Seminary myths and misconceptions
Nobody pays tens of thousands of dollars a year to become an over-educated, underpaid, silver tongued spiritual loafer. More often, people take the path of seminary so they can douse their hearts with the gasoline of truth, light a match and run into the nearest church. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. One key to averting disaster is to know what to expect—and what not to expect. Here are five common misconceptions people have before entering seminary:
1. Seminary is either all ministry focused or all intellectually focused
Some students come to seminary expecting an environment where they can readily connect with other pastors and learn from seasoned ministers who are also professors. Ministry people don’t like to think too philosophically or abstractly, so they prefer their theological learning to have a clearly integrated practical application. Then, on the other end of the spectrum are the more academically oriented students who come to seminary expecting to meet other highly sophisticated thinkers who know how to debate theology and ruminate for fun. In reality, most seminaries are a mix of practical ministry application and academically rigorous learning, but tend to lean more heavily toward one side or the other. At some point, you may find yourself slightly disillusioned with your studies depending on which side you tend to lean toward. The trick is to know who you are and what you’re looking for, and then to know what audience your school tends to cater more to.
2. Seminary will perfectly prepare you for ministry
You’ve done some discerning and are now ready for seminary. But slow down for a minute. Seminary might not prepare you the way you expected. In fact, it may not be designed to prepare you on a practical level much at all. I remember one of my first experiences as a seminary student was in a class on Genesis. Although the curriculum was designed to survey the entire book of Genesis, our professor decided to spend most of our time delving deeply into the first three chapters. This involved an unforgettable examination of creation theories, which taught us all that you can still be a Christian and not believe in a literal six-day creation. But eventually one older student had to ask, “How in the world do we teach this to our congregations?” This question, in turn, sparked even more discussion in the class. This is the challenge of a seminary education: A lot of what you learn is hard to translate to ministry, unless it’s a course on teaching, preaching or counseling.
3. Seminary will automatically help you get a higher paying job
“Grad school will guarantee you a higher paying job”— fact or fiction? In any case, it’s a generalization that requires us to do our homework before we naively assume that this axiom applies to the minister’s career as much as the manager’s or the teacher’s. Unfortunately, often, the only time a master’s (or PhD) pays is when they literally pay, in the form of a scholarship. It’s been said before and it’s well worth saying again: Don’t apply to seminary because you’re unemployed and hope another degree will somehow help you “jump” into a high-paying job. Going to seminary as something to fill your time while you try to get yourself un-lost is a rash financial choice for which you may kick yourself later.
4. Seminary will give you all the answers
There’s a saying in Greek philosophy that goes something like this: “The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.” While the idol of certainty about everything is something of a curse in Western Christendom, a healthy education frees people up to think outside the box, and to embrace complexity and mystery. Some people don’t even realize that they read the Bible through the lens of their culture, their upbringing or their denomination. When I first entered seminary, I admit that part of me expected to be preached at rather than taught. Part of me still clung to an old model of education, where the teacher is the all-knowing mouthpiece for truth and the students are passive truth-absorbing sponges. That model has never cultivated wisdom. Maybe the most important lesson I learned at seminary was the freedom of knowing how much I don’t know—and the thrill of knowing how much I could discover if I only started asking questions.
5. Everyone in seminary will think like you
I once took a course where the instructor, an Anabaptist pastor, opened the course by having all 20 students introduce ourselves and state our denominational backgrounds. It turned out we had a good mix in the room: Pentecostals, Baptists, Mennonites, Christian Reformed, Presbyterians, non-denominational and others. At the end of the introduction, our instructor commented somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Isn’t it great that we’re all together in one room and not trying to kill each other?” When it comes to inter-denominational seminaries, I often hear students report how much they appreciated being exposed to literature and other resources they wouldn’t have otherwise come across in their own denomination. Protestants overcome their Catholic-phobia and discover theology that, at times, puts Protestant doctrine to shame. Baptists find refreshing in classical Pentecostalism, and non-denominational kids like me learn to appreciate liturgical churches. This is the kind of unity Jesus prayed for, and it’s bound by love rather than the need for us to agree about everything.
I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve met who came into seminary with a straight-forward trajectory for their career path, only to have that five-year plan blown to bits, then reconstructed into something completely new. I’ve watched as people are formed cognitively, grow in confidence—in both God and their own potential—and come into their own. Frankly, I think we’d have a healthier, stronger and more vibrant Church if it looked a little more like seminary.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the 2014/2015 Graduate Edition of Relevant Magazine.
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