The purpose of this series is to help students whether they are preparing for, attending, or have graduated from seminary to grow in the God’s grace. To read the rest of the articles in this series click here.
When I arrived at seminary I was excited. I looked forward to the learning and growth. I asked my pastor and college professors for advice on making it as successful as possible. If there is one thing I learned about seminary, during seminary, it is that despite the amount of advice you will receive no one person can give it all and there will still be things missing in a multitude of counselors.
I went to seminary married and with a six-month-old child so my experiences are shaped by that family dynamic. Before I got married I had dreams of attending seminary to get my M.Div. in three years – get in, get out and either get into a church or get another degree. In the providence of God, this is not how it happened. I was a student who was blessed with a family and I had to adjust my expectations accordingly.
The advice that follows is shaped by my experiences. I want to offer some advice specifically to married students who may or may not have children. Some of this advice I learned in retrospect and some of it I learned before going into seminary. I am going to assume that you are called to ministry and the desire for seminary is a part of the process of getting there. Which means I am also assuming you have already prayed about it, sought wise counsel and have the financial means of getting and staying there.
First, make sure you and your wife agree on going to seminary. As the husband you may want to go to seminary but, like all major decisions, a couple makes, you need the input of your wife. You do NOT want to go to seminary dragging your wife behind you. The last thing your marriage needs (especially if you have recently married) is your wife resenting you for forcing her to go to seminary. It will most likely destroy your marriage during or soon after you finish. You don’t want to drag that into your first ministry because it may be your last.
Listen to her reasons for saying no. Maybe she feels uncertain about some things that you need more time to figure out, and, having figured them out, she will be willing to go. If you have kids you NEED to make sure you can support the family first and then school second. It is possible that you may both agree to go to seminary and then a year into it your wife may say it’s not working, we need to reevaluate.
Maybe you have your first child there and your wife does not work anymore. A child will mean an increase in financial costs and if you lose the second income that increase will hit your pocketbook even more. Listen to your wife before you go and while you are there. Maybe you need to sit out a semester. Maybe you need to step out altogether, get into a ministry and then finish school while in ministry. Your marriage is worth more than your education.
Second, find a local church and get involved together. You will want to find some kind of ministry that you can both do together. Maybe it is teaching a Sunday school class or leading a nursing home service. This will give you something to do together that is local church centered. It will also enable you to see how you work together in ministry and give you a safe place to work out any kinks. Just like with your marriage, there are things about doing ministry together that you cannot know until you are doing it together. You are preparing for a lifetime of ministry service together and seminary is a great time to learn this together in a local church.
Third, find someone who can give you regular marriage advice and counseling. Most seminaries require students to have a mentor during your education. This person is either your local church pastor or one of your teachers. If you are married, this mentorship relationship should include marriage counseling.
Like college life, seminary life is not normal living conditions and will have it’s own set of challenges that can wear on a family in ways that it will not others. You need to have someone you can both sit down with and be asked questions about your marriage. They will know things to ask that you are not even thinking of.
It is a good idea to have someone your wife can call up anytime and just talk to about her frustrations or just get some parenting advice from. I cannot stress how important this is. You will get to points in your marriage when one of you wants to go to someone for help. Having someone already agreed upon will make it much easier to make that phone call or surprise visit at church or home.
Fourth, make sure you develop friendships with other students with families. Seminary is a place where you will make a lot of friendships, some of which will last long after you graduate. For families, especially the wife, it is important that you have friendships with other families in seminary. This will enable the wife to have other seminary wives with which she can more closely relate and will help to keep the whole family grounded.
Fifth, make time for family. I realize that some will disagree with me on this but if you have kids and have to work a full-time job while in school DO NOT try to finish your degree in the same time as a single student. Unless you are independently wealthy from a first career, and don’t have to work, or have parents who are going to pay for the whole thing (which is just about no one), you will not have enough time or money to finish a 36 hour M.A in one year or a 96 hour M.Div. in three years and it not negatively affect your family in an unnecessary way.
I am not saying that your seminary experience needs to be trial-free. I am saying that your family comes first. You will develop habits in seminary that you will carry into ministry so make sure they are good habits. Maybe you take another two years to finish your M.Div. or take as many online classes as possible so you can be home more or take mid-term classes so there is less time away from home during the semester.
Some people will say that when your kids are younger it is easier to be in school more because they will not remember it. But just because younger kids cannot verbally express the hurt from your absence as well as a teen can, does not mean there will not be long-term effects on your constant absence. If the only time you see your kids is the weekend because during the week you go to class and then work and don’t get home until after the kids are in bed, that is a problem. It will be very easy to carry this habit into ministry because you are so used to doing it.
Additionally, your wife is missing out on time with you. Your kids need to see both of you together and you need to spend time with your kids together. You can always take longer to finish school but you cannot get back the time you did not have with your family. It can take a long time to heal the wounds your absence has made. You don’t want to be the father who has to be reintroduced to his kids after graduation because you were so absent. God does not excuse you from your role in your family (a command) just because you are preparing for ministry in seminary (something that is optional).
Finally, make sure you have support back home. First, you want to make sure the local church you are leaving (if you are moving away) will be supporting you in some way. Make sure to have a network of people praying for you regularly. If possible, it is nice to have the church support you financially in some way.
Second, you want to make sure your family is supporting you. While your parents don’t have to be in agreement with you going to seminary (there can be a number of reasons for this, both good and bad), it is comforting to know that they support your decision to go to seminary.
Related to the first piece of advice, it may be that one concern your wife has with going to seminary is that there will be no relatives where you are considering going. Maybe you (the husband) need to be open to some other options so that you can be within reasonable driving distance to one of your parents or siblings. Be flexible so that you can ensure you are meeting your wife’s needs and giving her more security about your decision. Sometimes it can be such a relief to let your wife go to her parents for a long weekend with the kids or even leave them with you so she can have some time to herself and recharge before or after a new semester.
This advice is by no means exhaustive. As I said, it is limited to my own experiences and advice that was given to me. I do trust that it will be of help to those of you with families that are considering seminary. I pray this advice hits some of you before you enter seminary and you make adjustments. For others, this may have touched on something you are already dealing with and either you could not put a finger on it or just need a nudge in the right direction. Pray, talk to your spouse, seek counsel and make changes.