Monday, August 30, 2010

Improving the Seminary Experience

Over at Boston Bible Geeks, danny has written an excellent three part series on how to improve seminary. By and large I am in strong agreement with him. I thought that in this post I would share a bit about my personal journey to TEDS and suggest a part of my preferred solution for what churches and students can do. It may be a bit idealistic, but I still think that it may be the best way.

I grew up and went to college in Rochester, NY. During my senior year I felt called to go to seminary. After graduation I stayed in Rochester for two more years serving in the campus ministry that I had attended while in college while my wife was finishing graduate school (we got married the year after I graduated). During my time in Rochester, the conviction to go to seminary grew and my pastor, while initially unsure, came to fully endorse my decision. That period was a very fruitful time for me where I spent a lot of time doing ministry with my pastor and other leaders in the college ministry.

After my wife graduated she found a job in suburban Chicago, which was great because I wanted to attend TEDS. Financially we weren't in a position where I could enroll, even though I very badly wanted to, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It gave me time to mature and become better prepared for seminary and as important, it gave me the opportunity to get involved in a local church before I started my seminary studies. There I served in a variety of ways, some mostly invisible, and some semi-visible. Two years after moving to Chicago I started part-time at TEDS with the blessing of my current local church.

I give this brief sketch because it proved, at least for me, to be a fruitful path to take on the way to seminary, though the path taken by necessity. My experience has led me to make one suggestion for those who are thinking about going to seminary and one for local churches.

If the seminary you want to attend isn't in the city you live in, consider moving to that city years beforehand, and getting acclimated and finding a local church well before you apply for admission. First, I think that this can be profoundly helpful for your general spiritual well-being while in seminary (though it by no means guarantees it). I have seen fellow students struggle because they weren't plugged into a local church. Additionally, it gives you the opportunity to get the blessing and support of the leadership at your new church or to have them question your decision (and if someone in ministry questions your decision you should think VERY long and hard). Additionally, you hopefully will have built a relationship with at least one of the elders or pastors in your church. This will give you the opportunity to apply what your learn in the classroom, whether through discussion in mentorship relationships, or through the chance to apply what you learn in ministry opportunities. If you're firmly rooted in your local church and have demonstrated a servants heart I think that these opportunities to do more visible ministry can start fairly early in your education. And there's no substitute for experience. Some may not want to do this because they don't want to 'waste time' before getting started doing the Lord's work (I'm often fighting this battle). For some that may be a valid concern, but if you're in your 20s or early 30s you have a lot of time (and I don't think that what I outline above is a waste of it!). What you should be most worried about is maximizing what you get out of your time of preparation.

Churches need to be more invested in their seminarians. If you have someone in your congregation who is attending your church while in seminary, has been at your church for at least a couple of years, and who you think has the potential to be a good minister, then I believe that you have responsibility towards that individual. Very few aspects of ministry are more important than raising up the next generation of workers for God's kingdom. Clear your schedule to mentor them. I do not think that time is the only thing you should invest in them, though. Strongly consider providing them with financial support. Seminary isn't free and very few seminarians that I know have a surplus of money. Many scrape by making hard sacrifices to be able to get their education (fortunately, at least for now, I am not in this group). Now, I agree with what danny says in part 2 of his series, that seminarians shouldn't seek out a church that will pay them. However, if someone has been involved in the church for some time, I think it would be a great idea for the church to take initiative in offering to provide financial support.

3 comments:

  1. I agree with your last point. If someone has been serving faithfully at a church for some time, and the church feels good about helping offset the costs of education, then that's great. That would probably never happen in my circles, but I hope it happens in yours!

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  2. I have been amazed by how many of the students have no ministry or serving experience at all and still want to pursue an Mdiv degree. I also personally dislike how the Mdiv students think they're "high and mighty" next to the "lowly" MA students. Most of the MA students are more pleasant to be around and just have more life experience. I'm hoping this will change as I progress further into the Mdiv track.

    Other than the two previous criticisms, I find that the seminary experience has been surprisingly positive. I came in expecting a lot of negative things and have been pleasantly surprised. The integration of material into the students' individual context is valued and pushed as part of the curriculum. Many of the professors have been in ministry and have a lot of experience in not only teaching, but shepherding the students. I see character development and spiritual formation being pushed as just as much as growing in understanding of scripture and theology. It is refreshing starting and closing each class in prayer. Some professors use valuable class time to do a devotional as a class.

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  3. I'm glad to hear that your experience has been positive thus far. I think that the anti-seminary crowd's complaints aren't as significant as they think they are and you have some friends (me included) who may be a bit anti-fundamentalist at times which would cause us to disparage Moody more than we probably should. :)

    I would just, at this point, give the same advice that I would give to someone going to a liberal seminary (not that you need my advice): read more broadly than they assign.

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