The Final Stretch

As I alluded in my last post, it is sometimes suggested that the last semester of seminary is the most difficult semester. After soaring on the internship, the student must again clamp on the chains and manacles of practice preaching and formal class room instruction. I can understand and agree with this sentiment to a point. There is something about the internship—tasting and experiencing the real work that the seminary student anticipates he will soon be doing as an ordained servant of the Lord—which makes it difficult to return to the formality of seminary. The final semester of seminary can feel like a long and dark tunnel which the student must walk through knowing that a steam engine with the words “synodical exam” etched into its side is heading directly toward him at full speed. I think the seven fourth year students returned from the internship shrouded with a bit of gloom which was not helped by the reputation of this final semester.

However, now that I stand safely on the other side of the tunnel, I testify from my own experience that it was not nearly so difficult as I expected. I do not mean by this that the semester was any less rigorous or demanding than the previous semesters—every semester in seminary is accompanied with challenges and difficulties. I only mean to suggest that my experience of this final semester was not so gloomy—emotionally and mentally frustrating—as I had come to expect based on what I had heard or thought was true.

Perhaps one of the primary reasons for my positive evaluation of seminary’s final semester is the confidence I had gained coming off the internship. The Lord used the internship to strengthen my conviction that I was truly called to this work, and to strengthen my resolve going forward. Thus, coursework became less of a burden that I had to lift off my shoulders every day and every week, and more an opportunity to grow in my ability to perform in the calling I was certain the Lord had given me.

We entered back into the world of formal instruction with an interim course entitled “The Reformation of 1953,” taught by Professor Dykstra. Kindly, Prof. Dykstra later informed us that the church history portion of our synodical exam would cover the history of the PRC, about which the history of 1953 plays a central role. Thus, our interim class doubled as preparation for part of our exam.

The course load for the Spring semester consisted of Reformed Symbols (this time treating the Canons of Dort), New Testament Exegesis, Old Testament Exegesis, World Religions (or Foreign Missions), Old Testament History, and New Testament Isagogics. This final semester also included a couple of shorter new classes, each of which lasted a period of seven weeks—Advanced Hebrew and Advanced Homiletics. All of these classes I profess to have enjoyed thoroughly, but in this final semester I discovered a much deeper appreciation for the work of exegesis. Now that I had more experience writing sermons, especially in the context of a living, breathing congregation on the internship, my exegesis papers became much more “sermonic” in their structure and in their content (especially regarding applications). Under the guidance of our professors, the practical knowledge we students gained on our internships was solidified and developed during our final class hours.

Another reason for my positive evaluation of the final semester is simply the people with whom I was surrounded every day. Of course, my wife and son provide love and support every day no matter where I am, for which I am profoundly thankful to the Lord. But the people to whom I am especially referring at this juncture are the people at the seminary. I already mentioned in a previous post the camaraderie which developed among the students over the course of our years together—a camaraderie which continued through our final semester together. All of us gained from the internship experiences of the others as we reflected and shared insights together. I think our discussions in and out of the class room were livelier than ever before due to our mutually increased confidence and ability. Some of us even got together regularly to prepare for the synodical exam which was still looming over all of us. We also continued to profit from the quiet and faithful service of the seminary staff, Mrs. Judi Doezema and Mr. Chuck Terpstra. The cheerfulness and smoothness of seminary in my memory is in large part due to the contribution of these two saints, for whom we give thanks to the Lord.

But in this post, I especially want to highlight the relationship between us students and our professors. I hesitate only briefly to say this because I am not sure if it was only my individual perception that the relationship with our professors underwent a slight shift in the last semester, or if this sense was the experience of all the students. I think the shift is analogous to the change in a father’s behavior toward his children from the time of their childhood to the time of their teenage years. A father treats his young children with love, and in his love for his children he talks down to them, i.e. he does his best to speak on their level. He talks down to them with a view to being able to talk on the same level with them when they mature in their understanding. When his children reach their teen years, a father begins to speak to them as adults. The fact is, those teenagers are not adults—they are still children who still have a lot of growing to do—but they have also advanced beyond their childhood and have shown themselves capable of handling greater responsibility. The analogy is apt, because from a spiritual and vocational point of view these professors are the fathers of us students, and we their children. This is how the apostle Paul opened his second epistle to his student Timothy, with whom he had no blood relation: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, . . . To Timothy, my dearly beloved son. . .” (2 Tim. 1:1, 2). When my class first began our seminary instruction we were just little children—perhaps we did not know it, but it was true nonetheless. By the time we finished our internship we had matured significantly regarding our knowledge, experience, and ability, and the professors treated us accordingly. Now that we have graduated from seminary we have “left the nest.” By the grace of God, in the pastoral ministry the lessons afforded to us by our “fathers” will continue to bear fruit as we continue to grow. On behalf of the class of 2017 I would like to say thank you to our faithful professors, and thanks to the Lord for providing them. May the Lord continue to sustain you as you train our “siblings” for the ministry of the Word and sacraments.  

