Well, I am a year into my seminary career. By all standards, I'm still a rookie in the whole world of theological education. But for those of you who are thinking about entering into seminary, or if you know someone who is, I am going to shed what little light I now have on my experience at Calvin Seminary.
The following are seven things that I wish someone had told me before I entered seminary.
1. Busy-ness Does Not Equal Godliness
This is a huge one for me personally and something that I desperately wish someone had reminded me of before I walked into the front doors of Calvin Seminary that late August morning. Maybe not everyone struggles with the desire to be busy, to keep their hands full at all times, or to be continually challenged, but I do. With this desire in mind, upon my arrival, I signed up for everything under the sun. From the chapel planning team, to 3 extra credits per semester, to a job on campus, to an internship off campus, I had this idea in my mind that I needed to go above and beyond. I’m a man of God now, I thought to myself, which must mean that I need to do more than what is expected of me.
The main issue here, swathed in countless other issues, was that I equated my business with godliness. As if I was being righteous by taking on too much, as if placing myself at the mercy of my seemingly endless extra-curricular activities was a fulfillment of my calling. As if making myself so endlessly busy was holy as it would require me to rest and find strength in Jesus. Man, was I ever wrong. Instead of this business pointing me toward an undeniable reliance on the cross, it pulled me away from Christ, and it exhausted me mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Busy-ness does not equal godliness.
2. Your Grade Does Not Effect Your Calling
This is a big one, friends. It continues to be an ongoing struggle for me as I pursue my seminary education. Coming to seminary soon after my undergraduate degree, I still equated education with evaluation. Grades tell you how you are doing. Seminary is a whole different ballgame. Yes, grades are important. Making sure that you are doing your best, putting the effort in that is necessary is crucial to your development. But not getting straight A’s is not God’s providential way of telling you that you are not fit to serve his people.
The other danger of grade-mongering is that I would entirely lose sight of the personal and spiritual character development that could have been taking place. But because of my continual pursuit of academic success, I lost sight of how the Spirit of God was working in my heart through my readings of the early Church Fathers, or my learning of the Greek language.
God doesn’t care about your transcript; he cares about your heart.
3. Don’t Let the Biblical Languages Taint You
Yes, I realize that this sounds a bit harsh. Yes, I do know that some people have a passion and love for the ancient languages of the Bible. But I can confidently say that this is not a universally experienced truth.
The reason why I find it necessary to say this is that you will inevitably spend copious amounts of time pouring over cue cards, learning Greek or Hebrew grammar, and occasionally questioning your decision to attend seminary. Do not let this distract or dismay you. It is difficult, but it is doable. In fact, if you use these hours learning the language as a devotion, as a desire to know God and his Word better, rather than to get that letter on your transcript, I believe it can be a spiritually enriching, character building pursuit.
Approach the languages as an opportunity to hear and know the Father better.
4. Being a Student Is Your Ministry
I wish I heard this one a year in advance, because it is easy to approach seminary like any other educational experience. The pressing problem is, it isn’t. Seminary is not only intellectually engaging, but challenges your whole being.
Your mind is challenged, your heart is engaged, your faith is put into perspective, your character is tried, and your soul is fully present. With this is mind, seminary is not just another degree to add to that list of letters on a business card. Seminary is not just a pursuit of a title. Your time spent in study, in conversation, in community, and in the Word are all part of your ministry both now and in the years to come. For it is a setting up of a foundation. It is a check of your spiritual vitals. It is a time to grow, be challenged, and prepare for the years of ministry that are to come.
Being a student is your ministry, treat you studies like it.
5. Building Community is More Important than Building Your Library
It is a generally accepted truth that books are the guilty pleasure of the seminarian. Bookshelves are the main furniture you’ll find in the home of a seminarian. I wouldn’t be surprised if students put off groceries to afford placing another leather-bound tome into their ever-expanding collection of big, dusty, hard-to-read books.
Yes, I am kidding, but only in part. I know that when I see a box of free books, I feel sort of like a kid approaching a box full of kittens, some of which I get to take home. I also know this is true, because with each free book I attain, I think about how many more I can get away with before my wife makes a comment.
But seriously, it's not about the books. Seminary, and I believe ministry, is about the people. We don’t often read in the Word that Jesus went to the synagogue and filled his library. Nor that his carpentry skills were primarily used to assemble double-depth, cherry-wood shelves to adorn his home. Instead, we hear and see his continual engagement with people from all walks of life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Jesus sought to build community everywhere that he went. This too, I believe, should be one of our primary goals as we enter into both seminary and the ministry.
Focus on building community over building your library.
6. It's Not a Walk in the Park, but You Should Take One
Seminary is a whirlwind of great experiences. It is filled with learning, meeting new people, engaging in great dialogue, and participating in a body of believers who are all seeking to know God better. It’s a pretty incredible place. That being said, it is easy to spend all of your time there. More than that, it is easy to spend all of your time doing seminary-related things.
I’m not saying that taking your education seriously is bad, I am just saying that it is good to take a break. It is good to take a Sabbath, to take time off to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. To put your headphones in and go for walk. I know that it is surprising, but your homework will still be there when you get back! Finding time to do things that you love, things that have nothing to do with your seminary experience, is necessary. It is necessary for your own well-being, for your experience of God in and through the good things of this world, and just for a sense of life outside the walls of the seminary.
Seminary is not a walk in a park, but you you should take one once in a while.
7. It Requires Sacrifice, but It’s Worth It
Coming to seminary has been and will continue to be a journey. Maybe this is a second career pursuit for you, and you’ve quit your job to pursue theological education. Maybe you are married. Maybe you’re married and have a family. Maybe you’ve turned down other, more financially lucrative opportunities to be here. There are countless other “maybes,” but the truth is, everyone here has sacrificed something, and the reality is that this is hard. It can be hard on families who have uprooted, individuals who don’t succeed as immediately as they hoped, and international students who need to adjust to a completely different world.
All in all, the sacrifices that are made shape and form us. They put each class into perspective. They create a lens through which we experience the classroom. These sacrifices, although difficult, are a beautiful thing for they lead us to a deeper, more heartfelt reliance on Jesus Christ. The financial, material, and geographical sacrifices may seem ludicrous to the outside world, but to us here at seminary, they spur us on to know God better, to read his Word more clearly, and love one another unconditionally.
Seminary requires sacrifice, but it is worth it.