*Published in The Table, Iss. 16, Core Values 2013 (Ashland Theological Seminary)*
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
As a small group facilitator for the class IT 500: Introduction to Theological Education, I have the opportunity to engage with students who are attending seminary for the first time. Although they have excitement about turning the world upside down, “leaping over tall buildings in a single bound,” and are overall humbled by the fact that God wants to use them to affect change for the Kingdom of God, many are also fearful when it comes to walking in excellence, and especially fearful as they pursue academic excellence.
Excellence is a word that is difficult and challenging for many seminary students to grasp because it is a word that is often synonymous with perfection. Perfection as we know it is something that cannot be achieved in our humanity. And since perfection is something that will not be obtained on this side of the horizon, we do not have to operate in fear by trying to achieve something that is out of our reach! We can simply determine to do the very best that we can with what God has given us, and to be the best that we can be.
Pursuing academic excellence in seminary means willingness to make the necessary adjustments and sacrifices in life in order carry out the call of God in our lives. The one thing for certain about life when entering into ministry and attending seminary is that life does not stop because we are obedient to the call! Life goes on and continues to move forward, and we are expected to grab the reigns of control by utilizing proper balance in every aspect of our lives.
We are expected to not get caught up in the whirlwinds of life and become consumed with what we consider to be urgent due to lack of time management. Academic excellence demands that we allot the proper time to complete our assignments and studies because an excuse that will not work in seminary is that, “I am busy in ministry.” Really? Join the club! Being busy in ministry is to be expected; how we handle the busyness of ministry will determine if we are effective and fruitful in our pursuit of academic excellence.
Growing up I ran track and it was something that I thoroughly loved and enjoyed! I enjoyed competing against other schools, running the relays, the camaraderie of the team as we traveled to our meets; but most of all I loved track practice! It was in practice that I learned discipline and remembered the reason I ran in the first place – to win the race and be victorious! I never thought I would find something that I loved as much as running track until I answered my call to ministry, but I also never thought that these two very different entities would have so much in common.
Like running, ministry involves discipline.
Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air (1 Corinthians 9:26).
Approaching academic excellence without discipline is a sure remedy for disaster. Running aimlessly in pursuit of academic excellence will cause us to burn out before we have had the chance to make a difference, and to give up before the race is finished. It is important to know the difference between knowing our purpose and fulfilling our purpose. Knowing our purpose gives us reassurance that God has a plan for us; fulfilling the purpose will take intentionality, structure, effort – discipline.
I learned quickly in seminary that I needed discipline in my life in order to meet school deadlines, and be a mother, wife, and woman in ministry. Discipline has taught me what is necessary and important for the season that I am in, which is a challenge in itself because sacrifices have to be made that we are often not ready to make. However, for the sake of sanity (oftentimes our own), we make the sacrifices so that we can be productive in all areas of our lives.
Ministry involves diligence.
At the start of the race all runners have energy; it is not until we have been around the track once or twice that we begin to lose steam. It is important that we give careful thought and attention to what we signed up for when we said, “yes” to the call because there are hurdles designed to make us stumble if we become careless and laxed in our preparation. We stumble when we start out too fast and lose momentum on our way to the finish line. We stumble when we jump the gun and try to get ahead before our season. We stumble when we run outside of our lane and get into affairs that do not concern us. All of these things lead to disqualification from the race, and have a tendency to cause others to be disqualified. As ministers of the gospel, we do not want to cause anyone to stumble! We have a reason to run in pursuit of academic excellence because there are so many things that we have yet to experience and learn. If we are diligent, persistent and teachable, we are in great position to equip ourselves for the longevity of the race. How we prepare for the race makes the difference!
Ministry involves academic determination and distinction.
As a runner in high school I had to go to each of my teachers and have them fill out a slip with my current letter grade for the class. Students who participated in sports could not receive a grade below a C. If grades were below a C, the athlete was not able to participate in the upcoming event. However, my track coach was not satisfied with C level work. He had an expectation of a grade of B or higher; if track runners had anything less than a B we were not allowed to run in the next meet. This caused those of us who ran track to discipline ourselves all the more and do our best in our classes because of course we wanted to run!
Academic excellence in seminary reminds me of this scenario in high school. Personally as a minister, achieving academic excellence in seminary was not an option. I believe that because God called me to ministry and has given me the gift of preaching and teaching, the way that I honor God and be a good steward of the gift is to take academics seriously. I do not want to just get a C and be satisfied; I want to excel.
Just as in track, runners lose their reason for running when they feel that they are no longer challenged.
They lose their reason for running when they lose their passion for the sport.
They lose their reason for running when they no longer push themselves to excel.
They lose their reason to run when they forget why they are running in the first place.
Pursuing academic excellence has nothing to do with trying to be perfect; it has everything to do with remembering why am I am in this race in the first place. I am in this race because of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for me. I am also in this race because God created something in me that He wants to use to impact others, and He believes that I am worth the sacrifice because He chose me. Because He was in pursuit of me, I have a reason to run in pursuit of all that He has destined for me, including excellence in life and in the academics of higher learning. The old adage says, “It’s not about how much you know; it’s about who you know.” In many ways I agree. And because I know the One who calls me to service, I pray that as a minister of the gospel, I never forget the why I am running.