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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The Internship

Once again, I walked out of Professor Dykstra’s office with mixed emotions. I had just been informed that the seminary faculty had granted me an internship, and that mine would take place in Hull, Iowa at Calvary Protestant Reformed Church. Mixed emotions. Of course, I was tremendously excited. For several months all the third years had ruminated, speculated, and discussed—would we be granted internships? And if so, where would they be? Now I knew definitely: the Lord had opened yet another door to the ministry. Now I could make definite plans. Now I could look forward to getting to know a concrete, real group of people and their pastor. I had heard all about the benefits of the internship, and I could hardly wait to get started.

On the other hand, the imminent prospect of something new in my seminary training conjured up the old fright and nerves I referred to in a previous post. I would argue that the internship is the ultimate test whether a man has the necessary gifts to be a pastor. On the internship, seminary students put the knowledge they have been gaining in the classroom into practice. What previously had remained mostly in the realm of theory turns into real faces, real consistory meetings, real problems. Furthermore, in my case, I knew I would be living in a completely new environment for half a year. I did not know a single soul who attended Calvary PR Church, and I knew very little of her pastor with whom I would be working closely.

To give you an idea of what seminary students face on their internships I will point out the various requirements—but keep in mind that each internship is unique, as each one takes place in a local congregation with her pastor and her council. The students have the duration of the six months to read and review ten books assigned by the professors. These books all treat some aspect of what we would call practical theology, but the content ranges from homiletics (i.e. sermon preparation and organization) to missions. As the internship puts theory into practice, so the books we were required to read on the internship were decidedly practical in nature. The students must also prepare and deliver a minimum of nine sermons (most pastor mentors actually require at least ten or eleven). Three of these sermons must take a Lord’s Day from the Heidelberg Catechism as the text, and two of the sermons must be developed for a special service. The student has more liberty with the rest of the sermons—he may preach a short series as I did, or he may simply pick several texts which strike him as significant and appropriate. The student must also teach catechism—preferably at least one bible history class and at least one doctrinal class. He must lead two bible societies, attend consistory and council meetings, and conduct pastoral visits.

In addition to the required labors, if there are any special opportunities that his internship affords him, the student does well to take advantage of them. For instance, as my internship took place in Northwest Iowa, I had the opportunity to attend some of the meetings of the Foreign Mission Committee (FMC) and thus become better acquainted with the work of that denominational committee and with missions in the Protestant Reformed Churches of America (PRCA). I also had the opportunity to attend and participate in the Young Adult’s retreat which was held in Northwest Iowa that summer. The other students had opportunities that were unique to the congregations in which they had their internships.

At the conclusion of the internship, the students must write reports on their labors to be evaluated by the professors. The mentor pastor and consistory also submit a report on the labors of their intern.

Now, having expressed the tick of fear that I initially experienced when I heard about my internship, I can confidently report that my internship went amazingly well. I think my six classmates would make the same confident assessment regarding their own internships. In fact, the Lord used my internship in a powerful way to confirm in my soul that he was indeed calling me to the ministry.

Calvary PR Church did an excellent job hosting me and my family. It was amazing to see the entire congregation stand up to support us not only financially for six months, but also spiritually with their prayers and encouragement. The saints at Calvary have a love for the Protestant Reformed seminary and for the pastoral ministry. Consequently, any fears I may have had in connection with moving to a new place for a time seem silly when I look back on the experience. My wife Lisa and I are thankful for the relationships we developed with the saints and with Rev. Griess and his family while in Calvary.

Furthermore, the fruit of having an internship in Northwest Iowa meant we had opportunity to get to know and love the church of Christ as she is manifested in Calvary PR Church, but also in the other four local congregations in the near vicinity. While at Calvary I had occasion to bring the Word to all those congregations. One of the advantages of being a seminary student is that one gets to see and meet many of the congregations in the PRC. The only other time I had been in the area was for a convention when I was 15 years old; now I have six months of experience there as an adult. Even if the Lord never calls me to serve a congregation in Northwest Iowa, I now have a better understanding of the people and churches which exist there, which knowledge I believe will serve me well going forward.

