So You Think You Want to Go to Seminary

Oh! Hello! I didn’t see you there.

Occasionally on this blog I’ve offered advice to current seminarians, advice to new pastors, and the odd Open Letter to a Seminarian, which may or may not have opened with the words, “I hate your stinking guts.”

But you… you are a bird I’d not tweeted at in the past.  You, the Prospective Minister. The Prospective Seminarian. The Thinking About It But Not 100% Sure But Feels Called gal/fella.  You, my dear, are about to get an earful.

So you think you want to go to seminary?

Let me guess, my little Popsicle:
You knew more Bible verses than your Sunday School teachers growing up.
You taught your mom things about theology at lunch after a particularly bad sermon from your senior pastor.  
You grew up in one denomination (Baptist? Methodist? Presbyterian?) but are now pretty convinced you want to be Anglican.

(It’s cool.  No judgment here.  We’ve all been there.  The Anglican urge is a part of most of our calls to ministry.)

You wanted to be a doctor but you failed college biology.
Your favorite book is Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, well, the first chapter because that’s all you read.
You really like Rob Bell but are willing to burn a copy of Love Wins in front of the admissions committee at your seminary of choice if that’s what it takes to get in.

 

Well, let me just say:

I am so proud of you! Discerning a call to ministry or at least seminary is the bomb! Do a little dance. Call your grandmother (she’ll be thrilled).  Now, buckle up.

 

Some things seminary is not:

1. Filled with perfect people.
I’d say that I knew more party animals, was invited to more ragers, and heard more swearing in seminary than in high school and college combined.  Sometimes I think people take seminary as their last opportunity to party hearty, before they get out in the world and have to be Perfect Pastors.  Also, there were people who ditched class, put Bailey’s in their morning coffee, and gave themselves (ourselves) a “B” on the self-graded assignments that they (we) knew deserved Fs. (Confession is good for the soul.)

2. Easy.
Just because your teachers mostly love Jesus doesn’t mean they’re going to give you an A for ending every paper, “So, that’s why Jesus is pretty sweet.”  Also, don’t ever write that in a paper. Take my word for it.

3. Horrible.
Just because it’s grad school and it’s harder than undergrad and there’s a lot of pressure and people freak out a little bit, doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.  I can’t tell you how many night I laughed uncontrollably and was almost kicked out of the library while studying. “Studying,” I should say. And I can’t tell you how many biscuits and gravy I consumed with great girlfriends and bottomless cups of coffee.  And I can’t tell you how much I miss it.  I miss it like a death in the family.  I miss it like my heart got cut in half when I graduated.  I miss it like missing that thing you forgot that you were going to say for your third example on a list of things you miss seminary like.  Gah.

 

Some things seminary is:

1. Breeding grounds for like-minded conservatives. And liberals.  Everyone, really, except probably you.
By the end of your first year, roughly 5 weddings will have occurred between people you know. Roughly 46 more couples will be engaged. 2 couples will be preggers.  You will want to defriend them on facebook in protest, but, you know… that loving Jesus stuff.

2. Interesting!
Did you know that Karl Barth cheated on his wife for the majority of their marriage? I didn’t, until I took a class on him.  Did you know that John Wesley was never an ordained Methodist minister? SEMANTICS ARE FUN! Did you know that if you drink 8 cups of coffee before noon, your heart will flutter for a full two days? These are the things you learn in seminary. GOOD STUFF!

3. Filled with the Spirit of the Living God.
Sometimes you’ve got to search for Her. Sometimes She’s disguised as professors who are adamant religious pluralists, or preceptors who give you a B for not having a “clear thesis” when your first paragraph clearly ends with the words “IN THIS PAPER I WILL ARGUE.”  [Breathe, Erin… Breathe…]  Sometimes She’s front and center, at chapel and in the library and in the book you’re reading for your spirituality class. Sometimes She’s in the tears of a friend who has discerned the call to leave seminary.  Sometimes She’s in the criticism that will make you a better pastor.  Sometimes She’s in the bed, snuggling up with you and keeping your heart strangely warmed when all that Church History reading just makes you want to go cold.  The Spirit of the Living God is there, present and active.

 

So, with that being said, here is some random advice for you, Prospective Seminarian:

