Words of Wisdom to College Grads Considering Seminary

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If I were to give this blog a nickname I would call it: “10 Things that People Tried to Tell Me Before I Went to Seminary, but That I am Only Listening to Now” (Though secretly, I wish I would have listened to it then).

After many years of thinking and dreaming about seminary and becoming a pastor, the day had finally arrived.  My Visa had come much earlier than I would have expected it and since I was having a difficult time securing a summer job in Canada because they all wanted me to work until Labour Day and school in the States starts in August, I finally settled on working for my seminary’s summer maintenance crew.  Although I am not one for painting, gardening, or washing windows, my supervisor was very gracious to me (I’m sure that some of the areas were later repainted by others).  My first introduction to seminary came in the hottest part of the summer when Indiana was facing a drought and the entire campus was brown.  It also came at a time when hardly anyone was around.  Summer school was in session and I jumped right in to taking courses, trying to locate a Mennonite church, joining a young adult’s group, and working summer crew.  In hindsight, I would not recommend this.  Emotionally I was charged and excited, but physically my body was exhausted – the trip was only 4 hours, but I discovered that the subtle cultural differences between Canada and the U.S. took some time to adjust to.  Nevertheless, I soon found my rhythm and my place in the AMBS community.

Now, exactly one year later, I reflect back on this experience and ask myself: was it truly worth it to attend seminary?  I only stayed the one year, which in itself was a curve ball.  I never thought I would be leaving after only two semesters.  In my mind, I was going to go right through until I received my MDiv, then I would start intentionally looking into a pastorate.  Sooner or later, I might return to school to get my PhD, but that was kind of on the backburner.  I’ve always been more of a practical person than a book heavy person anyway, as much as I do respect young scholars who seem to know Barth, Niebuhr, and Bonheoffer backwards and forwards.  I on the other hand, enjoy reading a good C.S. Lewis book here and there and that’s about the extent of my brain workout.   As much as I am not an academician, I still found leaving seminary after one year to be an unexpected rut in the road.  Part of me was disappointed in myself, even questioning my sense of call.  I had felt called to be a pastor for the past 18 years of my life.  At age 4, I was already “preaching” (theologically incorrect) sermons to my teddy bears and by age 7 I had a “congregation” of over 100 members that included programing such as Sunday school, summer camp, and vacation Bible school.  For much of my life, I had been told that this was my destiny and my calling.  But now, I was packing in school – was I doing something wrong?  Was I doubting God?  Was I “going the wrong way”?

I do not believe that God makes mistakes, even when it may look that way.  I know that God works things out for a higher purpose even if we don’t see it at the time.  In my case, I firmly believe that God did call me to seminary, and even to this particular seminary, if for no other reason than to teach me lessons that I could not have learned elsewhere.  I am a firm believer in the fact that there are some lessons you can only learn in the working world, other lessons you can only learn through raising your own family (not that I have experienced this, but I am speculating), and other lessons that you can only learn in seminary.  Even if I don’t go back to seminary, I see the many ways I have grown, and perhaps even matured, and this is enough for me to know it is where I needed to be.

Looking back, though, I also realize that I probably should have given more thought to what my closest friends were telling me at the time.  I am a rather headstrong person and while I do value the opinions of my friends, ultimately, I decide my own decisions for myself.  And once those decisions are made, the only one to take responsibility for them is me.  I suppose that my wishing that “someone would have told me ____” hold very little weight since people likely did try to tell me them, and probably more than once.

Nevertheless, I would like to share 10 things which “I wish I would have known” or that “I wish I would have listened to” before starting seminary.  I share this particularly for my university friends who have just graduated and are 21 or 22 years old and thinking of joining seminary.  Hopefully, some of this could be applied at any age, but since I have never gone to seminary as an older person I cannot speak from experience in that regard.  You’ll have to ask me in a few more years if I go back to seminary after working at L’Arche.

1) I highly recommend that you get your BA in something.  While it is possible to attend seminary with a Bachelor of Religious Education or some other three year degree, and while it is even possible to attend seminary with no degree whatsoever, I believe it is doing a disservice to yourself.  Having a strong background in liberal arts (as much as I hated them in college) will serve you well.  The extra year that the BA gives you adds a certain level of “academic seriousness”, prepares you to write and articulate your thoughts well, and gives you an extra year to grow and mature within the academic setting.  Even if you have no use for English, history, psychology, or microeconomics (wait, how could anyone ever not have a use for that course) now, you will later discover that some of the most important lessons you learned were buried in those courses.  I regret the fact that I bashed liberal arts now because I don’t have the same grounding or appreciation for a well-rounded education as I could have had.  Also, I have had several people stop and ask me, “how are you going to be a pastor if you can’t even relate to your congregation?”  It’s fine and good, and in fact, very important that a pastor has some theological training.  The practical courses that I took in pastoral care and counselling, in leadership, in preaching, in worship, and in devotional practices will one day serve me well, as will the academic courses in Theology, hermeneutics, and Old and New Testament studies, however, the vast majority of my congregation will have done studies in other fields.  They will be English, philosophy, and psychology majors – they will want sermons that are relevant to them, not just filled with Theological jargon.  I don’t think Beowulf will ever be that relevant to pastoring, but I can see their point – that I should get to know their interests and what makes them passionate.  I shouldn’t just put my love of all things Greek and Hebrew on to them.

