What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church
Dr. Scott Wenig reviews White's book for the Denver Journal
White, James Emery. What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011. 188 pp. Paperback, $17.99. ISBN-13: 978-0-9010-1388-1.
Given the increasing complexity of today’s world, formal theological education may be more important than ever. For the upcoming generation of pastors, teachers, and leaders, nothing can replace learning the overarching story of Scripture as told in the Old and New Testaments, the significant categories and key issues in biblical and systematic theology and the important events, developments, and people of church history. Moreover, in a pluralistic society like our own, there is a growing need to acquire some foundational knowledge of Christian apologetics in order to effectively engage the culture with the good news of the Gospel.
Yet formal theological education, as traditionally defined by seminaries, has its limitations. Perhaps no one on the contemporary evangelical scene can speak to this with more insight and credibility than Dr. James Emery White. White, founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has inhabited both the academy and the church and recognizes the necessity and strengths of each as well as their respective weaknesses. As someone who has twenty plus years of experience in parish ministry as well as serving as the former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, White knows of what he writes. In this book, he strives to educate church leaders in some of the most important parts of their ministries that seminary education simply could not, in his view, help them learn.
White covers twenty-five key issues that most pastors face, all the way from emotional survival to time management and everything in between. Along the way he deals with such crucial topics as money, sexual boundaries, vision, and staffing. Each chapter is a tightly focused unit of five to seven pages making it easily digestible. White’s style is personable, engaging, and at times humorous, which gives his book a winsome appeal. Moreover, he is very honest about his own failures and struggles, something you don’t often encounter in the academy. This is an important and valuable book from a seasoned leader in parish ministry who shows that there are simply some things that can only be learned from guiding a church week after week through the ups and downs of ministry.
Of all the subjects that White addresses, I believe he is strongest on hiring staff, dealing with divisive people, and taking care of oneself emotionally. Seminary courses do not often deal with these topics because they are not designed to do so but, more often than not, knowledge in these areas is the difference between effectiveness and failure in the church. White gives some very direct advice along these lines and readers would be well advised to pay attention. I especially appreciated his strong emphasis on having a zero tolerance policy with divisive people in your church. From personal experience as a pastor I know how accurate White is on this topic, as well as in his approach to hiring staff. He admits that much of what he shares has been learned through the ‘school of hard knocks’ and he wants to save other pastors and church leaders from the emotional heartbreak and ecclesiastical carnage that goes with making poor choices in these areas.
As a member of the academy, as well as someone who loves the church, I think I understand the strengths and limitations of each institution when it comes to theological education and training people for ministry. Given that, I believe that seminaries are doing a better job of addressing some of the issues Dr. White writes on than perhaps he realizes. I am also cognizant of the fact that not enough local churches are training up new leaders, at either the clerical or lay level, to face the current cultural challenges faced by evangelical Christianity. There are exceptions to this, of course, but perhaps White’s next book could be directed to this equally important subject. I know that I, for one, would welcome his wisdom and experience here too.
What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary is a solid contribution to a growing corpus of insightful books on church ministry and leadership by people who are godly, knowledgeable ministry experts. I cannot it recommend it enough to both students and church leaders. And while each reader will find some of its chapters more pertinent than others, I’m confident that all will take away some valuable insights for their particular church and ministry. May God increase the influence of James Emery White and all those like him who desire to see God bless His church through the development of men and women who are theologically well-trained and, like the men of Issachar, know the times in which they live and how to lead His people effectively in them.
Scott Wenig, Ph.D.
Professor of Applied Theology