. Rejoice with those who rejoice.
  • To express sympathy. Mourn with those who mourn. Take the time to think about someone who has gone to be with the Lord, and put your memories and gratitude for his life into words. Pass those words along to a grieving family.
  • To celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. On those occasions, I write about a virtue I see in a someone’s life. I want to lift the spirits of a dear believer by letting him know that I see the grace of God at work in his life.

Notes and letters strengthen the bonds of affection between pastors and their people. Keep your eyes open. Look for opportunities to write. Make writing one of the ways you enjoy the congregation God has entrusted to your pastoral care.

Tips for RTS Students: Managing Your Course Syllabi

 

Course syllabi in a moment. But first a word about calendars.

Calendars do more than remind you about upcoming events. They are an essential part of planning and the effective use of time.

At RTS, I want you to learn how to make your calendar an ally in completing your studies.

A good place to begin is your course syllabi. When you access a syllabus for the first time, review it carefully. Then go to your calendar.

  • Add each class session to your calendar. For example, my Communications 1 class meets on these dates:  8/29, 9/5, 9/12, 9/19, 9/26, 10/10, 10/30-11/1, 11/28
  • Add all work due on the date it’s due.
  • Think carefully about the amount of reading required. In addition to selections from other books, you will read in Comm 1 these books in their entirety:
    Chappell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the expository sermon.
    Grimké, Francis J. Meditations on Preaching.
    Johnson, Dennis E. Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures.
    Still, William. The Work of the Pastor
    Witmer, Timothy Z. The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church.
  • If you find the amount of required reading challenging, do this: Build into your calendar a daily reading schedule. Break down your readings into manageable portions. Do this for all your readings in every course. Each day have a reading goal and meet it. I follow this practice.Each year I like to read one or two lengthy works in theology. This year, I’m rereading Calvin’s Institutues. Last year it was few of John Owen’s works. For twenty minutes, I read a small number of pages five days a week and easily meet my reading goals.
  • If you already have your syllabus, start reading now! Read as much as you can before the semester begins.
  • Use fall break as a reading and writing week. A seminary semester is fifteen weeks of intensive work. Keep the Sabbath. Build in times of rest and refreshment. But a nine-day break from your studies in the middle of the semester may not be the optimal use of your time.
  • Don’t wait until classes start to work on assignments. Think about term papers and book reviews. In this course, students submit a 10-page term paper on Him We Proclaim. Each semester, I will have several students who turn their term papers and book reviews before classes start. I grade and return promptly.

Get off to a good start this semester. Well before your first class, coordinate your syllabi and calendar.

Tips for Seminarians Seeking a Pastoral Call

1. Don’t procrastinate. Become a candidate for ministry in your denomination as early as possible. Follow your candidates committee’s instructions to a tee.

Don’t  put off candidacy and its requirements until the end of your seminary career. If you do, you will complete your seminary requirements, but be unready to accept a call because you’ve failed to submit to your denomination’s ordination requirements. That may mean you are many months away from accepting a call. Show respect for your denomination and love for your family by staying on track.

PCA students need to keep in mind the following:

  • You must be a member for at least six months of a church in the presbytery where you want to come under care.
  • You must also be endorsed by the session of that church before it is possible to become a candidate and intern.
  • Prior to ordination, you must complete a presbytery internship, which must last at least 12 months.
  • The process to be ready to be ordained requires a minimum of 18 months to complete, and, for most candidates, is closer to 30 months. 

    RTS Jackson students: Presbytery Credentials Committee will host an informational lunch at Patterson’s Porch on Thursday, September 21, at noon. If you are even remotely interested in ordination in the PCA, then you should make plans to attend.

2. Prepare your resume carefully. Proofread and get someone else to proofread. Expect your prospective employer to verify each detail. Be accurate. The care with which you prepare your resume is one indicator of the care you will take with the work your future church entrusts to you.

3. Circulate your resume widely. Ask minister friends if they know of openings. Not every position is listed on your denomination’s website, and some positions may be coming open and not yet announced.

4. Compose a cover letter (or email). Attach to each resume a cover letter addressed to the person or committee responsible for receiving your resume. Tailor each cover letter to the position. Proofread and get someone else to proofread. Ask a friend in business to critique your cover letter before you send it. Your cover letter creates your first impression.

5. Include references. Include their names in your resume. Don’t make the pulpit committee ask for them.  Make sure you have obtained permission to use their names, and that their contact information is correct.

