Tips for Surviving Seminary

Stuart Owens Uncategorized

In just a few weeks, after several finals and a huge paper that I haven’t started writing, I will complete my first year of seminary. In retrospect I am tempted to say that the year flew by, but if I am honest the many hours spent at a desk or a coffee shop have seemed like an eternity. Besides theological terms and a new passion for arguments that don’t really matter, I’ve learned quite a bit about seminary life itself. I did my fair share of research before I made the jump, but as is always the case there were some things that I was not prepared for. I have listed many of those things below for your benefit.

Now I know that the 5 people who will read this initially are not seminarians. Don’t get me wrong Mom and Dad, while I appreciate your faithfully reading this blog, this particular article isn’t for you. It is mostly a reminder to myself and hopefully helpful to the random person who is Googling “surviving seminary” in a fit of desperation late one evening in the future.

One final disclaimer: a better student probably already practices most of these tips. I am a notoriously poor student (that is for you Mom and Dad, you were right all along!), so much of my growth here at seminary has been putting into practice what most good students learn in the 10th grade. All that being said, here we go:

1. Determine if seminary is right for you.
This sounds obvious, but don’t overlook it. Seminary is not for everyone. What is it that God has called you to do? To what degree will a seminary education be helpful? Spend plenty of time researching, seeking counsel, praying and carefully considering the huge step you’re about to make.

2. Follow & friend your graders and T.A.’s on social media.
This is not a joke. Your graders are humans just like you. In one of my theology courses I complemented through a tweet a lecture that my professor’s intern gave while the professor was out of town. The next week one of our big papers for the semester was returned to us. To my horror, I discovered that I failed to put a cover page on the paper, which is usually an F-worthy offense. My grade? An A. A solid 94% to be exact. Is it a coincidence that the same guy I tweeted at graded the paper? Maybe. But you go ahead and take that chance if you want to.

3. For memorization, use a 15/5 interval method.
Like most people in this digital age, I have an aversion to long periods of disconnectedness and overall not-fun things. That means that sitting for hours to memorize Greek paradigms and vocabulary is unbelievably difficult for me. I’ve started using a 15 minute/5 minute interval method for memorization. I set a timer for 15 minutes and study hard. When that alarm goes off I set it for 5 minutes. I use that 5 minutes to get up, stretch, snack, check Twitter or do whatever else I can think of to not be studying. After the 5 minute alarm goes off, it is back to work knowing that I only have 15 minutes to go before I break again. This post was actually written in 5 minute breaks!

4. Be aware of the spiritual dangers.
Approaching heart issues like your faith with your brain tends to turn them into head issues instead of heart issues. This is bad for your soul. The fact that a series of articles titled, “How to Stay a Christian in Seminary” exists should scare you. Go read through them. I have also found B.B. Warfield’s small pamphlet “The Religious Life of Theological Students” to be very helpful and encouraging (it can also be found for free here: PDF version). Whatever your do, do not forget your first love. The process is gradual, so be on guard.

5. Remember that seminary is a tool, not a prerequisite.
It can be tempting to view seminary as a requirement for ministry, but that is not the case. There are of course some exceptions to this, but generally speaking seminary is not required for all who are called to pastor. In both subtle and overt ways the seminary itself will make you feel like it is required. Also, you will find yourself talking to many professors and other students who hold this assumption. The qualifications for ministry are found in 1 Timothy 3, not a degree. However seminary is helpful for ministry, you can be confident in that. This perspective will come in handy as you think through how many courses to take, how to prioritize your life, and how you handle ministry opportunities that arise while you’re in school.

6. Get involved in a local church.
Classrooms are not churches and professors, at least while they’re in the classroom, are not pastors. You are called to be a part of a local church, both giving to and receiving from it. Don’t just attend, serve. Your call to seminary does not exempt you from your obligation to serve, attend and give sacrificially for your church.

7. Don’t stop serving and ministering.
Like many others, I came to seminary after a season of being “in ministry.” If you want a surefire way to turn into a boring and disconnected pastor, then stop serving hurting people while you’re in seminary. Otherwise, you’d better get back into the trenches. Everyone knows the best way to learn is to practice what you’re learning, and theology is no different. Theology is useless if you don’t know how to serve people with it. Get out and get serving.

8. Don’t serve and minister too much.
I put this here because some people will neglect their studies for the sake of ministry. If this is you, you may need to go back to tip #1 and figure out if you’re really supposed to be at seminary. If you are called to further your theological education, then you are called to do it well. Learn to balance study with serving. After all, that’s what you’ll be doing week in and week out as a pastor.

9. Get out of the bubble.
Theology isn’t meant to be studied in vacuum. I shudder at the thought that at my school there are people who live on campus, work on campus, and only leave campus to go to church or the grocery store. In so doing, they are removing themselves from the real world, which is the very place they are supposedly learning to love and serve. Going through the checkout line at the supermarket does not count as interacting with non-Christians. Get a job at a secular business. Live in a real neighborhood away from seminary. Don’t only go to the campus coffee shop. Get out of the bubble!

10. Prioritize your wife and your family.
“Nothing will throw off your graduation date like a divorce.” That is the first sentance of a tragic article in my seminary’s monthly magazine from last year. You can read it here on page 4 of Towers Magazine. For many, neglecting their family for their studies is a real temptation. Make sure your wife and kids know they mean more to you than your education (and later, your ministry). When given the choice between editing that paper one more time and spending an extra hour with your wife, please choose your wife. When you consider that your wife is probably working to pay the bills for your education, please make sure she knows you appreciate her. When interviewing for pastoral positions, no one will ask you why you didn’t get an A in your church history class. They will ask you why your wife left you. Again, good grades in seminary are not a prerequisite for ministry. A loving, healthy marriage is. Invest more than you think you need to in your family.

11. Be patient and be present.
Seminary is long, but it isn’t that long. Be patient. Settle in to your community, your church and your life at seminary. Be present there instead of constantly looking down the road at what happens next.

12. Work smarter, not harder.
Find out what tools can help make your study easier. Dropbox, Evernote and a flashcards app for my phone have been essentials for me. All of these will make your work easier. If you’ve got the extra cash, an iPad is way better for note taking in class than a computer or a spiral-bound notebook. It is most important is that you find the ways that work for you. Chances are your 70 year old Hebrew professor isn’t going to be well versed on the latest iPhone app that helps you study. Ask the PhD students and the second year guys what they use.

13. Know how you learn.
I had no idea that I was a tactile learner. In fact, I didn’t know what that was. But let me tell you, repeating paradigms over and over does nothing for me in terms of memorization. Once I learned that writing them repeatedly is the way to go, my life got a lot easier. I then bought a small whiteboard and some markers, my language study was revolutionized. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Find out now what kind of learner you are and learn that way.

I imagine a post after my second year may read quite a bit differently, but this is what I’ve learned so far. I hope you find something in it that you can use. One last thing I’ve learned is to always be learning from others. If you’ve got a tip that I haven’t put her or a suggestion about one I have, please let me know with a comment. Oh, and good luck surviving seminary. I’m told it can be done.