When I first sensed that the Lord was calling me to attend seminary, I was more than excited. I thought about how cool it would be to spend three years studying and learning about the Bible, ministry, theology, and missions. I had always enjoyed reading and discussing these things with my friends, and while a student at my university, I invested deeply in our campus ministry. All of these things made me excited for the road ahead. I figured these would be three of the best years of my life.
Then my first week of seminary came. And my first month, and then the end of my first year. As I reflected on it over the summer, I began to realize how different my seminary experience was from my expectation of it coming in. Sure, I had learned and grown so much in that first year, but it was one of the toughest years of my life. I didn’t realize it would be so taxing academically, spiritually, and relationally. So in this post I want to focus on those three aspects: the studying, the spiritual growth, and the relational challenges,that highlight the difficulty of seminary
This goes for any graduate level program, but you have to realize that at most seminaries, the work is going to be difficult. The habits you developed in college, either good or bad, will help or hurt you when you get to your first semester of seminary. While you are given a clean slate, the habits you’ve developed will quickly reveal themselves. I remember trying to keep up with my first semester seminary classes, when, about 3 weeks in, I felt swamped. I realized that I couldn’t employ the same “go with the flow” mentality that I had developed in college. See, in college, I could get away with cranking papers out right before they were due or studying for a test only a few days in advance, because I was dealing with quantity and not quality of tests. But in seminary that habit was thrown for a loop because of the level of depth of thought that my professors were looking for. In order to critically engage the material, I needed to spend time absorbing it, reflecting on it, and studying it.
I had to learn how to maximize time, how to read with purpose, and how to regiment my schedule ahead of time. After that third week I developed a practice that I still use in my 3rd year. After classes get out on Friday, I take all my syllabi and lay them on the table. Then i take a sheet of blank paper and write out all the assignments that are due the next week in all my classes. That way, I have a visual for how much work I have to get done, and it helps me have direction and focus for the upcoming week. When I started doing that, I immediately began to feel like I was taking control of my education and not just going with the flow. It truly helped free me to studying and learning in a more conducive manner.
The Spiritual Growth
The crazy thing about seminary is that everything is spiritual. Your homework has a spiritual value. (the professors keep reminding me!) Going to chapel has spiritual value. Walking the halls has spiritual value. There are tremendous positives and tremendous negatives when everything is spiritualized. First, to the positive. Life is meant to be lived in gratitude to God, because everything good and perfect gift comes from Him. The more I focus on myself, the less I see those gifts He places in front of me. This emphasis on the spiritual dimension of things helped open my eyes to God’s work all around me, and in me as well. But the second thing ,the negative aspect of the spiritualization of everything, is that you can quickly fall into overwhelming guilt and self-centeredness. Let’s face it, we are all human, and sometimes you get a cold, or your wife is sick, or your baby is crying, and the homework just can’t get done. You cannot beat yourself up over everything and instead need to accept grace. It’s hard, but learning to become a person of grace means extending it to yourself when you don’t meet your own standards all the time.
But don’t get me wrong, you’ll have tremendous times of spiritual growth where you will feel more and more connected to God and His purposes in your life and in the world around you. Those are amazing moments, and you will uncover how God wants to continue to shape you into the person He designed you to be. But sometimes you want to just pause the academics and let God do His work in your life.
For instance, there have been days when I’m having a really awesome morning devotional time, and all of a sudden I realize I’m getting close to class time. Invariably I want to just skip the classes and spend time hanging out with God, processing all that He is doing, but I’ve got the duty of going to classes looming before me. This kind of thing can get frustrating, especially if you need lots of time to process and take in all that God is doing in your life. I’d recommend blocking out chunks of time to spend processing all this stuff so that it doesn’t overwhelm you when you have to just truck through your work for the day.
The last dimension of difficulty I want to mention has to do with relationships. Because the academics are so hard, and because the spiritual growth you will encounter is so deep and all-consuming, your relationships with others will suffer if you don’t take notice. This is especially true if you are married or have kids, but even if you don’t, you will deal with the relational fall-out in one way or another.
Learning takes time, and relating takes time. But we’re all given the same amount of time. There will be days when you need to hunker down and study hard and spend a bit less time with your loved ones than you’d wish. But more often than not, you should develop the habit of getting away from the books for quality time with others. A bit of advice from personal experience: don’t mix studying with down time. Reading while you hang out with friends in the living room watching football isn’t doing anyone any good. You don’t absorb the material, and you aren’t there emotionally with your friends.
One of the best things I learned was to go all out when I studied so that I could truly enjoy my relaxing time. Approach your study time with purpose, and you will be freed up more than you can imagine. Then you can take that bit of time to sit and listen to your wife tell you about her day. You and I need other people. We need relationships to keep us healthy, and we need healthy relationships more than almost any other human thing. And one thing I’ve learned is that healthy relationships take time, intentionality, and sacrifice. Take the time to listen to your loved ones, and take the time to tell them what you are learning and where you are growing. If you tend to be a perfectionist, you need to sacrifice your perfectionism sometimes so that you can give attention to the relational needs of you and your loved ones.
It is hard for other people to understand exactly what seminary is like. It is so demanding, so time consuming, and so thank-less, most of the time, that you can feel depressed and overwhelmed if you let it all get to you. But if you go in knowing that it will be a challenge, you can develop a game plan ahead of time. And better than any plan you can develop, you can know what to pray for: patience, endurance, and hope in the midst of it all. Remember the words from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
“love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”
You will make it through. Just throw yourself on the all-sufficient and all-encompassing grace of God. What He has called you to, He will support you through.