My friend Josh says, “People call a seminary degree a ‘professional degree,’ but I think it’s actually a personal degree.” I agree with him.
If you take the time, soak it up, and invest yourself in what you’re doing, I suspect you’ll look back at this degree more as something that personally shaped you than as something that professionally prepared you. Though I’m not saying it won’t do both.
Some advice to you as you begin:
1 — You’re likely about to begin what Helmut Thielicke calls “theological puberty.” A major growth spurt in theological understanding. Probably with a voice that still cracks a bit. It’s not wonderful to hear a young pubescent try to sing. It was pre-pubescence, and it may be again on the other side, just not now.
So Thielicke advises you to take off from preaching during your first year of seminary. (Actually, he says he doesn’t tolerate it!) I think that’s good advice. Advice I didn’t heed, but it may have been wise to. It’s tough to be growing so rapidly in your own understanding and trying to help others along at the same time.
Bonus advice: go read Thielicke’s tiny book, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. It will be the shortest book you ever read for seminary, but no less profound than the rest.
2 — Along those same lines, I’d recommend you stay quiet during your early classes. Or if you speak, do it to ask questions. Don’t be the person who raises his hand and ends up giving a lecture to the class about how to run a worship service or how they should interpret a particular passage. They didn’t come to learn from you, and you have a lot of learning still to do.
For the most part, I stayed quiet early on. I remember, though, a few times that I spoke up to try to “help the class along” in their understanding. Those are some embarrassing moments to me now.
3 — Be careful with your class selection. A few things I learned:
- Pay more attention to the professor listed than the course listed. Really good professors tend to be good regardless of the course title. An interesting course probably still won’t be worth it if the professor isn’t good.
- Take required courses early. You may think you know your greatest interests already, but they’re likely to change. The required courses will help you decide what you really want to spend more time in. Don’t burn up all your electives early.
- Ask experienced students what their best classes were, and with which profs.
- Take hard classes. Don’t run from the prof who’s demanding. Run from the prof whom no one seems to learn much from. You’re here to learn and be challenged, right?
4 — Read the syllabus. You’re in grad school now. Some of your entry-level classes will spend the entire first day with people asking questions and the prof saying, “It’s in the syllabus.” Don’t be that person. Before you ask a question — are you sure it’s not in the syllabus?
And if the syllabus doesn’t mention that you need to use footnotes on your research paper, still no need to ask. This is grad school. Research = footnotes.
5 — Get involved in a local church. I’ve heard some people say something to the tune of, “I’m planning to work in the church the rest of my life. This is my break from it.” Really?!? I hope you’re seeing the problem with this… If you believe the local church has something of value for people, it needs to have something of value for you.
If you involve yourself in the local church, it will likely be as much a part of your growth during this period as the seminary. Find places to volunteer, get experience, and contribute now.
And one more thing — if you’re seeking ordination in a particular denomination, you should probably find a local church in that denomination. I hear ordaining boards aren’t too impressed when you try to convince them you love your denomination, but you’ve been attending a non-denominational mega-church for the past three years.
6 — Don’t take on massive debt. Yes, you can avoid it. I believe in you! And you need to. I feel strongly enough about this that I gave it a whole separate post. If you’re considering taking on big debt, go read that without delay.
7 — Borrow your required books before you buy them. This will help you avoid debt. It will also help you avoid wasting money on bad books. You’ll have some bad ones, trust me. But take heart — probably far more good ones. After the first terrible book I bought for a class, I vowed to borrow everything I could. I checked any libraries around and asked friends. Then if I discovered that a book was outstanding, I bought it. This only works if you don’t copiously annotate your books.
8 — Start looking for a spiritual director. You’ll be greatly challenged intellectually during this time. But will you also grow spiritually? I’ve seen many who didn’t. Or who even declined because they were so focused on academics. One of the best ways to counter this is to find a spiritual director. Look for someone whose wisdom you trust, someone deeply spiritual, someone who will challenge you. Ask if they will take you under their wing.
9 — Do the work. Seminary was hard work for me. Harder than undergrad. Harder than my MBA program. But it wasn’t nearly as challenging and rigorous as full-time work in the church. Prepare yourself for that work by working hard now. Even if you take classes in fall, winter, spring, and summer terms, you’ll still have more breaks than most people with jobs.
If you’re a full-time student, treat it like full-time work. Report to the library early in the morning. Doing this will equip you for full-time work and allow you to get the most out of your classes.
10 — Beware computer distractions in class. Most students have their laptops in class. I watched one guy sit in the front row of several of my classes and play SimSomething each day. If you want the most out of seminary, don’t do that.
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** Now see this follow-up article: Books to read before seminary