When Samuel Vance walked into church in December 1996, he had his life planned out. He was 18 years old, visiting a church during his winter break from college — a hard-working student who had mapped the rest of his life during his first semester.
He grew up in a working-class Christian home and professed Christ when he was 8 years old. A more mature teenager than most, something he attributes to the death of his mom when he was young, Vance sensed that ministry might be his destination.
“I knew it for a long time,” he said. “But I kinda ran from it.”
After dabbling in electrical engineering, he settled on studying history. He walked on to the football team at Ole Miss and planned to coach and teach high school the rest of his life.
Then, his plans were “demolished by one sermon,” he said.
A guest preacher was in the pulpit. Vance doesn’t remember the main text and says he was completely out of his environment. He does remember the strong hold the Spirit had on him as the preacher gave the testimony of his own call to ministry, describing circumstances similar to Vance’s.
Vance knew the Lord was calling him to be a pastor. After a series of similar events throughout the week, Vance transferred to a Christian college and committed his life to ministry.
“It was the only option,” he said. “That’s just the passion God put in me.”
That “passion” is so strong that the husband and father of two currently serves as senior pastor of Ralph Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, while earning his M.Div. at Southern Seminary. Though he studied at Southern for a short time in 2004, he moved back to Mississippi to help his family following his father’s death. After serving as a bivocational pastor for six years, Vance moved his family to Louisville in 2011 to finish school.
It wasn’t long, though, before Vance felt the pull to return to ministry. He and his wife explored a variety of options before accepting the call to pastor Ralph Avenue. The vivid sense of calling he had that Sunday as a college freshman has never left him.
“There are two things I’m assured of: I know my salvation and I know God has called me to pastor his local church. It’s just about as strong.”
‘The calling of God just burns inside you’
Pastoring while in seminary is not easy. Vance discussed the caution he has to take not to overload himself. He talks with his wife constantly, planning ahead and even finishing assignments well in advance. He’s learned it is better to “under-do instead of over-do,” which is a mistake he made one semester, something he confessed to his deacons. Books are read before the semester begins. Family days are put on the calendar.
Despite his academic responsibilities, Vance couldn’t get away from ministry. “The calling of God just burns inside you,” he said. “You can’t do nothin’ but that.”
The pull to ministry, almost unexplainable, is a theme for people regularly involved. They can’t imagine not serving. Mike S.*, a pastor at Sojourn Community Church, said that he struggled with what to do with his calling when he started at Southern in 2008. While many students served regularly before seminary, they sometimes have a hard time adjusting to “starting over” at a new city and a new church, he said. Mike was no different.
He and his wife started small, volunteering at a membership class. They just showed up, serving without anticipating a larger role. When Mike gave the ministry leader a list of suggestions to make the ministry more efficient, it made an impression on the pastor, and when he stepped down he encouraged Mike to apply for the position. Before long, Mike was working full-time at Sojourn.
“If you want to have any confirmation of your external calling, that’s not going to happen if you just show up on Sundays and just serve coffee once a month,” Mike said. The more students get involved, he said, the more wisdom they can get from pastors about their gifting.
“Let your leaders know you really want to take on leadership so they can test that and affirm whether you’re called or just living in a pipe dream,” he said.
‘Seminary is not a waiting period’
While some students are able to find positions in local churches, not everyone has the opportunity or calling to full-time involvement. Organizations like Refuge Louisville, Louisville Rescue Mission, and Scarlet Hope provide numerous opportunities for regular ministry.
For Amber Smith, an M.Div. student in the School of Theology, volunteering for Scarlet Hope offered her a chance to get off campus, out of what she called the “seminary bubble.” For those who attend class, work at the seminary, and are involved in their churches, it’s hard to interact with unbelievers.
“Everyone I knew was a Christian,” she said.
In 2013, a representative from Scarlet Hope, an organization that shares the gospel with women in the sex industry, visited one of Smith’s classes. Knowing she wanted to be involved, Smith left class on Tuesday, received training at Scarlet Hope on Wednesday, and started serving on Thursday.
“What’s the point of being at seminary if we can’t be the hands and feet of Jesus and do what we’re called to do?” she said. “It’s been amazing to go out every week and go where Jesus would go.”
