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.
I began my formal theological education at the age of 19 and I recently turned 36. I have been in school this entire time with the exception of taking one year off. I’ve earned a Bachelor’s in Christian Studies from North Greenville University (2003), a Master of Divinity and Specialization in Christian Thought Theology from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (2007), and a Master of Arts in Aspects of Biblical Interpretation from the London School of Theology (2008). Currently, I am in the dissertation phase of my doctoral program at Western Seminary with the hopes of completion by next spring, earning my Doctor of Intercultural Studies degree. I’ve also had the opportunity to serve as a theology professor in an undergraduate program for a few years.
All that to say that I’ve been at this thing called “theological education” for about 17 years. I am very passionate about bringing what I glean from the academy to the local church. At one point I even thought I was going to pursue academia full-time but my heart really is for the local church. I personally feel that’s where the Lord would have me vocationally.
If you’re interested in this kind of pastor-theologian kind of role, I cannot recommend highly enough The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming A Lost Vision edited by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Also, check out and the Center for Pastor Theologians.
I suppose everyone goes into seminary with mixed emotions, expectations, and desires. The reasons people go to seminary can vary in many ways. Some go with the aim of growing personally but not with the intention of serving the church in a full-time vocational sense. Others go with the hopes of getting their Ph.D. completed by the time they are 28 years old.
Some go under the assumption that God is up to something in their lives. Such people feel they need somewhere to go, in order to work out ideas, and theology with the hopes of figuring it out somewhere along the way. And still, others go simply because their denomination will not recognize them as an ordained minister without having completed formal theological education. Regardless of why you’re entering seminary, here’s three things that you may find helpful to keep in mind.
1) The Cost: Time and Money
Of all of my friends who have been involved in the world of seminary, I don’t know any who have had an easy go at it unless they were fortunate enough to be given a grant/free ride to focus solely on their classes. Many of my buddies were fortunate enough to work at churches that valued their theological education and would not only give time off for them to study but would actually pay their tuition and for their books as well! I didn’t find myself in that situation myself and so that demanded a bit more focus and discipline in order to go to school.
During seminary, I would go to class all day long on Mondays and then the rest of the week work at my church as an intern, at a catfish restaurant as a waiter, and as a substitute teacher, a bar back, and on many Saturdays as a day laborer in which I would go stand at the Marathon gas station out in the country and hope to be picked up for a day to make roughly a hundred dollars doing landscaping.
My friends often ask “How did you do all that?” And the simple answer is “I was a little younger, had no kids, had my wife’s full support, and could run on about five hours of sleep.” This means very late nights and very early morning studies were part of the routine.
If you are going into seminary, I’d encourage you to speak to your pastor about what he did for income during the seminary years. See if there’s any money in the budget for something like this. There are oftentimes on-campus jobs that are very convenient. However, I am glad that I worked in other vocations as they provided a context for me to work out a little bit of what I was learning in class in the “real world”.
Working at places like UPS loading trucks or at the airport loading luggage on airplanes are also some suggestions I’d recommend looking into because of the hours available to work.
2) Take Your Time
This one sounds easy but many find the temptation to just “get the job done” to be pretty intense. God is outside of time so you can take yours when it comes to your theological education. And while someone probably shouldn’t spend their entire life as a student in the classroom, there is no shame in taking your time.
You’re going to be wrestling with Hebrew, Greek, Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, leadership, and soul care, and so on. Hopefully, you see your education is not just for yourself but for the people who will be in your life until the day you die. Your mind is a sponge that goes to soak up, process, and wring out for the good of others.
With that in mind, it is worth really reading, not just skimming along. It is worth delving into the footnotes and understanding where ideas are informed and formulated. It is worth taking the time to pray and think about what you’re actually studying because this actually carries the potential and potency to change the world!
3) You Are NOT Your Grades
The last thing I would say it’s something that I learned from my supervisor in London, Graham McFarlane. While writing my dissertation there, he marked up a section big time, kindly showing where some ideas needed shaping up. I went to him after picking it up out of his tray in the hallway and asked him about it. He kindly explained some things but could tell I was troubled. “Alex,” he said, “you really care about these marks, don’t you?” A bit surprised by that, I said, “Well sure, Graham” (the profs over there go by their first names). “I sold just about everything I owned to move here and study with you.” Then Graham said something that set me free. “Alex, do you know how many people have ever asked me about my marks on my Ph.D.?” I looked at the floor. I knew where he was going. “Zero!” “Nobody has ever asked me about my grades.” “Alex, you are not your marks. You belong to Jesus. Now, get to the library and think, man!” That day, I learned more abut my identity in Christ than ever before. So as you head into seminary, remember, “You are not your grades!” “You belong to Jesus!”