The only difficult aspect of the internship was the imminent prospect of returning to seminary for one final semester. Rumor had it that this return to seminary was difficult for students who had just tasted the joy and freedom of serving a local congregation. In addition, we were all painfully aware that at the end of this final semester would be what seemed the mightiest obstacle of all: the synodical examination.

More on this final semester of seminary next time, the Lord willing. 

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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Third Year

In preparation for writing this post I sat back and tried to think about the things that made the third year of seminary distinct from the other years, and I have concluded that part of my challenge now relates to the fact that third year was very similar to second year. The first year of seminary is distinct in my mind as the time when everything was exciting because it was the beginning—everything was new. I distinguish second year as the proving grounds, when we were first introduced to practice preaching and began our regular, weekly cycle of writing exegesis papers. But from many points of view, third year was simply a continuation of second year, with the exception that now many of us were or would soon be licensed to speak a word of edification in the congregations (a significant landmark in our training upon which I reflected in my previous post). During our third year we continued practice preaching, we continued our regular coursework, and we continued to write exegesis papers regularly.

Our course work for third year consisted of the following:

In the Fall semester, we took classes on Poimenics, Old Testament History, New Testament History, Dogmatics (Christology), History of Dogma, and Old Testament Exegesis. The word “Poimenics” comes from the Greek verb “to shepherd; tend to the flock,” which provides a clue to the course material, which concerns such things as family visitation, pastoral counseling, conducting funerals and weddings, and so on.

In between the two semesters we took a two-week Interim course on Reformed Covenantal Ethics, taught by Professor Gritters. Then we plunged into the Spring semester and the following classes: Reformed Symbols, Dogmatics (Soteriology), New Testament History, Missions, Old Testament Isagogics, and New Testament Exegesis. Reformed Symbols is the study of the Reformed confessions, this time focusing on the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. The word “Isagogics” comes from the Greek that means “to lead into,” which again indicates the subject matter of the course, which introduces each book of the Old Testament especially by examining the main theme(s) of the books.

Each of these classes requires reading, most of them require writing, and all of them require diligence. The student who works hard in his courses is rewarded with greater knowledge and understanding in the scriptures, which is a tremendous blessing!

Though in many respects third year was similar to second year, it was in part the sameness and regularity of it that made third year such an enjoyable year of seminary. Along with the similarity, regularity, and development in our coursework came similarity, regularity, and development in our relationships.

I am very thankful to God for the opportunity I had to go through seminary with a large class. Of course, seminary work requires initiative, hard work, and growth of the individual student—he must face each text that he is required to exegete, he must take each test alone, he must do his own reading. If the student relies only on the insights of others, the danger necessarily arises that he sinfully fails to do his own work and violates his own conscience. Nevertheless, when several students regularly face the same texts together, take the same courses, and read the same material, they cannot help but discuss the various challenges they face and the insights the Spirit gives them. Far from being detrimental, I believe God used this interaction in powerful ways to shape each one of us for our calling. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of a friend” (Prov. 27:17). So, on Friday noon when we fired up the grill for our weekly brat lunch (a long-standing seminary tradition), several of us would discuss some matter that came up in class that day, or the text we had all studied for exegesis that week, or any other matter that struck our interest at the time. Sometimes discussion would spring up spontaneously during the afternoons in the libraries—sometimes these discussions would go on for too long, with the unfortunate result that some of us were forced to forgo sleep in order to get our daily work finished. I have many fond memories of my classmates, and I thank God for the friendship and ability to cooperate with each other that we all now enjoy. May the Lord grant that these friendships continue long into the future now that we no longer spend regular time together in the same building.

In addition to my large class of third years, this particular year of seminary included the addition of three first year students. Three more students meant three more minds to contribute in our discussions and three more hands to hold three more ping pong paddles after lunch every day. Naturally as upper classmen we considered it our duty to inform the new students about the “horrors” of seminary, but we were easily seen through. Now these three students are in their third year, and I very much hope the experience is as wholesome and beneficial as it was for me.

One final incident that contributed to the uniqueness of third year was our January trip to southern California. Every so often the seminary makes a trip in order to attend a theological conference put on by Westminster Seminary California (or Westminster West) in Escondido, roughly twenty miles north of San Diego. All the seminarians with Professor Cammenga flew to California for an extended weekend stay which provided a nice opportunity for fellowship and interaction with our Hope PR Church in Redlands, CA. We spent some time sight-seeing in San Diego, attended the conference, and worshipped in Redlands on the Lord’s Day. In San Diego we could not resist attempting to “reproduce” an old picture we had seen of a previous seminary class—see the two pictures here for your evaluation regarding how well we did.

