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A Case for Seminary ... Warts and All

A Case for Seminary ... Warts and All

Enjoy this timely reflection from good PARSE friend Kyle Rohane. As a seminary grad myself, I can relate. - Paul

I knocked on the door to Jim's office. A few seconds later, I heard his chair scoot back and the knob turned. "Come on in, Kyle," he said. I shook his hand and followed his wagging ponytail into the office. The wall to my right displayed one of his massive paintings: a Texas vista of sprouting mesas, pockmarked by sage. It made the cramped office feel a little bigger.

He saw me take a chair and sat down in his own. He looked odd sitting behind that desk—smaller somehow. He belonged outside.

"Would you mind writing a recommendation for me?" I slid the form across his desk, past the paint brushes and stained rags. He picked up his glasses and placed them on the end of his nose. "Thinkin' of going to grad school?" He tilted his gaze to read the form, fluorescent light reflecting off his exposed head. As he read, his brow furrowed, and he fiddled with a button on his black vest.

"You want to go to seminary," he said. It was a statement, not a question. I answered anyway: "I do. I think it's where my passions and talents are leading me." And God, too, I thought. I knew asking my atheist painting instructor for a recommendation to seminary was odd, but none of my other professors would do. To them I was just another face in the lecture hall. But Jim had worked one-on-one with me for two years. He knew me and liked me, and I respected his opinions.

Finally he removed his glasses and looked at me. "I wish you'd stick with painting," he said with a smile and a wink. "But I'll be happy to write you a recommendation." As I turned to go, I saw genuine concern flash across his face. "Just don't let 'um brainwash you."

Red flags

I expected Jim to question my decision. But I was a little surprised by the reactions from Christian family and friends. They extended cautions too—but for different reasons than my atheistic professor. They congratulated me, but about half ended their encouragement with a short, "Be careful." The leader of my small group joked about the lexical similarities between seminary and a burial ground—a jest I've heard many times since.

My best hope, it seemed, was to spring through the seminary landmines, praying my soul wasn't blown up before I got through.

The many books and articles I read in anticipation of the next three years of my life weren't much better. If they avoided the graveyard metaphor, they employed a minefield one. My best hope, it seemed, was to spring through the seminary landmines, praying my soul wasn't blown up before I got through. All seemed to imply that my diploma would cost something substantial beyond the financial investment—possibly my family, my heart, and likely my faith.

Well, I graduated. Now that I'm post-seminary, I understand the warnings a little better. I know people who accepted their diplomas spiritually limping across the stage, not striding. Others never even made it that far. Yet, as I look back on my time in the trenches, I can't help but smile. Seminary didn't knock me down; it built me up—intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually. And next to the stories of seminary disaster, I'd like to offer a few ways that seminary actively developed my faith.

Shivering silence?

The first time I entered our seminary library, the silence made me shiver. There I stood in a massive filing cabinet, row after row of book-lined shelves flanked by cubicles and copying machines. I silently cursed Melvil Dewey and his decimal system.

Far from locking me in a windowless ivory tower, research turned out to be a surprisingly human enterprise.

But it didn't take long to settle into the academic lifestyle. I even claimed my own, personal cubicle—heaven help the interloper who beat me to it. Far from locking me in a windowless ivory tower, research turned out to be a surprisingly human enterprise. I expected to enter a sterile environment in which I had to wear latex gloves and a surgical mask, quarantined from the outside world. I was warned that intellectualizing my faith would lesion my emotional capacities. I'm sure other people struggle with that. But I discovered that academia invigorated my faith and nourished my emotional core.

Every time I opened a book, gingerly turning yellowed pages and breathing in that familiar musty tang, I imagined the author hunched over the page. Or typewriter. Or keyboard. By dispensing their thoughts into these tomes, they were pulling back a curtain, revealing their beliefs, motivations, and passions to the world and to me. Some yanked back the drapes in a flourish, as if to say, "The world needs to know what I have to offer." Others tugged on the drawstring slowly and deliberately, saying, "I'm probably not the best person for the job, but if I don't write this, no one will."

