As many of you probably know, I am finishing up my first year of the ThM program at Dallas Theological Seminary. It has been a wonderful experience overall, yet filled with a few holes of personal challenges and discouragements. But these cannot be compare with the glory of attending seminary and I am very delighted that God in His providence, saw fit to bring me to DTS.
My motivation to attend seminary is probably not uncommon to many others. Becoming more in tune with increased definition and passion around spiritual gifts and interests, the intense and specialized training that seminary would provide seemed to be the next logical step. However, I have discovered that while the fuel may be ministry driven, there is a wide spectrum of expectations regarding the seminary experience and theological learning. Moreover, I have found it naive to presume that all are there for intense theological training or even ministry.
In fact, now that I have my first year just about under my belt, I have learned that the view from inside is quite different than the view from outside. From my own perspective, the experiences, classes, people has well, given me a different perspective than when I first started. In other words, whatever I had envisioned seminary to be I have experienced a somewhat different picture. And I still have 3 more years to go so I imagine that there are more adjustments to take place.
Even more so, I have to imagine that as much as my own perspective has changed, that for many outside the seminary gates there are perception or misperceptions about what seminary is about: the learning process, training, instruction, program requirements and even the people, that are part of the seminary experience. So I wanted to share some insights and experiences that hopefully will dispel any myths about seminary and maybe even garner some sympathy :)
This is the whole enchilada, you might be thinking. No doubt, this is at the heart of seminary learning. It is learning the “big words” as Michael’s recent post illuminated, about theological topics and development. And I was expecting this. Having taken most of the TTP courses, my expectation was TTP intensified. I envisioned students in constant wrangling sessions with each other and with professors about key doctrinal issues and deviations. I assumed that each class would invite the opportunity for professors to squeeze every bit of brain power and information from students and grilling them with the socratic method in order to effectively argue varying theological positions.
I do get the impression that when folks outside think of the seminary learning, there is the picture of learning about theological development and positions in this manner. But that’s all, that it consists of a series of academic exercises with no tangible connection to spiritual growth or development. I have found that this is simply not the case. Don’t get me wrong. The program is intense and weighty academic topics are taught, especially for the ThM program (as opposed to the MA programs). And professors do want to engage students in a learning process, but it is not to tear them down but to build them up. Yes, there is the expectation of learning in an academic format but is motivate out of a nurture and encouragement. And the theological training is entrenched in a spiritual foundation that is highlighted with each class, that always starts with prayer.
And I have been blown away at how some of the classes have caused me to reflect very deeply about my own faith and commitment to Christ, such as World Missions and Spiritual Life. The professors had a way of placing the academic learning in a Scriptural context that was both convicting and humbling. Each class, in fact, always redirects the core foundation of Christ and Scripture. Even Greek, which is probably the most intensely academic discipline that I have discovered. Greek is grueling, I will not lie but constantly begs to honestly consider the Biblical text and reflect on important theological truths in context of God’s redemptive plan for His creation. And one thing I will probably never say again is “in greek, this word means X”. As we are getting into more translation, we always have to consider the context…ALWAYS.
More significantly, there are the constant reminders even through the academic learning, to stay true to the only real foundation of being there in the first place, to glorify the risen Savior and point others towards Him. Chapel messages reinforce this to always keep Christ first and our educational process second (especially when Chuck Swindoll speaks) And so often I have heard to not neglect the more significant things, precious communion with God, with family and with friends.
So this does not mean to neglect theological training in favor of devotions, but to always consider the context of our learning. Because on the flip side, I have discovered that not all want to engage in theological discourse. It does make me wonder if seminary training is about getting a degree and little else. My position is to milk it, to take advantage of the tremendous resources available, namely the professors. Pick their brain, ask questions and expound on recent illuminations and learning. I welcome correction because here is the time be wrong rather than graduate and lead others in error. In fact, I recently wrote an article for the school paper (yet to appear) encouraging my fellow students to make sure that checking one’s theology is on the checklist. Because we can go through the academic process and meet requirements, without ever contending with our own positions and thoughts about God. So I get a little concerned with that student that does not seem too interested in theological discourse and can only hope that at least in private, there is a mindset of any needed reconciliation.
I’ll be honest, this is tricky. The workload is intense and for someone like me, that really wants to dig in stop and smell the historical developed roses, sometimes there just isn’t time. You read as much as you can, while you can and wherever you can and often, I have felt it has not been enough. There is always a paper or some other written assignment that is due and sometimes you can feel that you are just trying to keep up with the work and get the assignments done. For me, seminary is more than getting assignments done or even getting good grades. Learning is where its at but the pace can put a damper on that. Thank God for the 2 week breaks to catch up and dig in! Nonetheless, I think that if one is not mindful or desirous of the learning process, seminary can divulge into a sea of deadlines and nothing else and what a tragedy that would be.
One of the biggest temptations is to substitute the reading assignments and chapel for personal Bible study and church. I think how this priority is balance will determine alot of the value of seminary training and whether it was a means to an end or means to the end of where real ministry begins. It does not surprise me that there are those who come out of seminary and quit ministry within 5 years. Seminary is the time to deepen fellowship with the Father not substitute it. The work load is great and this is one of the biggest dangers I see.
One of the most significant things that I’ve learned is that ministry training extends beyond the classroom. Yes, there is the expectation that students will be involved in ministry and just about everyone that I know is actively engaged in ministry at their church. But that is not what I’m talking about. I have discovered that just about every student experiences some degree of trials while in school, that challenges soon present themselves threatening distraction or even abandonment of the program. And I personally think this is divinely orchestrated to foster servant leadership while still in school as part of the training process for ministry leadership. Growth under pressure.
I think this is a necessary part of personal development and training for leadership. I don’t think there could be little more tragic than that person who has gone unchallenged, graduates with a DTS (or any other seminary for that matter) certificate in hand and falls on their face in ministry because personal issues had gone unaddressed while in school. The first two years we follow a Spiritual Formation curriculum, which consists of personal growth and development in a small group with about 5-6 other people (same gender). That’s the platform to really pay attention to personal pitfalls and address whatever needs to be addressed. It is here, I think, where the fork in the road can occur between integrity and masking. I shudder at the person who might give lip service to this process but in their heart, are determined to fulfill their own agenda that may have little to do with the servant leadership that DTS aims to foster.
So personal integrity is indeed fostered. There is a tremendous amount of self-reporting that is needed such as chapel attendance, reading reports and even take home exams. It is left to the individual person to be honest. Here is where I think small lapses can occur where the demands of the program become more important that personal integrity. Some will fudge here and there, indicating they did work they did not do or opening up material that shouldn’t be opened during an exam. I am reminded that its the little foxes that spoil the vines, those small seemingly insignficant lapses that can widen to broader and more noticable lapses if remained unchecked. I am already aware of those fudge and it makes me look at my own integrity a little harder.
In the end, it does come down to choice, priorities and what one does with the seminary training. I was reminded today in chapel that education is nothing in and of itself. All the systematic theology, language, history, Bible exposition, preaching, and ministry training classes are meaningless if applied towards disingenuous intent and selfish pursuits that may even serve detrimental to the glory of Christ and destructive to His church. But I am also reminded that the training is vital to learn to accurately handle the precious word of God and to honestly lead others into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. THAT is the whole enchilada and what should compel any leader to take seminary training really serious. Moreover, I think it should give us pause to apply a standardized assessment of someone that has attended seminary, simply because they have attended.