Saturday, September 02, 2006

My Advice for First-Year Seminary Students

A week ago, my Question of the Day was "What is your advice to first-year seminary students?" There were many insightful responses. Here is my advice:

1. Get heavily involved in a local church immediately.

2. Don't forget about the ordination candidacy process.

I've seen many students flitter from church to church, denomination to denomination, seeking a place where they felt spiritually attuned or where their friends attended or pastored. I took a different approach. We selected three UMC congregations near our home and visited them on three successive Sundays. I let Katherine choose which one we would attend regularly. After she made her choice, I told the pastor that I wanted to be involved in his church. Pretty soon, I had leadership challenges in that church that stretched and grew me.

I've seen other students take a year or two to visit many churches or suddenly change churches on a whim. Others become heavily involved in seminary life, taking chapel every time, serving on various student committees or being handy for the many tasks of a complex seminary operation. They form devotional study and contemplation groups, read classics like Nouwen together, and go on retreats.

This is not my approach. I rarely attend chapel and never serve on student committees. I go to seminary for my theological and pastoral education, but my devotional and service life is in my local church. I'm learning all sorts of critical abilities, like working with youth groups and missions.

The rituals of chapel and study groups can be enlivening. It can be spiritually formative. But remember that we're preparing to be priests, not monks. At bare minimum, a majority of our service and devotional activities should be in the local church outside of the seminary cloister.

"But I don't feel spiritually fed there. I want to be someplace else." If you're a United Methodist preparing for the ordained ministry, you'd better drop this attitude in a hurry. When I arrived in Orlando, I jumped into a church and put my nose to the grindstone. If you're a seminarian preparing for ordination in some denomination (particularly UMC), then you have work to do. Hop to it.

Part of that work is the lengthy and complex tasks of being selected and approved for the ordained ministry. Many essays, committees, meetings, and tests are required. I've actually heard seminarians say "Well, since I graduate in six months, I guess I ought to look into the candidacy process." Not prudent. Keep up with all of the requirements of your mentor, district, and conference. My co-blogger Larry once told me "John, you'll have no advocate except yourself." The rusty gears of the candidacy process don't move unless I personally turn them. They won't move themselves for you, either.

These two suggestions that I've made are interrelated. I missed going to a lot of fun Pentecostal and Anglican churches that my friends at seminary go to and all sorts of chapel experiences because I'm committed to serving in the United Methodist Church. If a candidate for the ordained ministry isn't active in a UMC congregation (or whatever your denomination is) and staying on top of the candidacy paperwork and process, then the Board of Ordained Ministry has every reason to doubt that candidate's commitment to the United Methodist Church.

So to sum up: don't lose your focus. There's a life beyond seminary, and you'd better be ready for it.

UPDATE: Henry Neufield writes:

What I’ve found amongst pastors, particularly UMC pastors, is that they came back from seminary knowing a great deal of stuff–in many cases good stuff, but that they didn’t know the things they needed to know about running a congregation day to day.


Jason Woolever said...

These are good thoughts John. However, I would disagree with you. My now-wife and I were already heavily involved with our local church in Austin, Texas, when I began seminary. One of our main regrets is that we neglected becoming a part of the seminary community to a larger degree. While we had great friends in our local church, the few seminary friends that I have kept in touch with have been very valuable from a ministery point of view, because they provide support. Most of the people in the pews will not experience the unique ministry challenges that our seminary peers will. My advice would be slightly different.

1) Be engaged in a local church.
2) Be seriously involved in building relationships with other seminary students which will last a life time (and into eternity).
3) Study hard (I regret not studying Greek and Hebrew harder).
4) Enjoy the unique and very brief opportunity you have to be a part of a different kind of spiritual community while you are in seminary. (You have your whole career to be live in the local church. The 'monastery' environment is a short gift of God that will soon be gone and missed. Remember that Cinderella song, "Don't Know What You Got Til Its Gone."

John said...

Good points, Jason. I'm coming from a different background. I've been a Christian for four and a half years, so there's so much of church life that I am unfamiliar with and need to learn quickly.

Another factor is that everyday I watch my wife come home crushed from an awful job. If I don't do everything within my power to finish seminary quickly, keep up with candidacy, and prepare myself for the ordained ministry, I'm being an irresponsible husband. I've no right to enjoy a lengthy retreat into a seminary/monastery on her back.

But if other seminarians do not have these factors, then my advice may not be as valuable.

Jason Woolever said...

yes, i agree with the quickly finishing aspect. its a trick to balance all the stuff for sure.

its got to be tough to watch your wife struggle like that. i can see how that would make you want to relieve her as soon possible.

see-through faith said...

good advice -but I think it's extremely important to make sure you (we) are being spiritually fed too. We are to be do-ers of His word, but we need his word too.

