Seminary: A Spiritual Greenhouse
Before working through this image to bring out what is taking place in the Seminary, it is helpful to do what Seminary students do, namely, a short word study. This will make it clear that describing the Seminary as a spiritual greenhouse is not simply a convenient image, but it is based on the very meaning of the Latin word from which it originates. That word is seminarium. A seminarium was a place where people grew semin, that is, seed. This means that the root idea in the word Seminary is that of being a seedbed, a nursery, or, as was said previously, a greenhouse. It appears that at some point in the Middle Ages, this term came into use to describe the places where men were trained for ministry in the church. When we see the original meaning of the word, we can understand why the Seminary can be called a spiritual greenhouse.
What takes place in the Seminary
Once we see the Seminary as a spiritual greenhouse, we can use our understanding of what happens in a greenhouse to understanding what takes place in the years students spend in studying there. Three main points come to mind.
In the first place, it brings out that the Seminary is a very sheltered and protected environment. It is true that the brothers who study at the Seminary are members in local congregations and have to go about the business of daily living. This does not take away that in Seminary, there is a degree of isolation. Students are not fully engaged in the affairs of life. They are just like little seedlings in a greenhouse which are sheltered from the elements, living in a carefully controlled climate. This, of course, is done in order to give the seedlings the best possible start. A little seedling put out in the open too soon is vulnerable to being stunted in its growth.
Of course the students coming to the Seminary are not totally like little seedlings in a greenhouse. They will have many years of growing up in the Christian faith behind them. While in one way they may be strong in the faith, motivated by love for the Lord and his church to dedicate their energies to studying, they themselves will realize that they are mere seedlings.
In the second place, seeing the seminary as a spiritual greenhouse brings out how it is a very rich environment. Everything is designed to encourage maximum growth in grace and knowledge for the work of ministry. Students will be fed an extremely rich theological diet as they are immersed in God's Word. The menu includes Bibliology, Dogmatology, Ecclesiology, and Diaconiology. In ordinary terms, that means they continue their study of Hebrew and Greek. They are fed rich diets of Old and New Testament studies. They become exposed to the rich doctrinal heritage of the church. They will also be given a solid overview of the history of the church. Further, they are instructed on how to work with all this information in order to be able to feed the congregation with sound preaching and teaching. They are shown the way of pastoring a congregation.
In the third place, seeing the Seminary as a spiritual greenhouse brings out that it is specialized in its task. The owner of the greenhouse will be growing plants for a specific market. One specializes in flowers, while another in growing vegetables. Applying this to the Seminary, it means that it is also very specialized. It has been set up by its "owners," namely, the churches, for a very specific purpose. That purpose is training men for ministry. This is not just a generic training for ministry but ministry in the midst of the churches. The churches have a vested interest as they want to ensure a steady supply of ministers. So, it is the case of "by the churches, for the churches." By setting up the Seminary, by appointing greenhouse workers, called professors, who themselves have grown up in the churches, effort is made to have a safe and fertile setting to nurture and cultivate.
What takes place after Seminary
Plants are not meant to stay in the greenhouse permanently. Rather, they are grown to the point where they can be planted out in the field. This is true also for the Seminary. The day comes when the students leave to be put out into the field. This is one of the ways Paul described the Corinthian church, as we read in 1 Corinthians 3:9, "...you are God's field." Men spend time in the spiritual greenhouse not simply so that they can go back in the field and grow among the other plants, but that they can take a leading role in looking after all the plants in God's field. Of course there are other workers, namely, the elders and deacons. There is a special task, however, for those called to be ministers of the Word. That is why they spend four years in the protected and rich environment of the Seminary.
It is at this point that the greenhouse image again is very relevant. Anyone who has bought vegetable plants or flowers in spring knows that you should not just take the plants home and stick them in the garden immediately. In gardening talk, plants need to be hardened off. This means that for a week or so you gradually get the plants used to the unprotected outdoor environment. You don't put them in full sun for the whole day. At night, especially if the nights are still quite cool, you are wise to put the plants inside. If not, you may lose your plants and you will have to buy them all over again.
This is also true for those who leave Seminary. This vulnerability has been recognized over the years and the churches have tried to address it by setting up a Pastoral Training Program. Students are exposed to the various aspects of ministry by doing some Catechism teaching and spending a summer under the mentorship of a minister. This is like the hardening process. After the experience, the students can again enjoy the protection and nourishment in the spiritual greenhouse. The day comes, however, when the student has to say goodbye to the safety of the spiritual greenhouse. They entered in the hope that one day they would be called to take up a place in one of God's fields.
Like any seedling planted out in the field is planted with great potential, so it is with the students who leave Seminary. At the same time, it is very important for the plants of field in which they have been placed to minister to realize they have received a new seedling from the spiritual greenhouse. He has been hardened somewhat, but he is still very tender. It can be expected that there are going to be some transplanting pains. Just like a new seedling, it also means that it won't take much to squash him. This might happen, for example, if all sorts of demands are put on a new minister too quickly so that he does not have the opportunity to develop the very thing he was nurtured to do, namely, preaching and teaching. It might happen when there are unrealistic expectations, such as when a new seedling is compared to a well-established plant in his preaching. It is true, of course, that a minister is to work among the plants in God's field, but it has to be realized that he too is a plant that needs to be ministered to by the other plants in the field so he can grow into his task more and more. He is therefore going to need good elders and good members. It is one thing to "break in" a new minister, but care must be taken not to forget the little word "in." With care, one will be properly broken into his task. A little carelessness and it may break a new minister.
This year's crop
This past September, another crop of seedlings left the spiritual greenhouse in Hamilton. They are in the process of finding their place in one of God's fields. May our heavenly Father grant his blessing so that they may develop their potential. Also, may our heavenly Father continue to stir up the hearts of brothers so that they will find the way from the field to the greenhouse, so that by God's grace they may one day return to serve in one of God's fields. Further, may our heavenly Father bless the congregations calling and receiving a new minister, so that they care for them and provide an environment where they can flourish and grow. And finally, may our heavenly Father bless the professors, as they labour in the spiritual greenhouse to provide workers for God's fields. As the Lord Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field" (Luke 10:2).