This fall is the first time in twenty years that I’m not a full time student. Some days I miss my silent study spot that had become my second home while studying at Duke Divinity School for the last three years. Other days I give thanksgiving to God that the cycle of endless reading, papers, midterms, and exams has now been broken.
As I talked to a first year seminary student a couple of weeks ago, tears of deep emotion welled up in me as I thought about how challenging and lonely the first semester studying theology in an unknown city with unknown people was for my classmates and I. Tears of deep emotion welled up in me as I reflected on the deep and joyous relationships that formed over three years. Tears of deep emotion welled up in me as I remembered practicing and performing improv comedy with a group of really random people who thought that God desired for us to laugh. Tears of deep emotion welled up in me as I envisioned how the love for the church that grew in my friends and I through the challenges of school had led to our scattering across the world to serve the Kingdom of God.
The tears came close to coming out. But they didn’t.
Instead I gave the student some practical advice on writing and decided to finally publish this list of ten tips for new, or returning, seminary students that had been brewing for a while.
So here they are:
1. Be ready and willing to read and write a lot. It is what you’ll be paying money to do full time. And you’ll end up doing it more than full time. Seminary (or theological school — I’m using them interchangeably) isn’t your favorite college ministry worship night happening every day of the week. One large aspect of seminary is the renewing of your mind, which means that you’re going to be studying long hours if you’re faithful to station of life you’re in. I wasn’t a religion or theology major in undergrad, so I had a lot of catching up to do.
2. Get an Amazon prime account. You’ll be buying a lot of books. Plus, seminarians typically love to collect books and show off what’s on their bookshelves. I’ll even make it easy for you by posting my affiliate link here.
3. In order to get some practice reading theological writing, read this letter from Pope Benedict XVI to seminarians. He is much more experienced in the world of theological education than I am and his advice is excellent.
4. Don’t value school over your spouse or other significant relationships. I’ve seen divorces, breakups, and people finding themselves extremely isolated. Even if you don’t think that this will be an issue for you at this point, read the anonymous letter linked below. After all, “nothing will throw off your graduation date from seminary like a divorce.” Husbands, love your wives more than seminary. Wives, love your husbands more than seminary too.
5. Find a hobby. Don’t be the guy at every social gathering who brings Kierkegaard and Augustine into every conversation. You need to be a multi-dimensional person so learn guitar, go camping, take Zumba classes, visit garage sales every Friday, or find something else that interests you. This will not only help you relax, it will also help you relate to your future congregants.
6. Take a language. Many mainline seminaries today don’t have mandatory Greek and Hebrew courses, but having some knowledge of them will help you engage resources. Even if you don’t become strong enough to do all your own translations, at least you won’t make the mistake of claiming that when Paul uses the Greek word dynamis to speak of the power of the Holy Spirit he is talking about power that is like dynamite.
7. Join a church. And visit as many churches as you can. Your church family can be a great source of strength and encouragement during these often challenging years. But even as you commit to a local church, visit others in your area outside of your tradition. These visits will help expand your imagination of what worship and church can look like.
8. Find a small group of people who can hold you accountable and ask you how your soul is doing. Seminary should be a time when in the words of Charles Wesley, “the two so long disjointed, knowledge and vital piety” come together. A small group is a great way to grow in your faith and ensure that you don’t become too isolated in the midst of all your studying. Sanctification doesn’t happen the instant you begin receiving a paycheck from a church, although some of your classmates may act like that. Participating in a small group also helps you be intentional about making friends which is much more difficult in graduate school than in undergrad.
9. Begin regular patterns of sabbath and self-care. Habits are powerful things. The ones you set in school will largely continue once you leave. If you don’t begin exercising, taking time for yourself and your family, and keeping a sabbath day in the midst of school, then you likely won’t once you work in a church either.
10. Spend time with non-Christians. Remember that most people in the world think what you’re studying isn’t even true. You need to spend time with them to see where they’re coming from. Plus, you can’t make disciples of Jesus if you don’t know anyone who isn’t already a disciple.
11. If you’re still reading this, check out Teddy Ray’s blog post for some more tips.
People who have made this journey before, what would you add?
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