In Praise of Average Students

In The Nick of Time
by Kevin T. Bauder

Seminaries are academic institutions. Consequently, they tend to celebrate academic attainment. Typically, the best students are thought to be the ones with the highest grade point averages. Since these students have written the best papers and scored highest on the exams, they are sometimes considered the best prepared for ministry.

In fact, the reverse is often the case. Mastery of textbook study is not the only qualification for ministry. It is not even the most important qualification. In the real world of ministry, average students often surpass the academic high-fliers in their effectiveness for Jesus Christ.

The reason is that knowledge is only a tool for ministry. Possessing knowledge is not a sufficient condition for effectively serving the Lord. Knowledge must be brought to bear upon life—first, the knower’s own life, and then the lives of those to whom he ministers. No amount of textbook learning can prepare a person to make the applications. Intellectual skill is not the same thing as wisdom, though wisdom has an intellectual component to it.

For some students, learning comes easily. They relish the challenge of mastering the biblical languages. They quickly grasp the details of the system of faith. They are able to exegete and theologize well. These students often do not realize that they have been given a tremendous gift and privilege. They may even be puzzled by the inability of their classmates to perceive grammatical, exegetical, and theological connections. To them, it all seems so obvious.

Yet these are sometimes the very students who fail in ministry. Why? This question has at least two answers.

First, the brightest students run a higher risk of intellectual pride. They are capable of perceiving ideas that their peers—and sometimes even their professors—do not. They may not understand that their intellectual ability is a gift from God, and they may begin to think that it sets them apart from the ordinary mass of humanity. Perhaps they become impatient with those who do not readily grasp the superiority of their ideas. Impatience then turns to frustration and then to anger, and occasionally a shade of self-pity creeps in (they feel so unappreciated). This frame of mind is a form of self-absorption, and it is death to ministry.

Second, some of the brightest students may excel in intellectual work exactly because they lack skill at managing relationships. They find it easier to live in the world of ideas than to live in the world of people. They retreat into their studies, using their books to shelter them from the rough-and-tumble of human interaction. They sit long hours reading at desks, and when they graduate, they carry that habit into Christian service. Their work suffers because they never learn how to foster the kind of relationships that allow them to minister to people.

By way of contrast, average students may have a greater appreciation for learning than bright students, simply because it has cost them more. They have to work harder to achieve the same grade as the bright student. Their investment teaches them to value what they have learned. For the brightest students, academics can become a kind of game. For average students, it is very serious business.

Furthermore, an average student who has learned to deal with people is likely to have a better ministry than a bright student who has not. In fact, the average student may possess certain advantages. Often, less of his life is wrapped up in studies, so he gains experience of a wider variety of life situations. He may understand people’s feelings and needs more intuitively than the bright student. His enjoyment of people may combine with his appreciation for a greater variety of activities so as to multiply his opportunities to minister.

Average and sub-average students also learn another lesson that brighter students may not. They learn to persevere through difficult and daunting tasks. If they work hard, then they learn everything that the smarter students do—but they also learn one more thing. They learn by experience how God can help them to overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable. They grow as men of faith and character, and they take their faith and character with them into ministry.

Every professor enjoys the students who are quickest to “get it.” But professors who have taught for a few years have also seen some of their brighter students crash and burn, and they have seen very ordinary students become effective pastors and missionaries. Given a choice, most teachers would rather have a very average student who is serious about life, serious about his studies, has a heart for people, and is growing in faith and character.

Of course, none of what I’m saying implies that bright students have to be proud, socially inept, or otherwise deficient as ministers. God can use their giftedness in exceptional ways. Nor does it mean that average students are exempt from temptation (for example, if some bright students are tempted toward pride of intellect, some average or sub-average students may be tempted toward pride of ignorance).

What these matters do imply is that one need not be an intellectual in order to enjoy the blessing of God upon his ministry. The most average student can go into the pastorate or the mission field with confidence, knowing that God is with him and will help him. By the same token, average students should not neglect the opportunity to gain the best training that they can. Seminaries are not meant only for the intellectually elite. They are meant for people who want to get ready to serve God.

The student who does his best and gets a “C” should not be discouraged. As a pastor or missionary, he may not be writing academic papers, but he will use the knowledge that he gained when he wrote the papers. God will take what he has learned and use it in the lives of His people.

Average students still need to prepare for ministry. They still need to go to school, and they still need to learn. The academic environment, however, does not mirror the environment of Christian ministry. Doing well in school does not guarantee good ministry, and being an average student does not preclude effectiveness in ministry. The student who performs slowly but faithfully in seminary may become the one who excels in ministry.

At a Solemn Music

John Milton (1608-1674)

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heaven’s joy,
Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixed pow’r employ,
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce;
And to our high-raisèd phantasy present
That undisturbed song of pure concent,
Aye sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
To Him that sits thereon,
With saintly shout, and solemn jubilee,
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
Their loud uplifted angel-trumpets blow,
And the Cherubic host in thousand choirs
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,
With those just Spirits that wear victorious palms,
Hymns devout and holy psalms
Singing everlastingly:
Thus we on earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportioned sin
Jarred against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair music that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed
In perfect diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good.
O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heaven, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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