One of my favorite writers said that everyone is a theologian. Not necessarily a professional theologian or an academic theologian, but a theologian still. We all, in his thought, have an understanding of God and a way of communicating (i.e., speech to communicate) that understanding to others. For people who spend a lot of time talking about God, there’s seminary.
Before going further, you should know this bit of biography since it anchors what I’ll say–people formed in other places, at other times, may have different wisdom. I went to graduate school at Wheaton College, completed a program in theological studies and didn’t get enough. I enjoyed what I was learning. I signed up for more at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and enrolled in the MDiv program while I was serving at Sweet Holy Spirit, my home church. I came to serve New Community, a multi-ethnic congregation in 2006. I started teaching as an adjunct faculty member at my seminary, teaching and learning with people preparing to serve in the academy and the church. I’ve been formed for my work as a minister since childhood. I like my work, genuinely enjoy it.
As I prepare for another academic year, I’m thinking about the choice to enroll in seminary. I’m looking forward to meeting a new group of students in a couple weeks. I’m thinking about our classes, our schedule, and our stated goals. I hope the students are considering some of these things, along with their reasons for starting seminary this fall. So, if you are considering seminary, if you think it may be a path for you, sit with a few points, and tell me what you think:
1) Consider your life. Do you have time, money, and the emotional health to study at the graduate level? Does your family and friends have strong feelings about your decision? Sometimes strong feelings mean support and love. Sometimes it means the opposite. But your life has to allow for your full participation in seminary. Even with part-time programs, a seminary experience needs to add to you. If you’re overworked already and won’t modify your life in order to take in what you learn, what’s happening to you, and how you’re understanding your life’s call, don’t do it. No matter how many classes you take, when you’re giving yourself to this educational experience it will be formative. If you aren’t being formed, something’s wrong. Of course, you may need to cut things away from your life in order to start that formation.
2) Understand that the seminary is a place for graduate study of theology and its academic cousins. It’s not Sunday School or Bible study. It’s not a really rigorous small group. It’s not a covenant group. It’s grad school where you talk about God, God’s revelation and creation, people, you, and a lot in between. You’ll have good conversations and interesting lectures. You’ll be excited and intrigued and bored. You’ll meet good friends. You’ll write. You’ll stay up late. You’ll miss some important readings and perhaps even an assignment or two. You’ll meet faculty and new students. You’ll do all these things under the umbrella of an intellectually challenging syllabus.
3) You will write a lot. If you’re a poor writer, you should prepare. You can’t be good at everything, but you can grow, right? If the schools before you don’t have strong supports for poor writers, get help before you go. Get a tutor. Take a writing class. Learn how to communicate your ideas (about God no less) in written form. You’ll need to be clear when you write, or you’ll spend much time struggling with assignments and poor grades. Take your time. You’re learning a new language in seminary, especially if you’re coming from a different career or from a program of study that wasn’t related.
4) Engage with people from other faith traditions. A seminary is a place to train for ministry, historically parish (i.e., congregation, church) ministry. The nature and character of seminary education has changed over the centuries. It’s not been strictly the place to move into, hid inside, and eventually come out to a pulpit for a while. One of the significant newer developments happening these days is around inter-religious dialogue and training for leaders. This is something that the Association of Theological Schools, and other organizations, are thinking through. Claremont School of Theology is changing its approach altogether in an innovative, and maybe scary way; read about it here in this recent article. If you read this article, tell me what you think.
5) Think about, contemplate, and list your goals for seminary. People go to seminary to change careers, to become stronger in faith, to learn particular topics, and a dozen other reasons. Why are you going? How will you know you’re learning or growing or wasting time? What do you want out of the time? You may come back to these questions throughout your course of study. That’s good. Reflect on these and similar questions ahead of time. It may be that your goals are related to post-seminary life. On the other hand, you may have no idea what life will be like once you’re finished. This may drive you insane. If it doesn’t, seminary will work hard to do just that. Maybe.
I’m sure I have other thoughts about this, but this post is stretching too far down the page.