Semi-nary a good experience

I introduced this series on the relative value of seminary here if you are interested in reading the first installment.

The goal of this blog is to highlight some of the really difficult times I had in seminary. I don’t mean difficult as in academically challenging, I mean difficult as in befuddling or spiritually draining. There are good reasons people write books like “How to Stay Christian in seminary” and often I wanted to wrap my head in duct tape so it didn’t explode.  I’ll list a few specific instances at the end of this article but I’ll kick it off with the two general things that drove me nuts and offered no redemptive value.

I mentioned in the first installment that seminary is deadly primarily because it is academia. It is sad to me that we think spiritual qualifications are built on how well someone navigates the academic world. This is especially true when reading the New Testament and seeing that one of the things that grew the gospel witness of the Apostles is that they were “uneducated, common men.” (Acts 4:13) I went to the Greek like a good seminary dude and it turns out that in the original language “agrammatoi” means “uneducated” just like in the English translation. It may have even carried the connotation of being illiterate, but certainly meant they didn’t have formal religious instruction. I realize seminaries say there are lots of reasons why they are necessary and I don’t debate that there are some valuable things a seminary can bring, but those gems are limited by things like accreditation and extra-biblical requirements on higher education centers.

Here’s an example. I was already done with a paper when I heard that the grader (not the professor) had a problem with bullet points. In the real world, bullet points are valued because they offer clear communication in a concise manner so I asked him how much of a problem it would be if I kept my paper as it was. He said it would cost me a letter grade, maybe more. Who knew Jesus hated bullet points so much? Why are thesis papers formatted differently than every other paper? Why does the proper order of items in a footnote matter? Why are a thousand things true of seminaries if their goal is to equip church leaders for local church ministry? It’s because they are primarily institutions of higher learning. I was so dejected about the bullet point thing I almost quit 2/3 of the way through my program.

What’s worse is that seminaries basically misrepresent what they are doing when they say they are preparing leaders for local church ministry. There are some that do this well and I’ll talk about those in the fourth post, but because they are primarily academia they actually prepare people to read books, listen to lectures, take good notes and write papers. It’s like what Mike Ditka said when they asked him if it was a good idea to draft a quarterback and let him learn the position while sitting on the bench. “All he’ll learn by sitting on the bench is how to sit the bench. If he wants to learn the position he has to play the position.” He also said “If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms,” but that’s another blog post.

Perhaps this is related, but the second I found so surprising (and lots of others who have been to seminary after spending time in the private sector have agreed) is the level of administrivia and lack of customer service at seminary can be appalling. It was not uncommon for me to wait 1 – 2 weeks for a one sentence answer to a time sensitive question, and sometimes it was longer. While students were expected to meet requirements and sanctioned with lower grades when they failed, in several cases the staff were not generally held to the same level of accountability as the students or expected to lead with excellence by example. Maybe it’s a resource constraint issue, and maybe I’m too much of a consumer, but when I pay money for a degree I expect a level of service commensurate with other things in that price range. Maybe lack of communication and delays are normal in academia and so seminaries are in line with their peers, but that sort of makes my first point about seminaries being primarily academia.

Some other things that were befuddling or aggravating to me about seminary:

  • I had a class that included helping those with eating disorders. It included the requirement that I submit everything I ate through before I went to bed each day. It seemed overly intrusive, but was more befuddling when someone in the class who had previously struggled with an eating disorder was excused from the assignment with the rationale that focusing on food would be bad for her. Huh?
  • The Oxford comma. If you know what this is you are perfectly fit for an advanced degree or a grammar Nazi. If not, you are probably a normal human.
  • Seminaries use words like proleptic and polemic as if they were words anyone understood in the real world. Introducing these terms into those wanting to shepherd ordinary people is actually counterproductive. (I didn’t have this experience in my program, but I would add to this doctrinal things like whether supralapsarianism is the right view. Nobody in the real world cares about these things.)
  • My thesis project was nowhere near worth the level of effort it required. I had a great and godly adviser who didn’t have a lot of time. Whereas I thought it would be a way to work through the content, his main role was really to help me publish a paper properly (and I would never have finished without him). I probably read well over 3000 pages to get enough citations and even then had to scour the internet for blog posts and online articles to back up my points. I would have gotten just as much benefit from a couple weekends alone and a few phone calls with people who could contribute to my thinking.
  • I don’t think I’ll ever understand how you can take a class involving shepherding a person’s soul, have a professor never once watch you shepherd a person, and somehow get graded on it. What does that tell you about how connected seminary is to real life?

In the next post I’ll highlight some of the high points of my seminary experience.