You were called to Bible College. You were certain of God’s guidance and fully expected that when you graduated you’d be undertaking full-time ministry of some sort. In fact, you thought people would be knocking on your door. The opportunities, you’d been told, were many. The harvest was ripe and the workers were few. It was a fast-track to Christian work. But alas, you’ve waited, searched, applied and prayed and nothing’s happened. Rather than being a fast-track, Bible College seems more of a cul-de-sac.
Hope never wavered for the first few months since when you didn’t get some ministry opportunities to start with you were sure it was because God had something better in store for you. But as time has gone on, hope has flickered and then dimmed. You’re left confused, bewildered and wondering.
Did I get it wrong? Why has the church failed me? Why did college build up my hopes so much and the delivery has been so disappointing? What was the point of all that study, just to go back serving in a bar, or at my old job?
Not everyone who studies at ?ible College ends up in a ministry position. Why not? Here are some answers.
1. In my enthusiasm I misunderstood God’s call
After summer camps and festivals our enthusiasm level grew. We looked at those up front and envied them. We admired our youth leaders and pastors and genuinely wanted to be totally available to God. So we thought Bible College was the most natural route to follow.
The church were enthusiastic supporters, too. It’s a long time since they had anyone offering for ‘full-time service’ and so they perhaps didn’t scrutinize the call as carefully as they should. And the college…well, they needed students, and certainly needed their fees, so they welcomed me with open arms.
Let’s face it, we do make mistakes. But God is able to work in us even when we take a wrong direction. It’s what we do with the mistake that matters.
2. It was a right step to take but I had a wrong expectation about the outcome
Bible College turned out to be a great time. It provided you with a great education and you came away with a University diploma or degree which would be worth a great deal in the world outside the church. You came away knowing much more about your faith than when you started.
True, you aren’t as confident about some things, but, then, perhaps you shouldn’t have been so confident about some of them in the first place. True you came away realising that while the gospel is ‘simple’ it’s never simplistic. You even perhaps came away with more questions than answers, which can be a sign of maturity. You certainly came away with great friendships which will last for life.
But God’s plan for you was to give you the opportunity of college, rather than give you a job at the end of it. Perhaps it wasn’t a mistake to go. What was wrong was not studying the course, but assuming that it would lead you automatically to a ‘full-time ministry position’.
Perhaps God just wanted you to do some growing up and maturing in the faith, which is never a bad thing for his disciples and will benefit any Christian community whether you end up as a leader or not.
3. It was a right step and God’s calling is clear but the timing is different than I expected
For some, Bible College training is absolutely right and the call on their life to a full-time ministry is not mistaken. But their timetable is.
God often called people and anointed them with his Spirit but then kept them waiting before they fulfilled that calling and their own dreams. Think Joseph. Think David. He’s a classic. Samuel anointed him and then Saul chased him round the country as a fugitive for years before he himself ascended the throne.
Perhaps Bible College training was an essential preparation for God’s calling on your life, which you have correctly understood. But perhaps God is saying there are other things to do first, other forms of preparation which are essential before starting ministry. But the day will come when your calling will be fulfilled.
4. It was a right move but I had too narrow a vision of God’s calling
Too often we assume that entering ministry or going oversees in mission are superior to working for God in ‘secular’ jobs.
If so, we’ve misunderstood what Christian vocation means. God calls and uses people in every walk of life. That was one of Martin Luther’s great discoveries. Vocation wasn’t restricted to the priest and religious, monks and friars, as the church in his day taught. Luther discovered vocation (the call of God) applied as much to the cobbler, the merchant, the builder and the banker as to the ‘ordained’.
We’ll never win the world for Christ through full-time religious professionals. God calls people still to teach, nurse, sweep roads, serve in shops, be engineers and research scientists, work in the law, be television producers, broadcasters and filmmakers, and even be accountants, as much as he ever did. They’re the ones at the sharp end of the missionary task every day of the week.
I’ve known some people go to college somewhat fearful they were going to have to become ministers on graduation, only to be liberated when they found a true understanding of vocation and grasped the breadth of God’s calling on all his people.
5. I didn’t learn from the college training as much I should have done
A key component of Bible College training is growing in self-awareness and developing in skills as well as academically. But some students are so sure of God’s call that they think they don’t need to do the former and the Holy Spirit alone is more than sufficient to do the latter. So they breeze through college, insulated from anything which might challenge their fitness for ministry or personal development.
This is sometimes an expression of insecurity and sometimes an expression of over-confidence. It’s a failure to understand that God has made us part of a body, rather than lone rangers. Think of the personal challenges Peter, Paul and Timothy faced before becoming trusted leaders in God’s church. Of course, God uses us in our weaknesses and he is more than able to overcome our failures and limitations – and he does. But that’s no excuse. We need to be teachable, and, frankly, some Bible College students aren’t.
I’ve known students who’ve ignored advice – and I’m not claiming college is infallible – sure in themselves that God has called them that they forge ahead regardless of wise guidance. They’re able to quote from church history some notable exceptions of people selection committees turned down who went on to achieve great things for God. He is sovereign! But usually we need people around us who will give us honest and wise advice however hard, not just our fan clubs who will encourage us forward regardless.
6. I wasn’t practical enough when it came to seeking a ministry opportunity
Sometimes everything is right until the last step. The call to college was correctly understood, the call to ministry confirmed, the development of the heart and the head, as well as the skills for ministry, has taken place. But we fall at the last hurdle because we assume we’ll be able to graduate one day and walk into a post the next. People will be out there looking for us as some cosmologists are looking for life on other planets. If God is in it, we think, they’ll find us, we don’t have to take any active steps.
The reality is being passive in this way isn’t a great quality for anyone who aspires to Christian service. Whatever the church, the network, or the post your hoping to fill, churches, networks and particular occupations all have ways of doing things, procedures, timetables and selection processes which we need to know about and embrace at the right time.
It’s true we live in a post-denominational age, but all church groups, including the newer churches, are looking for particular types of people with particular understanding and particular skills. ‘Do I fit what they are looking for? If not, can I equip myself to do so, or does this suggest I should look elsewhere? What experience do I have which will commend me to them?’ These are all questions to be asked. In some case it’s just basic information which is needed, rather than applying in ignorance thinking we’re God’s gift to the church (which I hope we are, but you know what I mean).
7. Sometimes college isn’t enough
Bible Colleges are only able to deliver so much. Sometimes students graduate with a lot of learning that they need to process before church will trust them.
Sometimes churches can see the great benefit of the skills they’ve learned in theology, or exegesis but are cautious because another dimension seems to be missing. Often students need to reconnect with people, with the reality of the church as a slow-to-change, voluntary organisation which doesn’t immediately jump to welcome the latest church growth plan or even understand the latest missiological vocabulary.
Sometimes there needs to be a re-entry phase during which nothing which has been learned in the hot-house of the college is denied or forgotten but it is blended with the on-going ordinariness of everyday church life. Until people see evidence of that, they may remain a little cautious, however high the marks you’ve scored in your studies.
Derek Tidball is now retired and living in Leicester but was formerly principal of London School of Theology and has held a number of posts in Bible Colleges in the UK and overseas. He is a prolific author including several books in the Bible Speaks Today series (IVP)