Seminary is a strange old word – like covenant and propitiation and other theological words – they are strange until you dig down to find the roots of the words, which are often simple images. Seminarium for example is Latin for “seed plot.” And that is a great way to summarize what seminary has felt like to me.
Coming into seminary, we overheard some people say seminary was the best season of their lives, but more often, we heard horror stories about families run ragged, spouses run over, the development of anxiety disorders, flare-ups of dormant sin patterns, painful history brought to light – all true, in my experience. But having survived seminary – and maybe even thrived toward the end of my time – I can now see how the whole process is the turning of soil, the messy work of preparing a healthy seed plot and garden. It’s helpful to know what’s in this soil anyway.
Seminary in many ways has been a soil test for my character. It is scary to find out what these sorts of trials and tests reveal, but as James puts it,
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.
I pray this James verse for you and I think you would do well to pray it for yourself throughout seminary in this season of soil work – planting the seeds of God’s Word, and nurturing a mature growth in Christ. Pray it for your sake, but also for the sake of those you will serve. Here’s why:
I did an actual soil test on our food garden when my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our son. I am glad I did! Turns out we had toxic levels of lead in the soil. Lead has a huge impact on brain development in kids and I would have been feeding Carolyn and Lewis poisoned food. In many ways, the soil work of seminary is helping to cultivate in me and Carolyn a healthy place from which, Lord willing, a lifetime of ministry can grow.
Stress in Seminary
You’ll be under a lot of stress in seminary. One classmate of mine had already graduated from a prestigious law school and found seminary more difficult. On top of the coursework, many seminaries require field education hours and service in a local church. On top of this, my seminary required participation in a cohort that functioned a lot like group counseling, exposing — in a safe way, parts of my story that I had not openly shared and barely understood. On top of this, many of us need to work to pay the bills and feed our families. Seminary often feels like an impossible situation.
Be aware of your sinful tendencies and bad habits and communicate when you naturally start to move toward them (with a spouse or pastor or friend). If you cannot be honest now, it will only get harder with the weight of pastoral responsibility and ministry leadership. Honesty requires trust so try to find relationships where there is trust. These relationships won’t happen naturally so be prepared to be proactive. Ask someone to mentor you – Serge’s mentor program may be a good fit. Look for someone you can confess sin to who will speak the gospel back to you and not let you “get out of anything prematurely” as James advises. Commit to be a good friend to a just a couple people – even if you keep many other acquaintances. The pressures of seminary make it risky and you need other people to help you through it.
It may be shocking to see for the first time or in a fresh way, how you hurt other people under pressure. It was for me. I now have some practice at taking a repentant way out, living by grace. How else could I lead others to live by grace?
Sabbath in Seminary
Seminary can be a great time to learn how to go to God with our stress and trust Him with our limits as the Lord of all. There are few better practices to help with this than keeping the Sabbath and truly resting – seriously, no homework, on Sundays. By God’s grace you can do it. And frankly, you and your family are designed for this Sabbath rhythm. They need you to do it. Try to enjoy it!
Taking the Sabbath risk – er, I mean rest – is a good litmus test for how you are doing week to week. The most balanced and successful students I’ve seen are those who remember to love God, love others, engage with what they’re learning, and are humble enough to realize their limitations and live within their means, so to speak. Spiritually, those means are unlimited, but physically, you still need to go to bed. Avoid becoming weary. Weariness is a powerful tool of the enemy. Ramen noodles, a pot of coffee, and two hours of sleep won’t change that!
Syllabi in Seminary
On a practical note, seminary runs on a grad school model and grad school is a lot more stressful if you cram and don’t plan. Therefore, you really need to learn to use your syllabi. Use your syllabi to map out the semester on a calendar. Divide reading requirements and assignments into manageable daily chunks. Set up calendar alerts for assignment deadlines. That may take a while, especially at first as you are working out a system that works for you, but it pays massive dividends especially toward the end of the semester. Techy tip: Into my second year, some friends and I would divide this work up with each other and make sharable course calendars on Google Calendar.
