Humility and expectations: On preparing for seminary

Guest Outpost blog by Christopher De La Cruz

This week we asked our bloggers to share three things they would have liked to tell themselves before starting seminary. Here are their thoughts.

When I started my three-year pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had left a promising (if relatively short) career in journalism, just got married and had only recently accepted that I indeed was called into ministry. There was little that could prepare me for the many challenges to my deeply held spiritual assumptions, the grueling study sessions and the oddball, brilliant professors.

I suspect my experience isn’t unique. Many of us who go to seminary carry a huge set of expectations coming in that one institution could never fulfill. And of course, everyone has their own specific baggage to work around.

There are some things, though, that I wish I could tell my past self that would have at least prepared me for some of the struggles and temptations I was going to face. And I hope that some of these could apply to other first-year- seminarians about to take the plunge.

#1: You’re classmates aren’t better because they know what missional hermeneutics and the filioque are. But you’re not better because you don’t.
Like many incoming students, I was intimidated by others who seemed to already have much more knowledge in theology and church history than I did – and I struggled to not look like an idiot in front of them. I still remember at a first-year gathering, one guy joked about how some unassuming action another person made was “just so Lutheran!” eliciting laughs and knowing smirks from everyone else in the awkward circle… while I had no clue what that meant.

There are two opposing problematic responses to this. One is to embrace this (increasingly shrinking) inner circle of theologians and dwell in the esoteric language and theological argument soup, without remembering what it’s like to not be in the know. While sometimes it happens because of our precious egos – and, let’s face it, men are generally more guilty of this because of our privilege in the Christian leadership world – I also suspect that even the more innocent among us fall into this trap simply because we’re not actively fighting against it.

Anyone who specializes in anything can become transfixed with abbreviations and made-up words – and, seminary is where made-up words go to heaven to be glorified. The danger in our specific situation is that, especially for those of us who are going to become pastors, our task is necessarily aimed to communicate the Word ultimately to non-theologians, who probably appreciate words that actually make sense to them.

The other end of the spectrum, however, is to assume that you truly are more spiritual and care more about Jesus if you gleefully gloss over the nuances and not take too much stake in the genuine historical and theological disputes that surround texts and concepts. It’s just about Jesus! The Bible tells me so! Spirituality is about the heart!

But are you doing any favors to future congregations by pretending that your education doesn’t matter? Is God impressed by your anti-intellectualism, even though many people probably sacrificed time, money, and resources to get you to seminary and apparently thought this stuff was valuable for you to learn? Is it possible these theological words, arguments and concepts arose throughout our rich tradition because they matter in truly understanding God, Scripture and the calling of the church better, and in being a leader who equips disciples?

I have to admit, I somehow embraced both of these mistakes, depending on whom I was talking to that day.

#2: Take classes and professors that challenge your assumptions. And actually listen.
When I went to seminary, I obviously already knew what was most important to learn during my three years. I had to learn the “greats,” but especially the Reformed greats, and especially Karl Barth. I had heard very little of liberation theology, and I was sympathetic to the general political principles coming from that wing, but I already knew that they were too worldly, they read too much of their own experiences into Scripture (as if that were a bad thing!) rather than take the text by itself (as if that were possible). And yeah, sure, it would be nice to learn about the different worship traditions, but I already know what real Christian worship is, because my experience is obviously the only one that matters.

Of course I was wrong. More importantly, I wasn’t allowing myself to fully submit and grow into the rich diversity of voices and experiences in Christ’s church. Although I thankfully forced myself to challenge my original assumptions, I look back and think about how I could have been better. I think about how I never took a course with Yolanda Pierce (I know, I know!!!) not because I purposely avoided her, but because I was so sure which professors and courses were much more important.

You have to be purposeful about taking courses outside your comfort zone, or it won’t happen. Actually take a course and place yourself in a position of listening – and believe you can actually learn something. Believe it or not, the Holy Spirit can work outside of things you have personally experienced and reasoned.

#3: But seriously, take those practical courses before another Barth seminar.
I’ll start by saying this: Don’t take this advice to the extreme and diminish all intellectual enterprises and only value the “practical.” That’s much more an American virtue rather than a Christian one.

On the other hand, if you’re the type of person who is going to seminary, you are probably inclined to intellectual pursuits. And especially once you are knee-deep in seminary, you are going to be tempted to forget about the practical. It’s okay – you’re just very very excited about all these new ideas you are learning!

But years out of seminary, you’re going to wish you took that course on weddings and funerals. You’re going to regret not knowing the basics of Reformed worship when your head pastor goes on vacation the second week you’re on the job and have to fill in for everything… with all the long-timers waiting for you to say the wrong thing. And, do clinical pastoral education (CPE) training. There are few other controlled environments where you’re able to deal with all your issues and don’t have an entire congregation on the line.