And as Jason said - it's important to build relationships (also across denominational lines)

Sorry to hear about your wife's job. I take it that she's working to see you through seminary - which is wonderful - but I'm not sure how you link your involvment (or lack of it) with keeping her happy.

We all need spiritual retreats - don't forget to take care of yourselves spiritually - that isn't good stewardship; and actually a recipe for burn out for both of you IMHO

John said...

If a pastor (or pastor-in-training) doesn't feel spiritually fed in a church, then he should plant some crops.

But I sure could use a contemporary worship service a lot more frequently than I'm getting it.

How do I link what I do in school with my wife's happiness? Well, it means that I push as hard as I can, 14 semester hours every semester, learning all I can so that she can leave her job and start popping out babies. That's what both of us want and if I decided that I wanted to take a J-term off so that I could go on some retreat off to Lake Junaluska, or even spending money that we don't have so that I can go to a retreat at our local Conference retreat center at Leesburg, then I'm making her suffer more for my sake. I have a local church, a pastor, and a Bible. If I take anything more that prevents me from graduating in 3 years, prepared for an appointment or spending more money, then I'm doing it at Katherine's expense. I'll take no more of her blood, sweat, and tears than absolutely necessary.

Mark Winter said...

Henry Neufield is right. I found seminary to largely be an exercise in ivory tower theorizing. After five years of higher education, I had an MDiv but didn't know much about planning church budgets, holding effective meetings, counseling suicidal people, conducting weddings and funerals, and managing church conflict. But, by golly, I knew the JEDP theory!

TN Rambler said...

Mark, since I haven't been to seminary (yet) perhaps my comments should be taken with a grain of salt. But, as a former executive in the business world, I can guarantee you that most of the MBA's coming out of college don't know their tail from a hole in the wall either...especially when they go directly into grad school from undergrad. I shudder to think of how many had to get experience in the "real world" for the tools that they gained in grad school to kick in and for them to become useful to the team.

Perhaps, it should be a requirement that more grad programs (not just MDiv) should require some real world experience prior to acceptance in the program?

Just my $0.02.

John said...

Library school was the same way.

Congregations constantly howl that fresh seminary grads can't do anything right. So seminaries add more and more hours. The problem persists. But if a graduate doesn't know what he's doing after 96 freakin' hours of courses, then seminary education has to be completely re-thought.

Sometimes I think that we're not really preparing for ministry as much as feeding the seminary industry. Sort of like the Christian publishing industry.

Holy Pirate said...

I come at this from a different angle as I start seminary on Tuesday (via Asbury's ExL online program for a couple of years, then on campus for a couple).

I have actively served a local UMC congregation in various leadership roles for about ten years. I've chaired umpteen committees and the Church Council, taught adult, children's, and cross-generational Sunday School, and preached a few times a year. I'm currently Lay Leader and Lay Member to Annual Conference, count the offering every other month, make sure the Kids Activity Bags are refilled, change the message on the outdoor sign, and serve as a backup nursery attendant.

So, while I don't know everything about running a charge, I have a pretty good idea of what's involved in making it happen.

What I have been lacking is exposure to a wide variety of worship styles and experiences, and the opportunity to make many deep connections with others of the same general age level and similar place on the Christian journey. So, when I finally make it down to Wilmore, I'll be looking to fill in those gaps. And my wife, who has also served a wide variety of roles in our local congregation, is looking for the same things.

So, while we will be engaged in a local church down in Wilmore, we'll be less active than we are here because we will take the two years to do what we otherwise will never get the chance to do.

UCM said...

um... you have your whole life to be involved in a local UMC, you have a limited time to hear great speakers in chapel and hear them in person....

you can be involved in a local church AND seminary life...

John said...

There are only 24 hours in a day.

UCM said...

I have a friend who is attending a Southern Baptist Seminary. He says that they are repeatedly told to be involved in a local Baptist Church. Of course, the Cooperative Program pays half the tuition for all Southern Baptist students, but you have to prove you are an active member of a Southern Baptist Church.

When I went through the ordination process, I was NEVER asked about my local church involvement while in seminary. Of course I was very involved before going to seminary. What shocked me in seminary were the number of UM students who knew LITTLE about the real workings of the UMC.

I didn't feel Asbury Seminary stressed local church involvement either. My Baptist friend said that in the last chapel the first week of school, they had everyone come forward for prayer who would be speaking in a church the following Sunday. Then they asked who was a member of a local Baptist church and had them stand. The president of the seminary asked those sitting when they were going to join a church.

I do think, in the Methodist context, it is an individual choice. Should you be involved in ONE church immediately, or take the time to explore, because you will probably not have the chance to do it ever again.

But either way, everyone has time to go to chapel... At the most it is 2-3 hours a week.

John said...

I'm not sure what the Wilmorons do about local church life. The campus is situated in an area with a very small population. Orlando provides many more opportunities.