Also, keep in mind that many seminaries will not accept you without a BA.  When I started to apply to seminaries, I found that I was rejected on the basis of having a 3 rather than 4 year degree.  Even if you are 100% sure you know what seminary you want to go to and they don’t require a 4 year degree, it’s still important to realize that things change.

2) I highly recommend that you take at least one or two years off before going to seminary.  Don’t get me wrong, some Bible college students are very academically minded and love all things philosophical.  If you are one of these people, you probably will do well in the intellectually rigorous climate of the seminary.  However, I have found that so many people who enter seminary right after college are burnt out (especially if they have never done anything other than school).  If you have been in pre-school since you were three and now are 22 you have already been in school 19 years of your life!  That’s a really long time!  Take a break, travel, explore the world, volunteer, or get a job.  These experiences will add a certain depth of maturity to you that you will not experience just by going from school to school. 

I really wanted to take a year off after I graduated from high school and do a discipleship program, but was discouraged from pursuing this.  Looking back, I should have taken the time off regardless of what anyone thought because it resulted in me entering university burnt out and grad school even more burnt out.  And trust me – when you are writing 25 page papers and reading 1,000 pages every week, being burnt out is not academically strategic.  Somehow I made it through all 4 years okay, but it wasn’t ideal.  I have heard so many older people say that seminary means more to them now that they have some experience – some way of approaching their studies which is shaped and formed from years of pastoring or nursing or even raising their three children.  Even at the university level, everyone noticed how those who had taken a year off for whatever purpose (traveling, working, volunteering) were in so many ways more mature than those who went right from high school to college (no matter how smart they were).  Given that seminary is very integrative, if you have nothing to draw on except school, you will be at a disadvantage.

Also, keep in mind that pastoring is a career with a very high burn out rate – if you enter the field already burnt out you are doing yourself and your church a disservice.

3) Location, location, location.  You might not think this is a big deal, but trust me – it is.  I attended university in the biggest city in Canada – Toronto and I completely loved it.  Despite the fact that I had spent 6 years prior to this in a little hamlet of 800 people (my school was the same size as my town) city life grew on me.  Of course there are some downsides to living in the city – loneliness and the concrete jungle, but there were way more positive things.  The big city meant public transportation which enabled me to have fun in a variety of ways with my friends and also gave us an opportunity as a school to engage in homeless food runs, dramas at a local nursing home, and tons of volunteer possibilities.  It also gave me the chance to be in a very multicultural setting where I, for the first time in my life, became in touch with my Asian roots and where I got to be a visible minority because I have white phenotypes.

I love my seminary so much, which is not in a big city, but still the town it is in has grown on me in some ways.  Yet, I have got to admit – now that I’ve spent a year there, location is a huge consideration as I think about where I would do doctoral studies (if I ever do pursue that).  Smaller cities, like Elkhart, provide honest and very kind people.  People who are helpful and do a lot of work for their community and people who garden.  Yet, it also provides frustration if you do not have a mode of transportation.  Without a car, you are confined to your seminary and wherever you can walk to from the seminary.  Biking is an option, but the cold weather makes it harder to do.  Smaller cities do not have good bussing so it is increasingly harder to volunteer, which I think is one of the best things any seminary student could do. 

4)  There is a saying, it goes something like this, “I went to a Mennonite high school, then I went to a Mennonite college, then I did a year with MCC, then I went to the Mennonite seminary, now I’m a Mennonite pastor.”  I truly believe that if you are going to be serving in the Mennonite church then it is important to have Mennonite experiences and be committed to them.  The largest reason I went to a Mennonite seminary is because I felt Mennonite theology was very special and that it was important for me to be trained in this tradition and to be moulded by our unique history and philosophies.  I also think, it is important that every pastor has one year in a tradition that is not their own.  A year at a Baptist, Pentecostal, or Lutheran seminary provides you with opportunities to learn to articulate your faith to those who do not share your views, it sharpens your desire to really “own your faith”, and introduces you to friends you otherwise would not have made.  I am forever grateful for my time at Tyndale – even though theologically I didn’t always get along; I made the best friends of my life there and have been challenged by them to grow in charismatic prayer, in earnestness of the Spirit, and in Biblical seriousness.

I also think every pastor should spend a year doing something in a context other than their own – going overseas with MCC or serving in a parachurch organization which is not Mennonite.  These experiences prepare you to interpret the Bible differently, stretch you to have a different toolset than others in your field, and deepen your global awareness and reality.  If your entire life has been Mennonite, I recommend doing a certificate at a non-Mennonite school before embarking in your Mennonite seminary journey.

