Monday, November 24, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #7 (Having the “Talk” – What Are You Going to Do With This Degree?)

It’s probably the case that you’ve done some serious thinking about why you are going to train in seminary. Perhaps it’s because you have a goal of one day being a pastor. Maybe you want to be a bible translator? Or perhaps you are thinking about retirement from a secular job and you’re interested in a second “career” in ministry and the Church. Seminary is the gateway for your future goals.

We all have lots of reasons for pursuing ministry and theological education in seminary. When I began to experience a strong sense that God was calling me to the ministry in 2007, I had a number of mixed feelings. What was I going to do? Why was God calling me to this now? At the time, I was working in a university lab, deeply intent upon pursuing my doctorate in ecology so I might one day teach and do research at a university. I worked for a promising mentor who I was confident could mold and shape my path so I could accomplish all my career and educational goals. So the idea of changing course “mid-stream” and re-tooling for a “career” in ministry was problematic and stressful. What was I going to do?

Through a process of prayer and discernment, it became clear to me that God was calling me to the pastorate, particularly to teach and preach. Not only that, I became aware that I would not need to set aside my intentions to pursue higher education, even the doctorate, because God was not closing off that path now that I was going to go to seminary. It just seemed clear that I would shift the emphasis of my studies from ecology and the sciences, to the “Queen of Sciences” – theology. God, seemingly, was going to use me in a different way.

I went through a period of important and significant discernment. It was a process of important spiritual growth and testing. Would I trust God even when I didn’t see clearly my path in the future? In the end, I persevered and God was faithful. In a way, I had a “talk” with God – one involving much prayer and listening – and slowly but perceptibly began to understand what I was going to do with my seminary degree.

So, we need to have a talk. 

And it’s a conversation that begins with a question for you: What are you going to do with your degree?

Have you thought about it before? Have you considered, in other words, what the path ahead looks like and where it is taking you?

Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out right now. No one expects you to know exactly what comes next. But I want to invite you to begin thinking about what purpose this degree will serve in your life and what goal it will serve in the end when you graduate.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What is my ultimate goal as I approach seminary?
  • Is it a call to the Church?
  • Is it a call to the ministry?
  • In what ways might my seminary education be used non-traditionally?
  • Would I like to work here where I live or is God calling me to something else farther away? 
  • Is God calling me to the academy – to teaching, researching, etc. at a seminary or university? 
  • Who could I talk to that would help guide me in thinking about my vocation? My pastor? A professor? My parents or family? A trusted mentor? 
  • What are my spiritual gifts and how might they shape how I will use my seminary degree?
As you can see, there are many questions one can ask themselves to get started thinking about the use of our degrees. Take a few moments with a legal pad or an open text file and write some responses to the preceding questions. Additionally, consider talking with a loved one or friend about your responses to the questions. Start brainstorming and make a plan of what you think God is calling you to and how you will use your degree.

Remember what I said previously: I recommend doing some deep thinking—strategic thinking—about what you’re getting yourself into and where you want to go with the opportunity afforded by seminary. Seminary works best, in my opinion, when you approach it with a plan and with intentionality. 

Let me tell you how this played out in my own life.

I had the “Talk” with one of my professors right at the end of my second semester of classes. It was late one evening after my last class of the day and I had followed him back to his office for a quick chat. And as it turned out, it was one of the most important conversations about my future – one that helped me think through where I was going with my degree and answer many of the questions I just listed.

“So, I think I’m interested in academics – perhaps even the chance to pursue the PhD later” I remarked. I told him how I had been interested in pursuing my doctorate in the sciences and I felt like that desire was still in my heart, despite the “career change” to ministry. As a newly minted PhD himself, a “hot shot” (as I thought of him), who had gone to a great school and had lots of energy and passion for the academic world, I just knew he was the person to which I should be talking. 

“Great” he said. “I think you show a lot of promise, and if that’s the way you want to go, I’d encourage you to really dig in and make it happen.” He reminded me that it wouldn’t be easy, but that the road was worth it for those who could persevere. I appreciated his encouragement.

Then he dropped something on me that I have come back to time and time again. He said, “Just remember that each path – the one that takes you towards a career in academic ministry or the one which takes you towards full time church-based ministry – is distinctive and unique in its own way.” He continued, “If you are going to think about an academic career which serves the Kingdom, you’ll want to be clear about that identity early on, because it will require your full commitment, time, and energy.” He went on to explain that just because I was considering dedicating my life to an academic career didn’t mean I couldn’t serve in the Church. He reminded me that before he was hired as a professor, he was preaching and working his way through his doctorate. 

But then he gave me the nugget which has informed so much of the way I think about what my degree is being used for: “Just remember,” he said, “you’re either an academic who serves in the Church, or a churchman who dabbles in academics.”

It was a statement that brought clarity to the way I thought about myself. Was I, even as a student, an academic who would work in the Church, until such time that I could potentially assume the teaching responsibilities of the university or seminary, or was I a dedicated Churchman, who might “dabble” in the academic sphere, but never pursue it with the vigor that I would my pastorate?

I considered the two paths and I considered my life. 

I am an introverted person who likes to think deeply. I spend little money on myself except to buy books, which has allowed me to amass a library of over 7000 volumes. The way I recharge my energy is to retire to a dusty study in my basement where I like to read and listen to lectures on iTunesU. By the end of my first year of school, I had been honored by the Stone-Campbell Journal as a “Promising Scholar,” an award bestowed by the chair of the graduate bible faculty. In seminary, I have worked hard on my writing and have been able to publish several academic book reviews, a peer-reviewed journal article, and have even give a talk at an academic conference. 

Even the night of the “talk,” I knew what I was: I was an academic (in training) that would serve the Church through academic ministry. I hope one day to teach and do research in a seminary or university. As time has unfolded, I have relished this pursuit, even while serving as an education minister and a preaching pastor at a church. But I still know what I knew then – I am an academic who currently happens to serve in the Church. My path has been clear.

What about your own path? Where are you heading? For me, the way I unpacked this question was to think about if I wanted to serve in the Church full time, or the academy. I just revealed my path and my answer.

For you, the questions might be different. What’s important is that you are doing some intentional thinking about your future and the ways that seminary will serve that future. Even though I think of myself as an academic, I knew that if I was going to serve faithfully in the seminary, and more importantly, train future ministers, it was imperative that I get Church experience. During my time in seminary, I have taught and preached, served as an intern under a pastor of a large church, and have (as of the writing of this book) taken a preaching minister’s position at a church in New Jersey. I have been better for it and my work in the Church has served my academic pursuit. Nonetheless, I still think of myself as an academic that (right now) serves within the Church.

Whatever your end goal – I encourage you to think about the steps that it will take to get you there. If you are interested on Church-based ministry you will want to tailor your degree, and even pursue the right kind of degree, so that you can accomplish that goal. You might even want to pursue an internship in a Church while working in seminary so you will get the experience you need to later serve a Church.

Or perhaps you want to be a bible translator. Knowing that, you will want to think about the kinds of work and outside “extracurricular” activities it will take to get to that goal. I had a friend in seminary who had that interest, and he and his wife tailored their lives accordingly. In the summers, he took extra coursework in languages, and during seminary they fostered relationships with an agency that, when he graduated, helped him get overseas to the area of the world they wanted to work. He had a plan.

In the end, it’s really all about being intentional. 

So, what are you going to do with your degree?