6. Keep your resume current.  Double-check all contact information for you and your references.

7. Be thoughtful. Acknowledge all inquiries with a handwritten thank you note.

8.  Be prepared. At interviews, either preliminary or when formally candidating

  • Wear a suit.
  • Take two handkerchiefs, one for yourself and one for someone else, if needed. A gentleman is always thinking of others.
  • Answer questions as briefly as possible. Don’t ramble.
  • Answer all questions directly and honestly.
  • Ask the pulpit search committee questions and listen intently to their answers. A good pastor is a good listener.
  • Sit up straight. Look at people when they speak to you. Manners matter.
  • Stand up when ladies enter the room. You are a gentleman.
  • Write thank-you notes to the entire pulpit committee. It’s an honor to be granted an interview.
  • Write thank-you notes to anyone who helps you during your visit. For example, if you’re meeting with a committee at someone’s office and his assistant gets you a drink while you wait, send the assistant a thank you note. Acknowledge the kind service to you.
  • In emails, use formal elements of style, like “Dear Mr. Adams” and “Yours in Christ, Charlie.” Use good grammar. Punctuate properly. Use upper case letters at the beginning of a sentence and wherever appropriate. Avoid slang. Check your spelling.

9. Disclose. If you have been under church discipline or have ever had any problems with the law, you need to tell the pulpit search committee. If you fail to disclose and the committee obtains the information during their reference and background check, they will question your honesty and wonder what else you are withholding. Your candidacy will almost certainly come to an end.

10. Engage people. When you are candidating at a church, speak to everyone, and especially to the children. Learn names.

11. Be grateful. It is an honor to be asked to candidate. Be thankful – to God and the congregation.

12. Treat your wife as your partner. Discuss together, pray together, decide together. You are a team.

Tips for RTS Students: Five Important Strategies for New Seminarians

1. Find a church home quickly. Sanctification of the Lord’s day, sitting under God’s word preached, receiving the Lord’s supper, and caring for and being cared for by God’s people is indispensable to your spiritual well-being and (if married) your family’s. Don’t prolong your search.

Your adjustment may be tough. Don’t be discouraged. It’s part of your preparation for ministry. All pastors work with people who struggle to fit into new church homes. A few years from now, you will too. Therefore, right now, you and your family’s struggles to fit in are equipping you for ministry. They are one of many ways God is at work to make you a sympathetic shepherd of your flock.

2. Don’t pit your studies against your devotional life. During my first year at Princeton, I stumbled upon a copy of B.B. Warfield’s The Religious Life of Theological Students and received perhaps the most helpful counsel of my seminary career: Make your turning to the books a turning to God. Before you open a text, ask the Lord to give you an increased knowledge of his character and of your need of grace. Seek from him a deeper understanding of his word and world. Fill your time in the books with prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, repentance, and renewal. If you do, you’ll establish enduring study habits to the glory of God.

3. Guard your study time. Most of us only get one shot at seminary; misuse the time, and you will finish your studies inadequately prepared. Even if it were possible to learn later what you miss now, the forfeited opportunity costs are steep. For years you will labor without the benefit of what could have been yours from the start.

On campus and in church, you will be asked to serve in many ways. Before you say “yes,” make sure that your studies are squared away. Take to heart the old adage: “Do what you have to do, then do what you want to do.”

Don’t succumb to the temptation of thinking of your studies as competition to service to the Lord. Right now, your time reading and writing and in the lecture hall is your primary field of service.  Should you serve in other ways? Most definitely, but not before you are sure you can meet your academic requirements.

4. Watch your spending. Most of the time, family conflict about money has its roots not in scarcity, but in negligence. Many students and their spouses don’t think carefully about their finances. The consequences can be dire: strained relationships, overwork, and, sometimes, withdrawal from seminary and the abandoning of plans for ministry.

Don’t let that be your story. Spend less than you earn. Get and stay on a budget. Put on paper where your money will go. If you don’t know how, ask for help, and the sooner the better.

It breaks my heart to hear stories of men who prepare for ministry, but then must turn down a pastoral call because their debt makes it impossible. Learn the fundamentals of financial management now, and reap its rewards for a lifetime.

5. Eliminate distractions when you’re studying, at home, and with the Lord. When you set aside time to study, be fully engaged. Turn off email and all notifications; silence your cell phone; refuse to surf the web.

When you return home, give your wife and children your full attention; put your phone, books, and computer away.

During your personal devotions, be fully engaged with the Lord and his word.

When you eliminate distractions and concentrate on the task before you, you’ll be surprised at how much you accomplish and grow in your work and relationships.

Seminary has its share of opportunities and trials. The lessons learned here will go with you to your first church; resolve to make these habits your own, and they too will follow you throughout your ministry

 

For a Long and Fruitful Ministry

(Adapted from remarks to my students at Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson on April 19, 2016.)

I want for each of you a long and fruitful ministry. For that to happen, many things must take place. This afternoon I’ll focus on two.

