At the beginning of a new academic pursuit, or even the beginning of a fresh academic term, there is a lot of excitement about what lies ahead. New books, new courses, new books, new friends, new experiences, new books, new concepts…did I mention that you get to buy new books? Some of that starts to fade away once the hard work of the classroom begins. I offer a few points here to help students thrive once the newness has dissipated and the burden of seminary life sets in.
Read your syllabus. This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but one would be surprised how many times professors are asked questions about things that are written in the syllabus. The syllabus has all the important basic details a student needs to survive a course. It will list what books are required, when and what readings should be done, what the assignments for the course are and when they are due, and even things like office hours for instructors. The syllabus provides an outline of the course. Sometimes, it will be supplemented by other documents that give more specific detail about assignments. For instance, I post instructions for presentations and rubrics, both of which indicate what I am looking for in the assignment without making the syllabus absurdly long. How do you know if there are additional instructions? You guessed it…read the syllabus.
Prepare. Like most things in life, success in seminary can be reduced down to planning and discipline. Benjamin Franklin is credited with the adage, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” He did not have seminary in mind when I’m sure, but his statement is nonetheless true. Once you have your syllabus, you can begin to put together a plan of attack for your course work. At the beginning, the temptation is for students to think they have a ton of time since the academic term just begun. The reality is that a trimester is much closer to a sprint than a marathon, for professors and students alike. Twelve weeks will fly by before you know it. I start to encourage students to be thinking about research paper topics after about a month. That gives time to gather materials and do the work of writing with as little stress as possible. For most students, this will come down to establishing a basic daily schedule. Set reasonable goals for what needs to be accomplished each day and designate a time to do the work. Being a seminary student is preparing students for ministry in more ways than one. Students learn information and techniques, but the structure of seminary life prepares one for the weekly grind of sermon preparation. A pastor could wait until Saturday to figure out what he or she plans to preach the next day and then do all the work to figure out what needs to be said, but that is not an ideal situation and it likely will not last long. The same is true for being a student.
Engage your significant others. Preparation might be a little easier if one is single during seminary, but if a student is married and has a family, the seminary experience will be different. At some point, hopefully in the process of applying to enter seminary, there will be a necessary conversation about how the student will succeed in school. That will look different for everybody, but there will need to be some clarity. I was single in seminary, but I had married friends who had specific times each day that was devoted to school work. Once that time was done, books were put away and schoolwork was done for the day or, at least, until the kids went to bed. Maintaining that balance between school and the other dimensions of your life will help give some perspective to life. (As an aside, one would be wise to show some gratitude to those who are supporting you. Following your calling means somebody else is sacrificing something somewhere. Thank that person or people often).
But also engage someone else. Seminary is kind of a unique experience in the realm of higher education. Someone earning an MBA or a Masters degree in education may not have some of their core beliefs shaken. They might learn how to do their job better, but their inner life might not be impacted that much. Seminary, on the other hand, has a tendency to go right after the depths of one’s being. Students will take spiritual formation courses that will expose things in themselves they may not have realized. They will experience concepts in other classes that might be unsettling. Seminary should be a place where the hard questions of faith are asked, but getting through those questions may require some processing. It is helpful to talk through these things with someone who has experienced it firsthand, either a mentor or a peer. This can be another support structure that helps a student to thrive in seminary beyond academics.
Pray. The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once described three rules for studying theology he found in Psalm 119: prayer, meditation, and temptation. While no one would prescribe actively seeking out the last one, the first two are overlooked on occasion. Luther meant more than simply present requests to God through prayer (though it is no less than that); he meant that one ought to ask for the Holy Spirit to grant understanding. Luther is getting at something beyond a simple cognitive knowledge of Bible verses or theological terms, but a deep-seated kind of wisdom. This is facilitated by meditation. By this, Luther means that one focuses upon scripture. As he presents it, the study of scripture offers wisdom to those who diligently seek it. When temptation comes, prayer and meditation provide a foundation to withstand it.
Of course, much more could be said about the nuts and bolts of seminary. In some ways, the most important piece of succeeding in seminary is simply to be present actively. There is a saying in the sports world, “Availability trumps ability.” The idea is simply that if an athlete is hurt all the time, it does not really matter how talented she or he is. There are some parallels here for the classroom. It does not matter how smart or wise a person might be if he or she does not attend class, turn in work in a timely fashion, or plan to succeed. The above advice will hopefully help a student thrive both in and out of the classroom throughout seminary.
By Dr. David Barbee
Assistant Professor of Christian Thought
Director of the Master of Arts in Practical Theology Program