10 Tips for New Seminary Students

studentsSo you’re beginning seminary? Great! Congratulations! I hope your experience is as good as mine was.

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.

3Be 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

32 thoughts on “10 Tips for New Seminary Students

  1. Hey Teddy -

    The two I would add to your list are:

    1) Slow Down — I took too many classes most semesters and I am continually in conversations with students who are doing the same thing. I recognize students are faced with a number of pressures (e.g. financial, ecclesial, etc.) pushing them to enroll in as many classes as possible each semester. However, slowing down helps students manage stress, immerse themselves in the class content, and consider how to integrate the material in their life and ministry.

    2) Major in languages and exegesis — I teach Biblical Hebrew, so I am admittedly biased when it comes to the importance of language and exegesis for pastoral ministry. Nevertheless, learning the biblical langages (Hebrew, Aramaic & Greek) and developing an effective exegetical method are essential skills to develop in seminary. Many seminaries no longer require languages and some (like mine) only require a semester of each. However, I encourage students to take at least three semesters of Greek, two semesters of Hebrew, a semester of Aramaic, and as many exegesis classes as possible. Learning to faithfully and effectively read the Bible is the foundation for developing sound theology and practice (i.e. preaching, pastoral counseling, etc.)

    • Thanks Jason,

      I took it slow, and that was a great thing for me. I was able to be picky about which courses and profs I took, and I was able to really focus on the one or two classes I was taking. The downside: it took 7 years. But I think that was good. (Yes, I was working full-time during that period. Don’t just decide to take 2 classes at a time and hang out for 7 years.)

      Your comments about language and exegesis are part of an ongoing debate. No surprise that you’re on this side of it as a preparing OT PhD.

      First, I fully agree with you about the importance of the languages. I’m interested that you recommend a semester of Aramaic over a third semester of Hebrew. Why do you give it higher importance?

      Second, I remember a couple other really bright people at the seminary suggesting that they thought people should focus the majority of their effort on theology. I even remember Josh Toepper saying he wouldn’t advise anyone to take a Bible course until they had taken several theology courses. I think there’s a good argument for making sure to get a good helping of historical theology, i.e. don’t use up all free courses on exegesis and miss out on learning how the Church has historically interpreted Scripture and why. My exegesis courses were very good, very helpful. But I’d say my theology courses were at least equally important.

      Interested to hear other opinions on this…

      • My opinion is this — do we interpret the Bible in light of how other people have interpreted it, or do we start with the Bible and form our theology?

        I am not saying that we should throw out a couple thousand years of theology — no, we have some great stuff throughout church history. I think our focus, however, needs to be on the biblical text and its immediate context first. Once we can grasp it, then we can move on (basic inductive biblical theory!).

      • Okay — Josh Toepper’s exact words: “It was actually St. Augustine (whose feast is today) who I was paraphrasing. He said you should spend a lifetime in the history and theology of the church before you should begin to try and interpret Scripture. I think he was right.”

      • 1) I recommend the semester of Biblical Aramaic for a few reasons. A) Substantial portions of Ezra and Daniel are written in Aramaic. B) Biblical Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew are cognate language, so learning Aramaic does aid in your understanding of Hebrew. C) OT and NT commentaries occasionally appeal to Aramaic texts, translations, etc. D) Didn’t Jesus speak Aramaic? Shouldn’t that be a good enough reason?

        2) I agree that theology is incredibly important for a seminary education, and I believe it is imperative for us to learn how the church interpreted Scripture. I simply think that it easier to interact with and evaluate the various theology approaches, arguments, and appeals to Scripture when you have a firm foundation in languages and interpretative methods.

  2. I would add a couple…

    1.) Attend Chapel-being part of a worshiping community that was growing both academically as well as spiritually was very challenging for me. I wouldn’t trade that part of my education for anything.

    2.) Develop an interest in something totally unrelated to school and religion. It helps to have something else to geek out about when school has controlled your mind for too long. I got really into bigfoot and building electronics. I wouldn’t trade those either.

    • Great point on chapel, Chad. This is one I failed at as a part-time student. I know I missed a lot in that.

      I can’t believe I left off “get into bigfoot.” I was trying to keep it to 10…

  3. Yes, I agree with Chad. I’d add find something that takes you out of the seminary bubble. Possibly that takes you into a non-Christian environment. My wife and I used Roller Derby as a way to branch out of the Seminary community and practice faith in a real world environment.

  4. Great thoughts! You could also add :

    1 — Watch what you eat and take care of your physical self. I came in overweight, but the first year packed on another 25 pounds and it really impacted my overall health. Once I lost weight, I had more energy to focus on the class work.

    2 — Find a community of friends who will support you. — You can do seminary in isolation and I saw way too many people who did that. You don’t have to be at every single seminary function, but find people who have similar likes or people you get along with who you can share life with. These friends will become a great benefit when you leave seminary and are faced with the questions of, “How do I do this?”

    • Shannon — physical self-care and some networking/socializing are great points. As with several of the other points, if you think it will get easier after seminary, I think you’re in for a shock. Get disciplined about taking care of yourself now and get used to working/networking/socializing with people. These will equip you well for post-seminary life — and help you better get through seminary.