1. Always assume a noontime guest speaker, panel, or lecture will include lunch.
2. Do not ever eat pizza three days in a row at these free lunches. Trust me.
3. Study in bars, restaurants, museums, and parks, not just in the library.
4. Think about prayer and devotion as a tithe of your time: Spend at least 10% of your day with God.
5. Go to chapel.
6. Don’t dress like an undergrad.
7. Hydrate– just always do this.
8. Don’t develop a competition among your friends to see who can wait the longest to start a paper and then make the best grade. This will backfire on both your friendships and your GPA.
9. You know what? Just don’t talk about grades ever.  Don’t compare.  Seminary is not a competition.  It’s a collaboration.  Cheerlead, don’t compete.
10. Seek out mentors. I know this is easier said than done, but find a professor who seems relatively approachable or compatible with your personality and pop into their office. You’d be surprised how much most of them LOVE this.  And if they don’t have time for you, they’ll reschedule.  The worst that can happen is they ask you to leave.
11. Journal.  Talk about how your views are changing, or not changing; what you’re struggling with and what you’re learning a lot from; what you love and what you hate; what makes you weep and what makes you laugh.
12. Write down all the ministry advice your professors give out. They are endless wells of valuable information.  These notes, four years down the road, will save your little life in a ministerial crisis.
13. Keep in touch with your old pastor.  But, well, don’t tell him what a liberal you’re becoming and how you’re starting to think he’s crazypants and how Barth would disagree with everything about his theology and how he should switch roles with his female associate to make a point.  Just keep that to yourself and tell him you enjoyed the sermon he posted online Sunday.
14. Do as much reading as you can.
15. Do not berate yourself for not doing all the reading. Unless you’re a wunderkind, you’re not going to be able to do it all. But you have the rest of your life to catch up on that reading. Do not feel bad about it.
16. Take advantage of the counseling and psychiatric services available through your institution.  Go cry on their couches about how overwhelmed you feel and how you’re doubting your call and how you’re afraid you’re never going to pass your Board of Ordained Ministry because they’re going to find your dog-eared copy of The Purpose-Driven Life that you read with your parents in high school and then you’ll be shunned forever.  They are the voices who can reasonably say, “You are being ridiculous.”
17. Don’t play the Most Likely to Be a Future Bishop/Get the Best Appointment game with your friends about people in your class. Leave it up to Jesus. And the Cabinet.
18. Go to all the optional seminars about weddings, funerals, and other practical stuff. You will thank yourself later.
19. Over all the vacations, read as many personal, non-religious, funny, soul-soothing books you can. Also, watch all the reality television you can.
20. Make time to go swimming in lakes, road-trip to the beach, have a movie marathon, sleep over on a friend’s floor, and go dancing.  

21. Don’t take it too seriously. If you felt called, you were probably called.  God will bring you through the tough times and will put plenty of wonderful things along the way to keep you going.  Believe me.

 

Godspeed, and buy decaf.

Another Top 10: At the 4-Month Mark

It’s that time again… a time for a funny/embarrassing/surprisingly touching (maybe?) list of things that have happened to me in the first FOUR months of ministry! (Can you believe it’s been that long? Me either.)

10. I don’t know if you know this, but (surprise!) there was a presidential election that happened yesterday.  In conjunction with this historic event, I got to plan and help lead an election night communion service! Three observations: It was the bomb, I got to write a Great Thanksgiving, and I didn’t accidentally confess my political leanings!

9. After the election night communion, I went to dinner with a friend, went home, put on my PJ’s, and finally settled in to watch the results roll in… and then I realized that I forgot the leftover bread from communion.  I tweeted this:

And then this:

(follow me on twitter! @erinjbeall)

8. Our worship minister showed me all the secrets of worship planning this week: where the skeleton key to the altar cloth closet lives, the secret kitchen filled with secret frozen Hawaiian bread and secret grape juice, and how to turn on/navigate the sound system.  She said gravely, “So if I die, all this belongs to you.” I felt a little like Simba from The Lion King.

7. I was the liturgist at our All Hallow’s Eve service, one of the most meaningful services I’ve ever been to, despite the fact that our incense-smoker-thing (that’s the official term) didn’t make much smoke.  The smell was still pretty solid!

6. I finally got my heat turned on at my little house– which by the way my friend Lindsey says look like Miss Honey’s house from Matilda (**This post is brought to you by nostalgic movies from your childhood**)–  But not before I woke up one morning to the kitty delicately placing her very cold paw-pads on my neck, presumably to warm them up.  Also possibly to threaten death if I didn’t get the house warmed up.

5. I’m speaking at an event in Florida this weekend and I’m using my comedy background to relate improv to ministry.  I’m SO excited! Want to help me out with this? Comment and let me know one (or more!) of the following things:
a. A time when you’ve tried to get the congregation/staff to do something they really didn’t want to do.
b. A time when your congregation/staff tried to get you to do something you really didn’t want to do.
c. The funniest moment you’ve had in ministry.

4. I had to use some bleach cleaner in my house the other day, and all day afterward I kept catching whiffs of the bleach smell on my skin, and I actually got emotional because it smelled just like my old days at Duke when I’d go swimming in the morning and then smell the chlorine on my skin all day.  As a result of this teary, ridiculous nostalgia, I’ve decided to join the YMCA or YWCA regardless of money, ASAP.  I just want chemically-smelling skin, you guys.  Isn’t that worth like $40/mo?

3. I think I’ve been successful at weaning myself to a lower level of caffeine intake. I’m down from 4-7 cups per day to 1-3.  Go me!  Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be so impressed. I assume.

2. I’m still happily wearing my collar to work every day.  It is legitimately one of the great joys of this job for me!  I don’t often feel like a pastor, but when I put the shirt and collar on every day, I really do.  Also, it makes me feel freer to be myself, because I don’t always have to be asserting my authority or trying to make sure that people know I’m not just an intern, but a pastor.  The collar does all that (prideful, unnecessary) work for me.  It leaves me free to be whatever God is calling me to be at that moment, but I’ve always still got this little sign on saying, “Hey, if you need Jesus right now, I know the way.”

1. That being said, one of the other great joys of this job is taking the collar off at night.  And I’m still not sure how to navigate the line between the job and the down-time, the ministry and my faith (is there even a line there? I’m open to suggestions).  But I’ll tell ya… taking that collar off and putting on a nice, free-necked t-shirt or sweater is pretty swell.