Smith studies full-time, works at Fifth and Broadway, volunteers weekly at Scarlet Hope, and leads Bible studies for girls in the youth group her husband pastors. She shrugged off the difficulty of time commitment, and said balancing a busy life is normal for her and her husband. She couldn’t sit on the sidelines. It was a matter of obedience, she said.
“Seminary is not a waiting period; it’s a time to be active and obedient in our calling to Christ,” she said. “God has called all believers to go and make disciples, and being in seminary is not an excuse to wait on that.”
Seth Osbourne, a Ph.D. student in church history who plans on pursuing theological education, volunteers at Refuge Louisville, which ministers to internationals and refugees in the city. When he was asked to teach children more often, he admits part of him was hesitant about teaching kids instead of adults. He was quickly convicted.
All students have been given significant resources so they can even attend seminary, said Micah Nave, a Ph.D. student in family ministry who earned her M.Div. in 2012. She said she was motivated by gratitude toward those who made her education possible. Nave, who serves as the director of children and women’s ministry at Springdale Community Church in Louisville, wanted to give back.
“There are people standing behind you, cheering you on, wanting you to be equipped, wanting you to have this opportunity to do what God’s called you to do,” she said. “Why wait until later if you can do it right now?”
It’s humble attention to the little things, Nave said, that make up an effective and God-honoring minister to God’s people. She said a seminary student who isn’t driven to serve in the local church simply isn’t “servant-hearted.”
“If all you’re doing is getting the big degree and the big knowledge, you’re not being faithful in the small things,” she said.
Mike S. said that while he doesn’t want to moralize how involved a student should be, someone who isn’t serving at all should reset their priorities and recognize the damage they’re doing to their ministry preparation.
“They’re really shooting themselves in the foot,” he said. “They’re just being unfaithful to the Scriptures that they’re studying. I don’t think the Scriptures envision a training period that is divorced from faithfulness to those very Scriptures. You’ve got to do it to know it.”
Learning a doctrine is one thing. Learning how to apply that doctrine to real life is almost impossible without ministry experience. Volunteering provides valuable practical application of the theology students learn in the classroom.
For Wyn Boerckel, an M.Div. student who serves as a chaplain at Louisville Rescue Mission, ministry has been a tutorial for lessons learned in his counseling classes.
Watching the doctrine of repentance he studied in his class worked out in a real-life situation helped him understand the doctrine better, he said.
“You have to think about the doctrine to the point that you can explain it to someone who doesn’t know what the term ordo salutis means,” he said.
Nave observed the distinct challenges in teaching kids, who are more concrete thinkers than adults and tend to ask difficult questions. Osbourne also recounted how hard it was to answer a child who asked him to explain what the Virgin Birth was. He learned quickly that a seminary answer won’t always do.
“If you can teach a kid, you can teach anybody,” he said. “It’s helped me become a better teacher.”
An unextraordinary calling
A student’s calling is not fulfilled by simply graduating from seminary. Southern is an important training ground for lifelong service to Christ and his church, but some of the most meaningful lessons for a minister of the gospel aren’t taught in a classroom, but in the church lobby and the streets of Louisville.
“Being regularly involved in ministry while a seminary student is critical to keeping one’s heart and mind rightly aligned with God’s calling,” said Adam W. Greenway, dean of the Billy Graham School for Missions, Evangelism and Ministry. “Regular ministry opportunities allow one to put into practice what is being learned at seminary while also providing the student with invaluable experience that cannot be otherwise acquired.”
This kind of service is inglorious, unimpressive, and actually entirely unextraordinary. The people of your church probably won’t be impressed by the guy taking out the trash or the girl making coffee before worship begins. Being a spouse, parent, employee, church or ministry volunteer, and student won’t always be great for your GPA. But using your gifts for the good of others in your church community is precisely how to demonstrate the oneness of the body of Christ (Rom 12:4-5). It also teaches humility — one of the best weapons against the pride and selfishness that can derail your future ministry, and something Mike said is best cultivated through repeated serving experiences.
“Your ministry will only grow as big as your humble roots grow low,” he said.
For more information about ministry opportunities in the Louisville area, email the Ministry Connections office at email@example.com. To learn more about volunteer ministry opportunities, contact the Bevin Center for Missions Mobilization at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Mike S. and his family are planning to start overseas missions work next year. For security reasons his full name has been omitted.