Friday, November 14, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #4 (This Isn't Sunday School, Pt. 1)

Part of what makes seminary unique and challenging is that it is unlike any other religious educational environment you’ve encountered. That can be both exciting and nerve-wracking once you get into your studies. Hence the title of this chapter – this isn’t Sunday school. Seminary is different from bible classes at church for a number of reasons, which I think are important to review.

Difference #1 – The curriculum and content is more expansive

Depending on the degree you will be pursuing, you will encounter a variety of subjects that you would not normally study in church-based religious education, bible classes, or “Sunday School.” Of course, the specific content of your program will be determined by the degree you’re pursuing and the institution at which you study. But in any case, you’ll be going farther and deeper into topics than ever before.

You will be exposed to the biblical languages. Usually this involves studies in biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek  – two of the predominant original languages in which the scriptures were originally communicated. My understanding is that not all seminaries require original language study these days, but most do, and the benefit of language study is immense. Your professors will introduce you to these language (and thought) worlds and in the process help the Bible come alive for you in ways that will indelibly mark your biblical study.

You will study courses in biblical studies – classes in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament. It’s likely the case that you have studied these topics in bible classes at church. But in your biblical studies courses, you will expand your inquiry into areas like biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (the process of careful, analytical study of a biblical passage in order to produce an interpretation). You’ll take courses in the theology of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, cultural backgrounds of the biblical texts, and classes on how to preach certain types of scripture (e.g. Preaching the Book of Revelation). Your knowledge of the scriptures will deepen and broaden your ability to teach and preach.

Studies in theology will give you ordered and systematic ways of thinking about the Christian faith as it has been revealed by God, especially in Jesus Christ. You’ll encounter systematic theology and the church’s theological reflection of the past two thousand years. Many seminaries offer courses in medieval, modern, and contemporary theology, which encompasses theological reflection of those respective periods. Additionally, if you are fortunate to be a part of a large institution, you might have opportunities to study particular theologies, for example, the theology of Karl Barth, or feminist or liberation theology. And you might pursue courses in what I think of as the “theology of…” catalog. For example, I studied the theology of ministry (a.k.a. pastoral theology). Don’t even get me started on the awesomeness that is philosophical theology! My theology courses were some of the favorite classes in my seminary degree.

You’ll likely pursue a number of ministry or pastoral theology courses. These might be courses in preaching, leadership, in teaching adolescents, youth ministry, spiritual formation, evangelism, etc. These are the classes that prepared me for the work-a-day world of the church. In them I rehearsed and became proficient in techniques like conflict management and church leadership and administration. Depending on the degree you pursue, for example a Master of Arts in Ministry or a Master of Divinity, these courses will compromise the majority of courses you will take (e.g the M.A.) or some smaller portion (e.g. the M.Div.). Oftentimes, many seminaries will require their students to take a ministry course which will give them field experience in a local church. Hard work in these classes will pay off later when you undertake ministry in your own church. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t use the information I learned in these classes in my role as a preaching minister and pastor.

You’ll of course be exposed to church history too. This might be in the form of historical theology, the study of the development of doctrine in the history of the Christian church, or it might come in particular courses in your own denominational history, for example, Presbyterian Church history. You might also study the church in certain periods of time, for example, the Early or Ancient Church, or the Medieval Church. If you’re a history buff like me, these will be a high point and you’ll walk away with a better understanding and appreciation for how the Holy Spirit has worked in the history of the Church over time.

Many schools offer a number of elective courses. How many they offer will be dictated by the richness of the faculty and the way your school structures its degree plans. You can work with your advisor to determine how many elective courses you can take for credit and which classes are advisable based on your field of study. Because of my interest in systematic theology and philosophy, I took elective courses in theology and (you guessed it) – philosophy! You’ll want to lean on your advisor’s experience to help guide you with class selection.

Difference #2 – These teachers have PhDs!

Unless you were blessed to have some kind of extraordinary teaching cadre in your local church, you’ll find that your professors at seminary will be much better trained, having many years of study and preparation in their chosen fields, all of which will make your classroom experience rich and deep and different in many ways from Sunday school and church bible classes.

So strategize a bit about how to take advantage of the tremendous learning opportunity this presents to you. What I mean to say is – you should take advantage of their expertise as often as is reasonable. One of the best ways to think and engage with your professors is to come to class prepared. Get your readings done ahead of time, review journal articles, etc. which have been assigned by the prof and then come to class ready to engage, to ask questions, and to offer insights and opinions. It sounds funny to be reminded of such simple things in grad school, but if you’re taking several courses which all assign heavy reading loads, it’s easy to get a bit behind and come to class unprepared. We’ll talk more about time management later. In the mean time, come to class prepared and get your readings, etc. done! By coming to class prepared you can take full advantage of a good lecture from your professor.

Another great way to take advantage of your professor’s knowledge is to go see them during their office hours. Of course, you don’t want to be a pest, but office hours are offered to be a help to you and you’ll want to use them. Before I went to seminary, I worked several semesters as a teaching assistant at my undergraduate institution. I rarely saw students avail themselves of office hours. So, what to do? Well, bring your questions and needs to these special office times when professors are available outside of class. But more than that, use these times as ways of going beyond the classroom. Perhaps you had some questions from the material in Monday’s class. Why not stop by office hours and work through it a bit with the professor? If you’re in a class that requires large research papers, use office hours as a time to discuss your research with your professor. Some of them might not offer guidance but others will appreciate your diligence and might even give you a helping hand from time to time in terms of guidance and research suggestions. At the very least, I like to run my working bibliography for a paper by the professor that assigned it. They were always quick to let me know if I have gathered (or omitted) the most important bibliographical works on a topic. Had I not taken these things to them in their office hours, I would realize too late and my papers would have suffered. You get the gist – so get to office hours!

Next time, differences #3-5...