Seminary comes with a variety of surprises. Each school has its own culture and set of norms that a person will gradually have to become accustomed to. However, time and experience will acclimate you sooner than you realize. If you have the chance to talk to current students before you enroll it could be very helpful in alerting you to the strengths and weaknesses of your particular school.
My biggest surprise, after coming into my seminary community, was discovering the vast array of strengths and weaknesses that my particular school has. No institution can master every field both practical and academic. To do so would be nearly impossible. Rather, each seminary and divinity program has a certain set of strengths and weaknesses that are largely known mostly to its own community. For obvious reasons seminaries do not publicize the fields that they are weakest in – they tend to highlight their strengths instead. For someone who is considering seminary, it is important to look at your prospective school’s weaknesses as much as it is important to learn about their strengths.
Every school is going to emphasize its own theological orientation, but the issue doesn’t end there. The seminary’s theology department may emphasize post-liberal theology, but the question still remains how it does so. For my particular school, the approach is to strongly emphasize Karl Barth. There are of course classes on other theologians like Schleiermacher, Tillich, James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Lesslie Newbigin, but Princeton’s orientation is strongly Barthian. My seminary, like most, plays up its own strengths.
Similarly, every seminary’s biblical studies department is going to be strong in particular fields. These will of course change over time since professors will in time retire and eventually be replaced, but no seminary ever manages to effectively hire renowned experts on every one of the sixty-six books. There are seminaries who offer courses on every book and some will do so effectively, but no institution can hire the preeminent scholar in every field.
Some seminaries will house the world’s leading experts in Wisdom Literature (Job and Ecclesiastes), but be short handed in terms of philosophy scholars. Even an intuition with an enormously large endowment cannot afford to hire the best in every field. When I came to Princeton I was eager to explore a great variety of topics. In most respects there is an incredible amount of freedom to spread your wings and soar here, however, there are only so many mentors and guides to be found.
The shocking surprise I have found at seminary is that three-years is just the beginning. I am surrounded by some of the world’s greatest scholars, but I can only learn so much within a short period of time. Seminary is just the beginning. Effective ministry requires an active mind that continuously explores the difficulties facing congregants, one’s own spiritual journey, and the issues facing the world. Seminary merely opens the doors to further exploration. It will introduce you to theological schools and different interpretative camps, but this is just a contextual overview. Life in the church will often call leaders into places where they have to reevaluate their own presuppositions. God is at work and His Word is alive in us. It is not something we can capture. Rather, it is something that captures us.
Your seminary will introduce you to the discussions that have been going on for two-thousand years. It will do so as best it can, given its own biases and resources. The key for prospective seminarians is to find the tide pool that seems easiest to jump into before being swept out into the sea of spiritual depth and exploration that is our great Christian faith. Every seminary has its own little ecosystem that is replenished by the larger Christian community, but unique in its approach and wildlife.
I found a school that allowed me to explore certain subjects very well from a particular context. Many of you will have to make a similar decision. Each school is unique. I have been extraordinarily pleased with many of my classes and professors. However, we can never forget that we have an obligation as ministers to explore the messages and viewpoints of this world –our own and others (1 John 4:1). The Word of God is alive in this world and in the hearts of believers, but it does not stand under our domain. God helps and guides us, but we continually have to move towards His truth and word for our lives. To do so we must listen and think about what we are hearing. And in that task we can have faith that God is working within us to move us to the place that He wills us to serve and live in service to Him.
Written by Kadin Williams. Kadin is presently in his third year at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He has served as an intern in American Baptist, Southern Baptist, and RCA churches. He is presently seeking ordination with the American Baptist Churches USA. You can connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.