An Open Letter to Seminary Students

A former seminarian warns not to make the common mistake she did.

It’s hard to believe that I graduated from seminary nearly six years ago, because I remember it like it was yesterday.

I remember cramming for my church history final with fear and trembling. I remember crying on the first day of my ethics class because I was so moved by the lecture. I remember going to Haiti as part of a class trip, and having my world turned upside town. I remember plowing through Hebrew by memorizing endless flash cards. And I remember trying to decipher my German theology professor’s lectures, because his accent caused “world” and “word” to sound exactly the same to me.

This abundance of knowledge ... equips the called, but it can also puff one with up with arrogance, producing the Annoying Seminarian Syndrome.

Many days seminary felt like drinking from a fire hydrant. I absorbed so much information as I prepared for ministry; it was both exhilarating and overwhelming. This abundance of knowledge is both a strength and a weakness: it equips the called, but it can also puff one with up with arrogance, producing the Annoying Seminarian Syndrome that afflicts far too many of us.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is Lord over the process, and as time goes by he takes our little lump-of-clay selves and molds us into beautiful vessels of grace. It takes time, and the sculpting is hard, but the Master Potter knows exactly what He is doing.

Looking back, seminary was only the beginning of my education. It laid a foundation that I have spent the last six years building upon, and each year has been a new chapter in my learning. It’s easy to think that you steal away to seminary for three years and then emerge fully prepared for ministry, but the reality is quite different. Seminary is only the first leg of the educative marathon.

Conversely, ministry doesn’t begin once you graduate. In fact, ministry doesn’t even begin outside the school. Instead, your first opportunity for ministry begins in the classroom. In fact, she might even be sitting right next to you.

According to the Association of Theological Schools, the 2011-2012 academic year saw the following demographic breakdown among M.Div. students:

  • Women: 29.6%
  • Blacks: 16%
  • Hispanic: 4.3%
  • Asian: 6.4%
  • White male: 44%

Depending on the seminary you attend, these percentages will differ. In some seminaries the male to female ratio is about even. In others, the numbers are far more skewed. The average percentage of female M.Div.’s at evangelical seminaries, for example, is just 21%.

And why should this matter to you, seminarian? In my doctoral research, I’ve learned that students in numerical minorities are more likely to experience feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. What’s more, these emotions can translate into academic disadvantages. When students belong to a numerical minority, their academic performance is frequently inhibited, and their overall experience is more difficult. In fact, it can be downright miserable.

My conversations with women and minorities have borne up these findings. Students report feeling unwelcome, or simply invisible. One African American woman described feeling like a “tree,” that her white male classmates simply looked past her, and that her presence was about as valuable as the birches that peppered the campus grounds. Others reported feelings of isolation and loneliness. Some women even experienced hostility from male classmates because they were thought to be a sexual temptation.

Why, then, are seminaries perpetuating marginalization rather than upending? And what does this mean for the future of the Church?

It is disheartening to hear of these experiences in seminaries. Seminary, of all places, is an institution designed to prepare students for ministry. Seminaries exist to help form students in the model of Christ, who famously touched people on the margins and saw the unseen. Why, then, are seminaries perpetuating marginalization rather than upending? And what does this mean for the future of the Church?

To be fair, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. When I was in seminary, I saw my task as mostly academic. Get in, learn, get out. I viewed my classmates as doing the same, and I wasn’t much concerned with how they felt.

But let me encourage you, seminarian, not to make the same mistake I did. Rather than view the classroom as a sanitized bubble, separate from the world and from ministry, view it as a part of your formation. Rather than concern yourself solely with knowledge, concern yourself also with the process of becoming.

Now is the time to form the habits you will carry with you into the church. So love and serve your fellow classmates the way you will one day love and serve a church. Look out for the vulnerable members of your seminary community, in the same way you will care for the vulnerable members of your church community.

And finally, remember that how you live during seminary, and the practices you adopt, are just as important as the knowledge you acquire. I suspect we might all do seminary just a bit differently if we viewed it not through the narrow lens of academia, but the more holistic lens of Christian mission.

This article was originally published on sheworships.com.

Top Comments

Dani

9

Dani replied to Dani's comment

Also, don't put gum on your food trays. Dishpit workers HAAAATE that!!!

5 Comments

Dani

9

Dani commented…

I volunteered in the dishpit of a Bible institute's summer camp a few years ago. There, the seminary students had to work as camp counselors in order to graduate, so the knowledge learned during the year was put to use by mentoring a new set of kids each week. I myself wasn't a student, but from my observations and interactions, I would advise the following, alongside the article's recommendations:

1. Be humble. You won't master the Bible in one or two years; understanding it is a lifelong process.

2. Don't try to explain or answer everything right away because you'll put yourself at risk of spewing out unbiblical, self-generated ideas.

3. (For parents) Don't send your kid to seminary with the intent of him/her getting saved or disciplined. If anything, you'll likely end up with an educated "monster" instead.

4. On that note, be aware that not everybody there actually takes God serious, so don't be surprised by all the drama, scandals, and immorality that you may witness. In fact, don't let yourself be shocked by other people's sin because sinfulness is the norm in this world. Instead, be moved and awestruck when you witness Godliness because THAT is rare.

5. Don't go to seminary with the intent of finding a spouse either. Also, be cautious around people who say that God told them to marry you.

6. On top of that, observe the person of your interest (from a distance) in a non-Christian setting rather than judging him/her by their behavior in church/seminary. Also, listen to how they talk to their parents over the phone/skype to get an idea of what they're REALLY like.

7. Be prepared to live in the real world after you leave seminary. Not sure how other seminaries work, but the one I went to was pretty much a "la-la-land" for Christians, and naturally, the people I befriended on facebook haven't stop reminiscing and longing for that "paradise" ever since. Some are even working full time at the Bible institute because the world was too "cruel" and "unsafe" for them. I'd say that defeats the purpose of their education.

8. Don't assume that every Christian has been called to do seminary. God blessed me with a full-tuition at a prestigious university, and He has continued to guide me along this path, confirming His will for me every step of the way. One seminary student called me a fool for not studying at the Bible institute instead, overlooking the fact that God also uses the Bible, His Spirit, and other Christians (church) to communicate His Word.

9. In case a nonbeliever happens to come across your campus (say, with the intent of starting a riot and advocating sinful political beliefs), don't argue back; you'll only fuel their fire. Instead, welcome them with big open arms, take them out to eat at the cafeteria or something, and lure them to Christ with His love. Remember that you're still a fledgling in your knowledge of the Bible, so don't try to win the person over on your own. Signal an experienced and wise person to come and join you.

And lastly...

10. Be kind to the staff workers there, because they WILL be watching you.

Dani

9

Dani replied to Dani's comment

Also, don't put gum on your food trays. Dishpit workers HAAAATE that!!!

Gerin

40

Gerin replied to Dani's comment

Thanks Dani, those were really great points.

Ian McKerracher

25

Ian McKerracher commented…

I must admit that when I became a Christian in 1975, I thought that seminary was the best way to learn about this life and sought council from my various mentors about it. Each one (there were three main ones) suggested instead and to my surprise, that I would get a better education as a Christian in the world that we live. I pursued a trade and became the best plumber I could and served my generation in that capacity for 3 decades, I now teach tradesmen math and science and still am learning how to apply godliness to my interactions with my colleagues and my students. Seminary could be a choice for some who are called to it, but I would say that there are way too many people who go there without that call and would learn a whole lot more in the real world, where the rubber hits the road.

Amy Young

11

Amy Young commented…

And I'd add that be open to God using your degree in ways you didn't expect... both in ways that excite and disappoint :)

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