Thursday, August 28, 2014

Five Things I Wish I Had Known When I Began Seminary

It's hard to believe that six years ago (seriously, six.  One more year and I think I can marry one of Laban's daughters), I was sitting/suffering through new student orientation at ye old Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union back in Berzerkeley (I know, I know, I sound real old for being only 28, but I was BORN old).  I have to admit that I have enjoyed getting to put my pastoral skillset to work more so than I enjoyed the process of obtaining said skillset, but part of that I think comes down to things I really wish I had known when I began God School back in 2008.  Since seminaries across the country are just now welcoming in their fresh fish (yes, that was both a New Testament reference and a Shawshank Redemption reference.  I'm clever like that), I thought I would humbly offer five different points of information that I *really* wish I had known when I started this crazypants journey of professional ministry:

1. To take as many classes as possible from professors who have also been pastors

Now, to be clear, I learned TONS from my professors who had not at one point in their careers been pastors, and I am and will be forever grateful for the knowledge and instruction they imparted to me.  But when your professor has stood in the shoes that you are about to fill: the shoes of a parish pastor or a chaplain or some crank with a blog (ahem), there's a different level of insight about what your instructor believes is important to, well, instruct you on.

Of course I'm glad that I got instructed on all sorts of methods of interpreting Scripture and understanding church history and studying theology, but I also needed to be taught how to articulate those (often arcane) insights to an audience without the educational background I was currently pursuing.  And I didn't always receive that: I remember one conversation with my senior pastor and mentor very clearly after my first sermon there...he said, "You really need to make it bite sized.  Don't try to cram everything you know about God into one message."  Otherwise, your sermons will be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose...and that is no way to offer instruction and counsel on a week in, week out basis.  My professors who were pastors tended to remind me of that, and if that anecdote is any indication, I definitely needed that reminder.

2. Your field education experience is ridiculously important, even if it is technically pass/fail

Your trade classes like preaching and worship leadership will only take you so far: they're only a semester long, and they're done almost entirely within the bubble confines of the classroom, meaning that there really is very little at stake.  It's the sandbox mode of ministry.  Even if you colossally, painfully, ridiculously screw up, it's still only a classroom exercise.

Field education is still a source of practice, but you're preaching to a real congregation, not a pretend one in your preaching small group.  You're counseling people with real problems in sessions that go far deeper than what a ten minute roleplay can achieve in your course on pastoral counseling.

And then there's the mentor aspect of it all.  I do not say this lightly: choose your field education site based almost solely on who will be supervising and mentoring you.  It makes all the difference in the world...think of the difference it makes to have a great boss as opposed to a crappy boss, right?  Exact same logic here, only on steroids.

Fortunately, I lucked out on that count.  I had a great mentor AND a great congregation to serve for two years before shipping myself back to the Pacific Northwest with my factory fresh tags.

3. Nobody cares about what you think are your own totally brilliant insights

Concerning God, theology, and doctrine, it has been my experience that there are two types of seminary students: those who are there to find themselves and their beliefs, and those who are there because they already know exactly what they believe and consider it to be God's honest, unadulterated truth.  Ideally, your classmates will each be a decent mix of the two, but there are lots of folks on either pole of that spectrum, and for the love of all that is right and holy and sacred, nobody wants you to be one of those on the latter end.

I cannot tell you how many times I sat in class, saw someone raise their hand, begin to expound upon whatever cockamamie theory they had cooked up on their latest vision quest, and had everybody else in the class begin rolling their eyes.  After a while, you dreaded the professor calling on them because you just KNEW what was going to happen.  And it sucked because instead of being taught by the actual expert we had signed up to be taught by, we were instead treated to another rando's oddball commentary.

Don't be that person.  Seminary, like any ministry, requires a healthy dose of humility.  Be willing to admit that you may not have it all figured out yet, because knowing God the way I have come to know God, I don't think any of us do.  Including me.  And that humility, tough as it might be to cultivate, will serve you incredibly well for life as well as for ministry.

4. Check your expectations at the door

And I quote from the pastor and writer Dr. Matthew Kim on this one: "It's easy to become disillusioned when ministry turns out differently from what we envisioned...disappointment can be triggered by our misconceptions of what pastoral ministry will entail."

Kim is talking about ministry, but you could just as easily cut and paste "seminary" in for "ministry" and his sentiment would still be equally true.  It was definitely true for me, as I found myself deep in a funk through my first semester at God School, to the point that I was talking privately with my family about the possibility of transferring to a different seminary after the academic year was up.  Ultimately, I stayed the course, and part of that was due to reasoning that the proverbial grass is NOT always greener, and that I ran the risk of having my expectations confounded a second time around, and I had no idea what that might do for my vocational hopes.  Instead, I slowly began to adjust my expectations and came away with a seminary education enriched by a diverse array of sources as well as a certificate in Jewish Studies for an interest that I hadn't even entirely known I had when I started!

Seminary changes you.  Expect it to.  And beyond that singular expectation, leave any others behind.  You'll be burdened down with so much learning to do anyways, you might as well lighten your load from the start.

5. It goes WAY faster than you think

Graduation feels like forever away when you're stuck in the slog of midterm papers in the middle of your first semester, but before you know it, you're standing up on stage at graduation getting hooded by one of your professors, and you'll think, "What the heck just happened?" just got seminaried*, mate.

*Yes, I want that to be a real word.

Enjoy the ride, fresh fish.  God School really is a one of a kind experience.

Yours in Christ,

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