I associate my seminary years with a wide range of emotions and experiences. I went through a period of unhindered excitement and joy, of grave disillusionment, of utter heartbreak, and ultimately of satisfied contentment. I experienced a new appreciation for my church, the personal heartbreak of divorce, the camaraderie of lasting friendships, the frustration of academic hardship, and the satisfaction of slowly discovering my place in God's kingdom. It wasn't anything close to a utopian experience, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Like any of God's good gifts, seminary can be rightly appreciated, but it can also be idolized and mismanaged. Your time will be temporary and focused, and as such, the atmosphere is uniquely specialized for the specific task you face. Your primary challenge is to find your identity in Christ rather than in academic, social, or vocational success. Embrace your seminary experience, just not too tightly.
Seminary is a great gift, given to us that we might do even better jobs as ministers than we might have otherwise. As a result, it's our job to steward that gift appropriately and with the proper perspective. This, of course, is a balancing act for anyone. Here are five things I've learned that, by God's grace, will help you along the way.
1. Be Comfortable as a Mere Church Member
Seminarians often spend their first few months looking for a church that's not a "seminary church," then gunning for some kind of leadership position or teaching opportunity within that church a few months later. Stop. The best thing you can do for your growth as a leader is to serve your church in ways that are commonly overlooked. Be the sound guy for a while. Wash dishes after church supper. Sit in the pews, take in the sermon, and talk about it with others in the congregation—especially those who tend to be ignored. Servant leadership is more than an abstract leadership philosophy; it's a concrete series of actions you're in the perfect position to live out at this stage of your life.
2. Have Other Hobbies or Interests Besides Theology
If all you care about is theology, biblical studies, and the inner-workings of kingdom ministry, non-seminarians will find you insufferable. Such friends and family have all sorts of interests, and while you may not have a vested interest in popular culture, fashion, decorating the house, or sports, they do. Therefore, if you fail or refuse to engage these subjects, you'll seem like a bump on a log at best and a jerk at worst. Caring about people extends even to caring about the things they care about, even if it may feel trivial or like a waste of time.
3. Embrace Empathy, Not Merely Conviction
Seminary tends to be a safe space to share your convictions with your seminary buddies without having to "walk on eggshells," but after a while it's easy to forget those eggshells are often the fragile hearts of hurting people. Discussing hot topics may be a fun intellectual exercise, but in the real world those hot topics are usually attached to genuine human pain. Abortion, gay marriage, welfare, drug use, and other polarizing subjects are more than just abstract philosophical-theological-political footballs. They're tied to realities we may not be able to readily comprehend until we put in the work. So put in the work. Don't merely seek out the opinions of those different than you; seek out their stories and their company. Listen carefully to the struggles of those whom Jesus came to seek and save, laboring to understand exactly what experiences have made them so adamant about their position.
4. Be Yourself
Seminary should be a place for discovering how to best use your gifts and interests to further God's kingdom, but for many it's simply a place to learn how to mimic the gifts and interests of others. Time in seminary can be incredibly clarifying and freeing if you're not too wrapped up in pleasing other people. Unfortunately, the seminary atmosphere often seems to invite uniformity to a damaging degree. If you're not careful, you'll subtly bend your personality to match the whims of others. Change should come from humble obedience to Jesus Christ, not social pressure and unbiblical expectations.
5. Be Ready to Change Course
When I started my seminary career, I had every intention of being a full-time minister. All my desires, counsel, and intuition pointed in that direction. I'd done ministry before seminary and found it to be fruitful and rewarding. And yet, as I neared the end of my seminary career, my life had changed to such an extent that I no longer envisioned myself in a traditional, full-time ministry position. I quickly switched my degree program from an MDiv in theology to an MA in theology and the arts and graduated much sooner than expected. It was one of the best decisions I've made, even though it meant not finishing my language classes.
You may feel convinced in your call to ministry now, but God doesn't always make his plans for us as clear as we'd like. Sometimes he has another kind of ministry for us in mind that doesn't involve being formally employed by a church or ministry. Sometimes this means cutting our losses and leaving seminary. Other times it means finishing and moving on. Either way, it's up to you to be honest with yourself as the time spent in seminary reveals—whether through confirmation or redirection—the concrete reality of God's glorious plan for the rest of your life.