      • I am reminded of something Dr. Mullholland said, I believe it was him. It was along the lines of the habits that you form in seminary will be the ones you carry with you in seminary. Those words were quite true.

  5. I’ve seen students crumble at the end of the necessary deconstruction process. Know that this time of shaping your faith will likely entail a time of disconnect and darkness. It requires a good bit of work to push through to the other side. Don’t quite in the middle!
    I suppose this goes along with the theological adolescence bit. (and similar to puberty, it can be a depressing time if you focus too much on yourself and not on how to use this time to become the person you’re turning into)

    • Great word, Josh. The deconstruction process can really rock some people’s world. Important to press through that so that we don’t end up just always deconstructing, too. If you don’t get some “re-construction,” you’re just left cynical and skeptical.

  6. Along the lines of “Do the work,” I would add “with excellence.” In seminary I heard people say countless times, “D is for diploma.” Though I highly doubt they were truly receiving a D in a class, the attitude was that of “do enough to pass the course.” If that is the prevailing attitude of the future leaders of the church and of the Christian movement, then we are in for trouble. Rather, commit to the work, study diligently, and strive for excellence. Your work ethic in school is as important as your work ethic in the church.

  7. I agree with Jason Jackson’s comment — get into the biblical languages and exegesis courses! What’s the point of getting an education about the Bible if you’re not even willing to learn to read it?

  8. Teddy,
    Good post! I hope some new seminarians will find their way to your blog. I especially resonated with #6 and got a little chuckle out of it! To me, in a million years I cannot understand the mentality of someone ever taking a “break” from church while they’re in formation studies for ministry. Blows me away. Got the chuckle from your mega church reference. Apropos here in Lex.

    Also must say “Amen” to chadbrooks about chapel. My spiritual and intellectual life was amazingly enriched at chapel in seminary.

    Grace & Peace,
    Chris

  9. Another suggestion: get to know your library staff. When you’re writing, or studying, or researching for class, dead time is a killer. Dead time is that time you spend looking up words you don’t know, or trying to find a book, or trying to develop a good idea when you’re at a mental block. While you’re doing those things, you’re not actually getting anywhere, but you’re getting frustrated instead.
    Sit down with a librarian in your first month to learn where everything is, because there are databases and collections that you’d never think to look for when you’re in a time crunch. As a former student who’s working at a Seminary library, I wish I had taken advantage of these things.

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  11. If you are struggling with a course, make an appointment to go talk to the professor. Sometimes that can actually make a difference in your final grade. (I think it did for me several times.) It is always good to get to know some faculty members personally. Most of them are approachable.

    Also, don’t feel too bad if you really CAN’T read all the work assigned. Learn to strategically read and skim. Sometimes you may need to resort to reading the first and last chapter of a book completely. And then the first and last paragraph of the inner chapters. It isn’t humanly possible to read everything if you are taking a full course load. Do your best to read it all, but learn to prioritize your reading.

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  16. Very great advice! I’m glad you shared this with me. This is good stuff to know ahead of time. Thanks!

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  18. Learn to scan! No one can actually read all 4800 pages (if you’re carrying a full-time load of 16 units) of the assigned reading in 10 weeks time. Read the 1st sentence of the paragraph — if it seems interesting read on, if not (as in “OK I got it”) skip to the 1st sentence of the next paragraph!

    • Hi Brad,

      I would imagine that the vast majority of students would agree with you. And since I was never a full-time student, I’ll admit that I may not be in the best position to disagree. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I agree with this point.

      You’re talking about 16 units and 10 weeks, so I’ll assume you’re talking about a quarter system. With that, I would think that it’s typical to take about 12 classes per year — right? And 1200 pages per class? That’s 14,400 pages per year (assuming each course maxes out its allotment — something I rarely see). I read pretty slowly — I can get about 25 pages per focused hour. At that rate, you’ll need to read for 576 hours per year, or 11–1/2 hours per week (I gave you 2 weeks’ vacation). For a full-time seminary student, I don’t think 11–1/2 hours of reading per week is out of line. But again — I’ll acknowledge that I’m in the minority, and I appreciate you sharing — even if I’ve disagreed.

  19. Here’s a very minor tip: Take advantage of a few non-class seminary offerings. For example, if the school has some random club that meets once a month to talk about social justice, join it! If they’re bringing in a speaker — go! Those random experiences are often as formative as anything, and they give your mind a break from the class/read/write pattern.

    Great post T-Ray. I wish I would have had this advice 8 years ago.

    • Eddie, that’s a great piece of advice. Thanks! I got a lot of benefits from being a part-time student, but this was something I missed out on, and I regret it. The people who have taken advantage of those sort of opportunities seem to have really benefited.

      Although when NT Wright came to campus, I made sure to be there.

  20. One area that I did not see here was practicing your social skills while on Campus as it would be useful later after you become a clergy person as you will need to interact with people a part of your job. This includes listening, talking and having patience.
    This is not something they reach in seminary but I have met clergy who almost fail in this area regardless how many years they have been an ordained minister.

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