5) Really keep in touch with the friends that you made before seminary.  While you will make many wonderful friends in seminary, it’s also important to stay informed with your friends from college, from high school, and from wherever else you have been.  Seminary is very difficult – way harder than college is.  The topics that are brought out in class are not just theological abstractions but really make you think about ministry thought and practice.  I was blessed to have a “ministry partner” as well as a wonderful mentor during my time in seminary.  They kept me grounded and allowed me to “vent”, to “muse”, and to “hypothesize” what I was learning in class.  One Tyndale friend Skyped me once or twice a week and prayed with me.  It was so nice having Pentecostal and Baptist friends to discuss theology with – I would match up what I was learning in sem with what Tyndale had taught me and we would discuss the difference.  Sometimes if I had a question about the charismatic movement they provided helpful insights because the Pentecostals really live the Holy Spirit – they don’t just talk about her.  I would recommend every student to have these types of “lifelines” they will keep you sane.

6)  If you have the means, I recommend doing spiritual direction.  Many questions come up in seminary – even if you have a fairly strong sense of call, there will be things you wrestle with and even times that you doubt if you have what it takes or if you’re the right person.  Spiritual directors can provide a way for you to voice these thoughts in a confidential manner and are helpful in seeing that your time at seminary produces growth.

7)  I recommend that you do a year of counselling – not because anything is wrong, but because we all have “stuff” to work on.  Being a pastor means working through your “stuff” as well as taking on other people’s “stuff”.  It is a wonderful thing to be a “wounded healer”, but you have to make sure you are largely healed.  Especially if you have depression, anxiety, or have faced abuse, this will be important for you. 

8) One of the most wonderful blessings I have ever received was having a “Discernment group” get together with me before deciding to do seminary.  My discernment group from my church was made up of a pastor, a chaplain, a missionary, a local outreach coordinator, and some elders.  They provided me with a wonderful way to keep them in the loop about how they could pray for me and listened to me articulate my calling.  They challenged and prodded me to think deeply and to reflect.  This is very helpful if you are considering a change in career path or want to be sure that pastoral ministry is what you’re called to do.  It’s also helpful if you have this same group meet (on Skype or phone call) with you once a month in seminary to check in. 

9) Plug in to a local church.  Many people say that seminary is the time for you to quit going to church since all you do is read the Bible and go to chapel anyways.  However, don’t neglect your spiritual life while you’re a sem.  At Tyndale, we used to talk openly about how one can lose their faith in seminary.  We used to nickname it the “cemetery”.  For the first time in your life you may be challenged to see the Bible as a textbook rather than as a book of “Bible stories”.  What you thought was real will become “just theories” to you.  Your worldview will be shattered.  Being part of a church, having a mentor from that church, and being part of a small group will help you remember why you truly are in seminary.  If your mentor is the pastor, he or she might even have already been through seminary and thus can relate to some of your struggles.  Be open and honest with him or her and with your small group.

10)  Watch the way you present yourself.  I know, this is going to make me sound old school, but I think pastors are called to somewhat higher standards and that they need to live a moral life which will cause non-Christians to see them differently than how the world lives.  I’m not saying that you can’t have “fun”, but I would really encourage you to watch the attitude which you approach drinking with.  People have different viewpoints on drinking and some will find it to be a stumbling block.  Be respectful of them – if it causes someone to stumble don’t drink when you are with them.   Watch your language – not just because of political correctness but also watch your use of profanity and vulgarity.  If you’re in seminary, act like you are in seminary.  Make sure that you don’t give the seminary children any ideas – such as telling them that it is wrong to do something and then turning around and doing it yourself.  Make sure that you aren’t living a double life – one life at church where you pastor and another life on your own time.  Be transparent, open, and honest.

Seminary is a wonderful experience – both for those wanting to be pastors, as well as for those just testing it out or who are simply desiring to live a holy life and who want a year or two to grow in community.  I would recommend seminary for almost any Christian.  I hope you will find the seminary that is the right fit for you. Blessings on your journey.

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6 thoughts on “Words of Wisdom to College Grads Considering Seminary

  1. Really good advice. I’ve been in seminary for two years (I considered going to AMBS since I live in Goshen) and many of the things that you mentioned are spot on.

  2. Very encouraging blog in so many ways. As someone who has gone straight from undergraduate religious studies (B.A.) in the liberal arts curriculum to seminary, my experiences have been very similar to a lot mentioned here. Although I have been blessed financially to go to seminary and have not had family responsibilities such as marriage and children to hold me back, I really wish I would have taken a year or two off after college instead of going to seminary. I just completed my second year by God’s grace (almost left several times), I think when you said “burn-out” I find myself really resonating with that. I will be 25 in a week and I have been in school since I was 4 and I’m just so ready to do something with my life and not go to class after class. I know God has shaped me tremendously in the last two years, but it still can be very challenging to stay the course when you just want to get out that and start your life. But I know for myself, this is a critical time that God has me in my singleness to work his grace in my as he prepares my heart and mind to lead his people in whatever ministry sometime. I pray that God would use you in whatever way he chooses to extend his glory and kingdom.

    Thanks again for the blog
    Daniel

  3. Pingback: 5 Common Pitfalls Theologians Fall Into and How They Can Be Avoided | Zweibach and Peace - Thoughts on Pacifism and Contemporary Anabaptism

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