Covenant Seminary helps its students explore their calling in a variety of ways. Skills are important to equipping our students for their callings. But character is more important.
For a clear justification of this approach, consider what what happens when character is neglected. At its national convention this year, The Gospel Coalition invited Mike Kruger (its chair), John Yates and me to present a panel discussion on abusive pastors. We quickly agreed that when Paul describes the qualifications for elders in I Timothy 3, eleven of the qualifications describe their character and only one describes their skill: “apt to teach.” It’s true that Paul emphasizes to Timothy the importance of preaching, teaching, exhortation and leadership, as we see in I Timothy 4:12-16 and II Timothy 4:1-5. But both of these passages locate the ministry of the word in the context of excellent character.
The church courts trouble when it reverses Paul’s priorities, seeking skills over character. The error of giving primacy to skills permits the emergence of pastors who abuse power. It harms the work of the church, disfigures the gospel, and skews the way it trains and sustains its leaders.
Students at Covenant study biblical concepts of calling in two classes. One is a first-year class, Christian Formation and Calling. The other is a third-year class, Biblical Ethics. These courses explore a biblical theology of calling as it applies to all believers, then apply it to our students as they consider their own call to ministry.
No doubt, all seminaries inculcate skills for ministry. At Covenant, this includes the skill of reading the biblical languages, and the skill of interpreting, proclaiming, and teaching scripture. At the same time, we promote and build character throughout the curriculum in many ways.
For example, we have mandatory first-year cohorts that focus on spiritual development. We also offer additional cohorts every semester. We hire professors with a commitment to mentoring students for maturity, recruiting professors with pastoral experience for all programs, and with counseling experience for our counseling program.
We also promote maturity throughout our curriculum. In an era when it is considered “successful” and good sport to savage our foes, we stress loving dialogue and fairness in discourse. For example, we stress that in academic circles, the first way to love our neighbors as ourselves is to present his or her position as accurately as possible. We state their thesis and summarize their main points and argument in terms they, not we, would approve and consider fair. We don’t attack minor misstatements or weak points in ancillary arguments, and we don’t hold an entire school of thought accountable for the ravings of its lunatic fringe.
When students present sermons or papers in each other’s presence, we begin with accurate and heartfelt praise and affirmation, then we move to questions. Suggestions follow. Then, as necessary, we offer gentle critique.
These are samples of the ways we strive to prepare people for a call to pastoral ministry. Throughout, we attempt to be faithful to apostolic teachings as they prepare leaders for generations of leaders. Scripture says that at least three kinds of religious sin trouble the church: First, the leaders of false religions attempt to suppress true religion; we see this often in Acts, whether the false religion is Greco-Roman polytheism or Judaism. Second, heretics infiltrate the church, trying to lead people from the truth (II Timothy 3:6). Seminary training tends to be most adept at training students to detect and oppose heresy.
But third, even a believer, in a position of leadership, can mislead the church. Peter did this, and Paul describes the problem and the rebuke in Galatians 2. Peter also offers especially helpful instruction in this matter in I Peter 5:1-4, where he warns believingelders that they can stray from their roles as shepherds by becoming greedy and domineering the flock:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
The point is clear: How shall the church guard against abusive leadership? How can it nurture its believing leaders so they don’t stray in this manner? By putting character first, living in and with God’s Spirit.
We will never be perfect at this, until Christ returns. Yet we can expect a level of consistency – a through-line, a road or trajectory that should be visible in the family, the church, and society. At Covenant, that is our goal for every student.