Dr Jason Allen (President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) posted a blog post on some ‘pro-tips’ on being a faithful seminary student. So as most college students prepare to head back to class in a month or two, I thought I’d write some reflections on my first year at Christ College and use that to provide some suggestions for those who may be starting college as first year students. Note, some of these will be particularly applicable for students starting at Christ College.
i) You won’t have as much time as you’d like
I have been aching to go to seminary to prepare for ministry since 2009. But under the wise counsel of older men and women, I decided to do my undergraduate studies at university while working and spent an additional year working as an intern at church before starting my M.Div in 2015. As such, I had 5 years to think and dream about all the things I wanted to do at seminary.
I told myself I wanted to be a master in the languages, I wanted to spend time reading books in the ‘extra reading list’ section of the lecture note bibliographies (and even books not required by the course!), and I wanted be involved in as many aspects of seminary life that I could. You’d think I was crazy but in my mind, I genuinely thought ‘I’ve studied full time while working part time before, surely this will be alright’.
But I was wrong and these dreams were very short lived because it didn’t take long for me to realise that original languages are a lot more difficult that I had anticipated, that there isn’t even enough time to read books the ‘required’ and ‘recommended’ reading list, and that the combination of church ministry, studies, and family life make it almost impossible to do any more.
To this point, I don’t believe my dreams were bad. In fact, they pushed me to excel when the temptation was to do the bare minimum (they say that 51% is 1% wasted. Avoid this temptation. Don’t get sucked into conversations that advocate for this type of academic attitude. God has placed you in a time and season where you get to commit yourself thoroughly to the study of God’s Word. Use it wisely and give it all you’ve got!). But nonetheless, it was disappointing for these dreams to be unrealised.
So I learnt that despite good intentions and purposes, you won’t have as much time as you’d like. As such, be wise in prioritising. In fact, because there will always be things competing for your attention, seminary is a good time and place to set good habits that will last for a life time.
Learn to say ‘enough is enough’ to your essays when your family needs you. Don’t exchange time with them for an additional 2-3%. Yes, that is the difference between a D and a HD, but those extra 30 minutes show your family, church, or friends (even non-Christian ones!) that they are important to you. Work as hard as you can but not at the cost of neglecting other aspects of your life.
ii) You will be humbled
I walked into class on day 1 with a fair bit of pride.
I’ve read a few books, had a few debates on theology, and have preached a couple of times. So perhaps subconsciously, I thought ‘these guys aren’t going to tell me much more than what I already know, and I’m really here just to get a piece of paper to prove that I know what I already know’. But man was I wrong.
I was wrong about my pastors and I was wrong about my professors.
I was wrong to think that what my pastors served on Sundays is all that they’ve prepared. What I didn’t realise is that just as we don’t see the entire process of buying fresh food, cutting, washing, and actually cooking when we dine at a restaurant, Christians don’t see all the studies, research, and drafts that their pastors have committed themselves to throughout the week in order to prepare for their sermons. So just because your pastor preaches for 45 minutes doesn’t mean he only has 45 minutes of material prepared. Honour your pastors for what they do.
I was also wrong about my professors. But I’m not referring to their knowledge. Yes they are some of the world’s most intelligent people. Ask them anything about the Bible or ministry and they’ll be able to give an articulate, biblical, and clear answer. But in a way, you sort of expect that. What surprised me most was their humility which only serves to humble you. All of my lecturers have been in the trenches of church life for years, even decades. And all of them teach not because they love pure academic study but because they love the church. Perhaps that comes with being at a denominational school, but there is always talk about how what we learn can better serve our network of churches. So whenever they speak, you get a real sense of gravitas that I believe comes from years of pastoring hurting people, years of trial and error, and years of defending the truth from lies. Learn from them, inside the classroom and out. I’ll never forget what my Old Testament lecturer said in a class on ‘Lamentations’ – he said ‘an M.Div or B.Th doesn’t make you a pastor. In fact, even having a Ph.D doesn’t make you a pastor. Walking with hurting people, sitting by a death bed, and talking to the old lady with amnesia for years makes you one. You need to earn your stripes and you do that by suffering and lamenting with people’.
You will be humbled because you’ll realise that there is a lot more you don’t know. You will be humbled because God is big and his word is great, and the more you know that, the better it is for you.
Be quick to ask questions, slower to challenge, and soft to receive correction.
iii) Community is not served on a silver platter
There is often talk about how an essential element of seminary life is community and I absolutely believe that to be true.
However, one of the things we need to recognise is that community (and relationships in general) is dynamic and not static, and as such, often needs to be sought.
At Christ College, you won’t find students standing around playing frisbee or backyard cricket but you will find community. You won’t be given friends from day one, but you will find community at our daily morning tea where we get to catch up, chapel where we get to worship together, pastoral care group where we get to pray for one another, Wednesday lunch where we get to share a meal together, and annual college mission where we get to serve together. But if you’re not careful, you can easily slip through the cracks and have yourself go unnoticed. So make an effort to say hi to someone. College has a real mix of people ranging from young guys eager to be pastors to older men and women who are studying to be better disciples of Christ. We’ve even got ex-cops and ex-cons sitting in the same room! Speak to them, hear their stories, and ask them how the grace of God transforms everything.
But you’ll also find community by asking people to head out for lunch or coffee. Yes, some will say ‘next time’ because they are heading off to pick up their kids from school but make an effort to build relationships. You will find community around 1pm each day in front of the main door when a group of us head out for lunch. If we see you, we’ll ask you to come along. But if for some reason we don’t, ask us where we’re going and we’ll tell you to join us. You’ll also find community on Level 1 of the library where a bunch of people are making too much noise for a library (not me, of course). We’ll be joking about how our lecturers look alike but we’ll also be talking about which place nearby has the best coffee and we’ll be sharing lecture notes. We’ll be asking those in upper years for tips on learning languages and if they’re kind, they may even tell us which books to read in order to get good marks for an essay. So come grab a seat next to one of us, say hi, and join the ride. You won’t get much community if you head to level 2 because that is the quiet study area. If that is what you like, then great! But avoid expecting community to be served on a silver platter. So wherever you are, seek them out and build genuine friendships.
Lastly, enjoy! You’re only here for a season so make the most out of it!