Next time, the Lord willing, I intend to reflect a bit on a tremendously important and beneficial aspect of seminary training, namely, the internship.

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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Licensed to Speak a Word of Edification

On a May afternoon in 2015, I walked out of Professor Dykstra’s office with the same feeling of mixed emotions which was becoming familiar for me as a seminary student. On the one hand, I had just been granted license by the seminary faculty to speak a word of edification in the Protestant Reformed Churches! Being licensed was highly significant, as it indicated that the professors judged I had the necessary spiritual and intellectual gifts, and was far enough along in the development of those gifts, to stand before God’s people and lead them in worship. The Lord had opened another door as I continued to prepare for the gospel ministry.

On the other hand, the announcement of my licensure was also accompanied by another inescapable thought—a thought which continued to creep in the back of my mind until it eventually stretched over the forefront of my consciousness—a thought which became almost overpowering as I lay face up on the living room couch at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, listening to the steady ticking of the second hand coming from the mantel. I knew that in an hour and a half I would walk for the first time from the consistory room to the sanctuary, down the center aisle and up the steps to the pulpit, whereupon I would turn around and behold a sea of faces all expecting me to take charge of the proceedings for the next hour and a half.

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I begin this post drawing attention to my first experience leading the people of God in worship as a seminary student for two reasons.

In the first place, I think it is usually the case that young men who wonder whether they are being called to pursue the ministry are a bit frightened by the prospect of standing before God’s people in the worship service. I can testify that a good deal of fright and nervousness in anticipation of this work was my own experience. The fright is compounded by the fact known to every seminary student that preaching is the central work which a minister is called to do—if the student lacks the ability to preach, he is not called to the ministry.

But it is in this connection that I want to assure every young man who considers the call to the ministry: fright and nervousness regarding the prospect of standing before God’s people in the worship service is not only normal and to be expected, it is healthy and proper. The response of the prophet Isaiah when he was called by God to be a prophet is well-known: “Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). The prophet Jeremiah responded to his calling in a similar way: “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1:6). I imagine if one were to ask just about any minister, candidate, or seminary student in the Protestant Reformed Churches, these would all testify that they experienced some fright and nervousness when they began to pursue the ministry. In fact, I imagine that it is the case for most ministers that they still experience nerves and fright on Sunday morning in anticipation of their work for the day. The experience of fright and nerves is normal for those who pursue the ministry.

It is also healthy and proper. I was instructed in seminary that if I did not experience the sensation of butterflies fluttering in my belly before going up to the pulpit, something is likely wrong. From a purely physical and mental point of view, nerves and fright bring about an adrenaline burst which heightens the focus and recall of the mind. But much more important is the spiritual dimension—for fear regarding my own lack of ability (in Jeremiah’s words, “I am a child!”), and fear regarding my own sin and unworthiness (in Isaiah’s words, “I am a man of unclean lips!”) is the means the Holy Spirit uses to destroy any sense of self-reliance one might have before ascending the pulpit. In this way, the Spirit drives a man to prayer. Instead of seeing his work as his own, he sees himself only as a means by which God effects his work in the hearts of his people. It is exactly this sense of reliance on God alone that the minister of the gospel must have if he is to do his work properly.

Nevertheless, I would also point out that the life of a seminarian (and I expect the life of a minister as well) is not a life of constant nervousness and fear. When Christ calls a man to the ministry, he also leads him and strengthens him along the way. Early on the young seminarian is afraid that he will not be able to complete the full volume of assignments he is given—but as the pressure increases, so the Lord gives him strength to continue. Eventually the growing seminarian is faced with the reality of standing before catechism students and he wonders whether he is able to keep a classroom under control—but the Lord opens this door for him as well. Now he is confronted with the heart of his future work, proclaiming the Word of God during Sunday worship services, and his heart palpitates at the thought—but the Lord stands on his right hand and on his left through this as well. When Jesus Christ truly calls a man to labor among his sheep, he prepares that man. Then, nerves and fright become servants which make a man ready for the work and press him forward, and continue to press him forward by the grace of God until he hears those sweet words from the Lord himself: “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:23).

I said at the beginning that I have two reasons for drawing attention to my first experience leading the people of God in worship. The second reason is that regularly leading God’s people in worship is a central aspect in the lives of third and fourth year seminarians. In my next post, if the Lord wills, I intend to reflect a bit on the third year of seminary.

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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