First, for a long and fruitful ministry you must intercede for your congregation in your secret prayers.

Secret prayer – the time you spend alone with the Lord pouring out your heart for the congregation he has called you to serve and seeking those graces you must have if you’re to serve them well.

Without secret prayer there can be no real Christian ministry. That’s why Bishop Moule sought to impress upon his ministerial students that the “the heart of the minister’s life is the man’s Secret Communion with God.”[1]

Nothing will build stronger bonds of affection with your congregations than praying earnestly for them.

In prayer we come before the throne of grace, pleading with God to grant grace to the sick, comfort to the mourner, strength to the weak, certainty to the doubting, clarity to the confused, and hope for the despairing.

In prayer we also seek God’s sanctifying grace for our people. They must be holy as he is holy, for without holiness, no man shall see the Lord (1 Peter 1:16, Hebrews 12:14). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Our congregations face many urgent temporal concerns, and we must intercede for them. But critically important is each member’s personal holiness, his Christlikeness. The name of Lord honored in the godly behavior and godly doctrine of his flock must be your principal concern.

And in our prayers for our congregations, we pray also for the graces that we need to be faithful in our ministerial calling. And of all the virtues we need to minister well, none is more important than gentleness. We mustn’t be harsh, overbearing, or intimidating.

Instead, we must approach the flock with “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1). Gentleness is the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit that is present in every true believer, and must be especially evident in the pastor.

Here’s what you mustn’t forget. You can be angry with people, or you can effectively minister the gospel of God’s grace.  But you can’t do both. It’s one or the other.

You can be gentle with people, or you can harbor heart anger. It’s one or the other. Gentleness and sinful anger are mutually incompatible.

The frequency and intensity of our prayers for ourselves and for our congregations are known only to us and to God.  Yet I doubt there is any greater measure of ministerial godliness. If we attempt to carry on a ministry without earnestly praying for our congregations, then we will find ourselves on perilous ground.

Why is that? Why is a ministry without private prayer spiritually deadly? Because when we fail to pray, we reveal ourselves to be hypocrites. We minister in Christ’s name without personal communion with him.

Alexander Whyte raises this very point in Bunyan Characters. In his lecture on “Formalist and Hypocrisy.” He writes of the hypocritical minister

Sweating at his sermons and in his visiting, till you would almost think that he is the minister of whom Paul prophesied, who should spend and be spent for the salvation of men’s souls. But all the time, such is the hypocrisy that haunts the ministerial calling, he is really and at bottom animated with ambition for the praise of men only, and for the increase of his congregation.[2]

What exposes Hypocrite’s heart is the absence of secret prayer. That mustn’t be you!

Frequent and intense secret prayer for our flocks indicates a heart for God and a heart for the people of God. Without it, there is never long and fruitful ministry.

And that’s what I want for you – a long and fruitful ministry. For that to happen, you must intercede for your congregation in your secret prayers.

And, next, you must speak affectionately to your congregation and about your congregation.

Remember Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After a ministry that lasted about a month, he was forced from the city, leaving behind a church full of new converts.

The pain of separation was real and the anguish of the troubled Thessalonians could not be ignored.

So, with moving words, Paul reassures them by letter of his abiding love and affection. He asks: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (2:19)?

What a question! I can imagine the letter being read to the Thessalonians for the first time. The reader of the letter asks Paul’s question: “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” He pauses, and gives the congregation time to mull it over. Then comes Paul’s answer:  “Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (2:20).

Paul’s crown of boasting before the Lord is saved Thessalonian believers who he will present to the Lord at his coming. They are his glory and joy.

Paul spoke affectionately of believers he loved. So should we.

One of the finest elders I’ve ever known taught me a valuable lesson. He never did something that’s so common among Christian parents: we complain about our kids, even exaggerating their faults, in order to get sympathy or even a laugh. This elder never did that.

Without ever bragging, he talked about his children only with respect and pride and gratitude. And his children adored him. Affectionate words showed just how much he cared for them.

Listen to your speech. How do you talk to your congregation when you’re in the pulpit? How do your members feel while sharing conversation with you? Do they sense your deep affection for them?

And how do you talk about your congregation when they are absent? When your with your fellow ministers, or your wife, or alone with your own thoughts. Wherever you are speak of them with tenderness and warmth.

If you start to speak otherwise, then catch yourself, repent, and from the heart talk about them with deepest affection.

Then in your heart and speech they will be your glory and joy.  And you will be well down the road to a long and fruitful ministry.

________

[1] H.C.G. Moule, To My Younger Brethren: Chapters on Pastoral Life and Work (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 31.

[2] Alexander Whyte, Bunyan Characters, vol. 1. 1893 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 138.