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Can Instruction at Rockbridge Seminary help my ministry? By Dr. Tom Bartlett

Just recently I had a conversation with a young church planter who, while serving a church decided he wanted to further his theological training by going to seminary. He approached the leadership of his church knowing that he’d need their buy-in, but also some financial support. After expressing his passionate desire, the leadership discussed the situation and came back with a resounding word of disapproval. Stunned by the decision of these leaders, he asked why? The answer that came back was perplexing. They said that seminary just messes people up. As he relayed this situation to me, I was not overly surprised by the outcome. I had heard similar words and even experienced a great deal of discouragement when I decided to go back to school for my masters and doctorate. People would challenge me with, “Why do you need that degree, just trying to impress people?”  Or, “Is this some sort of pride thing Tom? You don’t need seminary just study your Bible and trust the Lord.”

Now, while these statements bothered me, I did find in them the opportunity to at least analyze why I would subject myself to the rigors of higher education. As I scrutinized the why, I kept coming back to three motivating factors for my personal pursuit. 1. I knew there was so much more to learn theologically and professionally, and I wanted to explore, learn, and grow as a minister. 2. I felt that my calling to raise other leaders would benefit from this endeavor, and 3. This one, might seem insignificant, but to me it was important. I made a promise to myself that I would be a lifelong learner and that I would earn my seminary degree in the process of that learning.

So now, with the benefit and wisdom of hindsight I can look back and answer the question from this side of that experience with a better perspective. The question: Can instruction at Rockbridge Seminary help my ministry? The answer simplistically is a resounding yes, if you want to grow. The longer answer, I’ll spell out here briefly. Here are the three perspectives I now have that I did not fully have before I began that journey. First, you don’t know what you don’t know. Secondly, every pastor needs tools and seminary gives you tools, Finally, no man is an island, and everyone needs a mentor.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Over the years, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to travel to some amazing places for ministry. My very first foreign mission trip was to Bangalore, India where I was teaching a pastor’s conference. Before I left on this trip, my mind was filled with so many ideas of what India might be like, much of which was nowhere close to what India and its people actually were like. After seeing India for myself, I learned so much that I did not know about this amazing country and it was certainly not at all what I had expected. This is the same experience I had in seminary as well. I had so many erroneous ideas of what it might be like. The long hours studying things I might not enjoy, listening to dry and boring lectures, getting no rest and hating every minute. On this side of it, I now know that none of that was true. All of that was simply my preconceived ideas that were not based on knowledge.

Beside the misconception about what seminary would be like, I also realized that there are areas of study and understandings even beyond my college education that I had yet to become aware of. Rockbridge Seminary opened my mind to ministry work and studies that I personally had no clue about. The exposure to missions local and global, inner city strategies, preaching helps, a comprehensive approach to planning and strategic thinking and more were just what I needed. Before I started at Rockbridge, I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Everybody needs tools and seminary gives you tools

Not long ago I moved my family to the Washington, DC area to serve as a consulting pastor for a ministry based out of Nairobi, Kenya. Moving is always a frustrating thing. During a move and setting up a house, you will use whatever you can find to do the job at hand. A shoe becomes a hammer, moving blankets become covers and pillow to rest with, and left over pizza becomes breakfast! It’s just the way it is, you use what you have on hand at the moment you need it. Early in my ministry, with a great desire to see people grow spiritually, I often found myself at a loss of what to do. How do you measure spiritual growth? How do you select someone for leadership? Who do you invest your time in? How do you write impactful sermons every time? Without the proper tools these items were addressed with what I had in hand, which was very little, a narrow perspective and simple inadequate tools. I guess in some ways you could say the job got done, but I knew there was a better way, although I wasn’t sure what that way was.

In starting at Rockbridge, I knew by week two of my first course that the tools I needed were about to be found. And, not only were tools on their way, the training to use them and to discover more about me was right around the corner too. Seminary gives you tools which in and of itself is not enough, yet they are extremely helpful when you are instructed in how to use them. Tools in areas such as leadership development, discipleship and its evaluation, languages and study tools, preaching, missions, and so much more. I now have the tools; no more ministry work through inadequate tools! I do however still enjoy pizza for breakfast!

No man is an island, everyone needs a mentor

         Over the past decade, I have taken a team approach to ministry like never before in my pastoral work. In leadership, I work to allow others to make every decision they can and make only the decisions that I must make as the leader. I respect the input and value the contributions of all team members. I never walk into a meeting with the entire plan laid out waiting for the team to stamp their approval of my ideas, my passion, and my vision. Early in my ministry as a staff person what was modeled for me was a top down, CEO model of leadership where the staff took marching orders with little to no input. Rockbridge taught me the power of team and the power of mentors.

As a team, the classes tackled issues and we learned from each other. No one had all the answers and everyone was required to participate. We learned from each other and built a sense of community in the process. At the same time, Rockbridge’s approach of using a seasoned mentor with each course has become a life-long component for me. Now, instead of feeling like a “Lone Ranger” who must make all the decisions, have all the information and be everything to everyone, I have a sense of community in my ministry and I regularly meet with and talk to mentors whose input is invaluable. I need the team and I need a mentor, I simply didn’t realize how much before.

So, can Instruction at Rockbridge Seminary help your ministry? All I can say is, it helped mine. Today, I continue to learn and grow, I use and continually sharpen my tools, and I do ministry as it should be done, in a community of people that love each other. Thanks Rockbridge Seminary!

Dr. Tom Bartlett
Rockbridge, MML (2006), MDiv (2009)
Dr. Bartlett has led churches in Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina, and Washington, DC.  He has served as a worship leader, a pastor, and a trainer of pastors in places such as India, Nigeria, and China.  Areas of experience include, multisite church planting, leadership, preaching/teaching, and the theology and practice of worship.