If you ever wondered about obtaining a seminary education, or what life might be like as a seminary student, a good place to start would be to ask a seminary student. Most of my readers probably know someone like that. I encourage you to ask them questions and listen to their stories. But if you do not know anyone like that, I would like to offer my small amount of input to those who desire it.
I have attended two seminaries over a sixteen year period, minus the two year break between my masters work and my doctoral studies and the two year hiatus during my doctoral work due to job loss. The result was an MA at Western Evangelical Seminary (now George Fox Evangelical Seminary) in Portland, Oregon and an MDiv at Western Seminary, also in Portland. On April 25 of this year I will complete my DMin at the latter institution. Suffice it to say, I know what it means to be a seminary student. Here are some thoughts as I conclude this prolonged season of my life.
- Seminary students, staff and professors are human. They are not impervious to the human condition of sin which affects us all. For better or for worse, they can inspire or disappoint. Knowing this will help alleviate future disillusionment of idealistic students.
- Seminary is expensive. Plan financially before embarking on it. If you are upside down financially, you should put your house in order before taking on this high pressure assignment, and the many high pressure micro-assignments it will involve throughout your experience.
- Seminary can be a heart-changing, mind-stretching experience. Understand that your family, friends, fellow staff, and church members may not be readily receptive to new ideas you bring home. Be wise in how you implement new theories. Be sure you are not trying to do something that works elsewhere but might not be well suited to your context. Remember, they are just as smart as you, but they have not been reading the same books or listening to the same lectures. You may need to resource them so that they can understand your line of thinking on specific issues or concepts you are introducing to them. Much more to say on this later.
- Before choosing a seminary, make sure you have a substantive face-to-face conversation with the person who will be mentoring you throughout your experience. This is critically important and can make or break your academic career. Be sure you get along and that the person has the kind of background and expertise which will benefit you.
- There will be dark, frustrating nights filled with nightmares of Hebrew half vowels, Greek participial infinitives, and theories of the atonement. These too will pass as you press on through them. Expect to hit walls for a season, but then to experience satisfying breakthroughs and growth.
- Depending on your level of maturity, you may sense your ego beginning to soar. God will be faithful to bring you back to reality, if you have a tender heart. If you don’t have a tender heart, you may become proud and unteachable, rendering your seminary experience merely an academic exercise with little spiritual value or potential for practical application. It raises the question of why bother going to seminary if it becomes a mere academic exercise?
- Find creative ways to make your assignments apply to your life and ministry. When I did my MDiv in educational ministry at Western Seminary, Dr. Robert J. Radcliffe allowed me to write up some of my work in the form of satirical novelizations, using Star Wars and Star Trek as my inspiration. The results were hilarious and memorable, far more so than an ordinary, mundane paper. Dr. Gerry Breshears allowed me to write theological reflection papers in creative forms as well, such as lyrics and poetry. If your professors allow such license, use it!
- Do not put your life on hold. Have friends. Be involved in church. Be a part of your family. Be real.
- Love and obey God. First and foremost. It has been said that seminaries are like cemetaries. The dead are present, only they do not have the good sense to stay in their coffins, choosing instead to walk about quoting past theologians and conjugating verb forms. There is some merit to this complaint, but it does not have to be that way. The two seminaries I attended to special steps to address this problem, a fact for which I am grateful to both.
- Professors are not God. Check their sources and their statements. If they give you personal advice, thank them, but be careful to pray and ask for outside counsel before acting on the advice of any one person in the case of large decisions. I once had a professor recommend that I threaten to quit my job so that I can force the employer to allow me to go on a trip to Israel. I told the professor he was being unrealistic. He mentioned that another student did it with positive results. I didn’t mention this at the time, but that student was making $9 an hour part-time for a parcel company. For him it was a disposable job. I had a career as a Senior Curriculum Consultant making a healthy wage for a national distribution firm. I listened to my inner editor rather than to the professor on that occasion. My point is that professors can be wrong. See my first statement above for the reasons why.
- Pray and ask God if seminary is right for you, and if yes, than which one he would have you attend. Then walk through the doors he opens, and step away from the doors he closes.