Your syllabi determine a lot about your schedule in seminary. Acknowledge that up front but also don’t neglect friend time and date nights. Pick a point in the day when you start studying, and a point when you stop. Treat seminary like a day job – clock in and out. Of course this becomes impossible if you don’t use your syllabi and let the work pile up.
Loneliness in Seminary
Seminary is a really lonely time for a lot of people. Don’t let that give way to self-pity, but let it stir you to find a lot of those other lonely people. If you are extroverted, you may struggle more in the seminary setting than you will in ministry. Much of the work of seminary is done alone! Scheduling a regular lunchtime with fellow students to discuss coursework and the things you are learning – that can be a survival skill for extroverts. I have continued to meet with a group of friends with the aim to continue the growth that started in seminary. We have, with the agreement of our families, committed to meet every year, indefinitely. There are other groups we know of that have been doing this for 25+ years and they found it indispensable in ministry. Your time in seminary can really be a foundation for ongoing structures that support you in ministry.
If you are married, it can be hard to involve your spouse in your social life at seminary if he or she does not also take classes. We found it helpful to choose a couple from seminary I wanted to get to know and invite them to watch a TV series with us once a week. You can take turns watching at each other’s homes. This is a low-pressure, non-demanding way to get to know another couple.
A few good seminary friends are pretty necessary, but the local church is more so. Try to find fellowship in your local church and the community they are trying to reach. I found a coffee shop in my neighborhood and tried to get to know non-believers there. Getting to know people outside of seminary is especially helpful for a prayer life in seminary. Interacting with non-seminarians reminds you how hungry people are for the banquets of rich theology being piled high on your plate. You realize how ungrateful your heart and prayer life has become in the midst of so much studying. Seminarians often need to slow down and savor God’s Word. Try to make studying devotional – but also try to have a devotional life outside of studying. Keeping the daily office can be a huge help with that: a morning reading/prayer (usually with my family), midday reading/prayer, and evening reading/prayer was very helpful for me and the BCP app (Book of Common Prayer) is a great tool.
Serving in Seminary
It is all too easy to think you understand what you are learning in seminary, when in reality, you don’t really understand it until you apply it and try to teach it to others. This tendency can be exacerbated by professors who have not spent time in pastoral ministry or have not served in that capacity in a long while. They may inadvertently encourage you to be a critic of the church instead of a servant in the church. This is at the heart of the warning: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Let’s be clear on this point: you are called to be a servant in the church. “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10).
Learning good theology and reliable study methods is not a license to become a theological bully. Remember you are called to be a servant, not a critic. If your goal for seminary is ministry-related, start practicing those pastoral skills now. Paul describes our high calling: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Decide early on what your family ministry values and priorities are and start practicing them now. Your life and ministry is happening now, not “then.”
Exploring in Seminary
Every seminary is different and will have different emphases. When I was considering going to a more theologically diverse seminary, one professor encouraged me to pick one fairly solid “conversation partner” like a Calvin or Augustine and run all the many ideas you pick up in seminary off that “conversation partner” to see what they think of that. It might be extra work, but it is a good chance to grow not just in breadth but also in depth. The MDiv is a very large survey of many types of information and you can begin to appreciate a need for depth in one area. Try to explore, but also try to dig in. One way to do that is to choose “a conversation partner” that you can get to know well.
Seminary is a vital part of ministry preparation when we can ask the “why” questions and explore a variety of answers, testing them against Scripture and seasoned professors who have dozens of students every year asking them similar questions. In the hustle of seminary, don’t miss the opportunity to have office hours or lunch with professors and pick their brains about the questions you have.
If you are planning to be a pastor, seminary is a great time to check out the way other churches do things. Take the occasional Sunday to worship with a Missionary Baptist church, visit a Greek Orthodox service, Roman Mass, and Episcopalian Good Friday service. One of the beauties of a Reformed tradition is that we have the freedom to borrow from other traditions seeing as the practice is in line with teaching of Scripture (learn more about this here).
Strange Old Words in Seminary
Seminary is a strange old word – you learn a lot of them in seminary. And each word and each class and even each test, can get you closer to knowing, not just about, but really knowing the Lord of all and how He makes everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3) – including the messy time of soil work in seminary.