Yesterday I preached at Northern Seminary's weekly chapel service. Set near the beginning of a new academic year it was good to gather with faculty, staff and students, in a familiar space with many familiar faces. I reflected that this October I have tipped the balance. When I was ordained as a Baptist minister I believed I would spend my entire life in pastoral ministry serving various churches. In fact I only served for 21 years (in two churches) before a surprising call to seminary life at Spurgeon's College in London. I recognize that I have just tipped into my 22nd year in seminary life. I could never imagine that I would spend more than half of my ministerial life in theological training....but it's just happened.
People sometimes ask me which I prefer - church or seminary. That's a really difficult question because they are such contrasting ministries. In the local church Carol and I became embedded in church family and wider community with extraordinarily deep connections as we grew in service together. At times it was all-consuming, in-your-face stuff. Highs and lows in rapid succession. We belonged! At its best it meant living in love together as God worked his purposes out....far beyond our imagining. I know there were grim times too, when balance between church/home was hopelessly wrong or pastoral tragedy struck. But living the pastoral role is unlike any other.
In seminary we were embedded in a different kind of community with a longer time-line. Stephen Olford termed it: 'Ministry to ministers is ministry to multitudes'. Far beyond the immediate bonds of teaching and caring for students and families preparing for ministry there lies a wide kingdom reach when they graduate to touch hundreds of lives over future decades. And the joys of hearing outcomes are often delayed for years....yet joys they are as you hear of the part you played!
I guess the fact that Carol could not be as closely involved in partnership these last years (though she has given her best) is the biggest difference between church and seminary and, personally, I admit I much preferred it when we were able to work as a team in the local church. But ....what a privilege it has all been. Now setting up base camp for a climb in my 43rd year of ministry!