I had a few friends recently pass through town and stay for a night. All three of these individuals were considering seminary as a future possibility and wanted to ask some questions about my time in school, what I had learned, what my experience was like, and so forth.
Many of my readers will be able to resonate with those questions, as you recall your own seminary training. I have met those who look back on their time with utter fondness and I have met others who look back at it with a great deal of criticism. While I never pursued an M.Div (like most seminary graduates), I did pursue two Master's degrees, one in Biblical Studies and one in Theological Studies. I do not recall my answers to my friends, but I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on their question since then. I hope that these five points will be of benefit, not just to them as they consider their future, but to anyone considering the vocation of ministry and what the time in training might look like:
Expect to realize how much you don't know. The "I know it all" attitude isn't just a teenage fad. It's a human habit and even those — perhaps especially those — in seminary are prone to it. It's always fun to watch a freshman seminarian argue with a scholar over something the scholar has been immersing himself in for decades! It's not that the professor is always right; you're just more likely to be wrong! But that's okay. The point of a teacher-student relationship is to be mentored and to participate in that immersion. Enjoy it; relax. You're probably wrong, but that's the first step in actually beginning to understand something.
Expect to read... A LOT. It takes a certain person to want to go to seminary: a reader. Unfortunately, that gets exorcised out of a great many of us by the time we're done. But you will read. Oh, you will read. My general semester ranged from a good 15-20 books. Indeed, in one class during my second semester I had to read 11 books, two of which were over 800 pages each. You better love to read. But don't let that intimidate you: you will become better for it. As a friend said to me years ago, "If you want to become a leader, you need to become a reader." Perhaps a tad cheesy, but it's completely true.
Expect to struggle. In a lot of ways. Sin will still crouch at your door, and likely it will roar louder. Seminary is not easy on anyone, at least if you're going about it the right way. For many of us, however, it's not just a personal burden — it's a burden on family. I have seen marriages break up over seminary. I have seen children grow through formative years with having one parent always away. Money gets difficult, and if you are one who holds a job, expect that everything else will get ten times more difficult. For a few, seminary seems to be a vacation of sorts — I don't get that. For most of us, however, there will come a point where you wonder why in the world you even got on this track in the first place (it certainly isn't for money!). Make sure to keep your priorities straight. Seminary is, of course, important. But there are priorities that stand above it. Do not get them confused and your struggles will never harm you.
Expect that seminary is not the real world. It is the supreme danger. We close ourselves off to the world, or at least significantly so, for years on end. The majority of the people we talk with, work with, eat with, and live with believe what we believe, at least to a large degree. We call each other "brothers" or "sisters" and we worship together, take communion together, and pray together. But it's not the real world. As Bonhoeffer noted in his book Life Together, this is the "ideal" community but it is not the real one. Seminary is meant to be temporary and it is meant to be a blessing. But it is not where you are supposed to stay. You will be confronted with the real world again. But this is what we're called to.
Expect to be a different person when you leave. This is probably the most important thing I could say. Unfortunately, many people have this notion that seminary is more or less a mandatory red light on the way to one's vocation. I did. I needed the credentials; I needed to learn more. But I didn't really expect to be a much different person than I was when I came in. Many of us have preconceived notions about what our character is going to be like after seminary, what our ministry will look like and so on. We assume we'll remain static. The truth is, we have no idea. At the same time, seminary doesn't guarantee that you'll be a better person for it. I have seen those who deconstruct in seminary. Indeed, I might even argue that if you walk out of seminary the same as when you walked in, you've done nothing but worsen yourself. The fact is, you won't be the same.