One day I was asked to give a presentation arguing for a position I didn't agree with. As I sat in my apartment writing the outline, I struggled to find my voice. How could I make a case for something so obviously wrong? The answer, I discovered, wasn't in my apartment; it was in the library.

I couldn't just conjure my presentation from thin air. I had to research. So I pulled down a stack of books, each written by someone I would never read of my own accord. I stepped into their shoes, put on their lenses, and discovered that a worthwhile case could be made for the position I had to argue. I still didn't agree with it, but at the very least, it made sense how someone with different presuppositions might arrive at this conclusion. For the first time, I understood what Aristotle meant when he wrote, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." I even found that I could articulate my own position better after spending time researching the opposite.

For the first time, I understood what Aristotle meant when he wrote, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." ... Research fosters empathy, and through it, love.

How many people do we dismiss because we don't take the time to understand where they're coming from? Not just enemies, but at times our closest friends. Research fosters empathy, and through it, love.

Netting water

Over the course of my three-year program, I attended hundreds of lectures. I tried to capture as much as I could in my notes, but it felt like using a butterfly net to scoop up water. Thankfully, I collected a few drops that have quenched my thirst on numerous occasions since. Here are a few quotes that have developed my faith journey in significant ways:

  • "The more you explore the theological landscape, the fewer hills you'll be willing to die on—but the more important the remaining hills become." Yes, if your goal is to buttress your theological position down to the last screw, seminary will come as a shock. In many ways it's like editing a paper. You have to cut back the excess to get to the best bits. Only then can those pieces be polished to the point of brilliance.
  • "When dealing with the things of God, mystery is inevitable. But it has to be earned." Mystery isn't a trump card to hide up your sleeve and throw down whenever you're in trouble. It's the point in the game in which you've turned over as many cards as you can, and you're forced to say "uncle." That's when you can celebrate the fact that the game isn't won by turning over every single card. It's won by learning to trust the dealer.
  • "God has done amazing things through people with terrible theology." And thank goodness. Because my theological knowledge is pitiful next to the infinite wisdom of God. Thankfully, he uses me despite that fact. This quote also helps me hold my tongue as my wife and I drive home from a particularly bad sermon. It forces me to dig deep in my back pocket to find the grace I'm usually reluctant to dispense.

Learning how to learn

I cringe every time a pastor cries out, "Seminary didn't prepare me for that!" How can a three or four year degree program prepare students for every problem they'll encounter? Professors have to do what they can in the time given to them, and hopefully administrations are innovating solutions for curricular gaps.

As a professional editor, I can't say seminary gave me all the tools I need for my day-to-day work. I never took a seminar on conducting interviews. None of my class reading lists included The Chicago Manual of Style. And although friends and family frequently ask me to bless our food—I'm a seminarian, after all—I can't recall attending any lectures on the proper mechanics of mealtime prayer.

But I did study Christ's humility. He descended from his eternal seat of glory to dwell among the dirty, to walk among the wicked, and to atone for the sins of his adversaries. I could learn about humbleness outside of academia, but in seminary I had to practice it. Submission to a grader's red pen requires humility. Research does, too. It takes a stance of receptivity that admits, "I don't know. I need help." How often must I humble myself in the editorial endeavor? Constantly. I imagine it's the same in most areas of ministry.

I also learned to listen. To the drone of professorial lectures. To the bickering of peeved peers. To the dead theologians and the nascent intellectuals shouting from their books and articles. Seminary also taught me to listen to Scripture—to what it says, but also to what it deliberately doesn't say. When conducting interviews editors have to listen to the words to guide the interview. We cannot sit back and let the recorder absorb all the answers. If I do not listen intently the interview will become sidetracked, going off on rabbit trails. We will spend so much time on peripheral ideas that the main idea is lost in the interview. The ability to listen and discern what is peripheral and what is the main idea or problem was a key skill I learned.

Your ministry career doesn't start at graduation. It starts at admission.

Anyone who approaches seminary as a series of hurdles blocking the track to "real ministry" will be disappointed by the experience. By saying, "I'm tired of learning; I'm ready to start doing," we create a false dichotomy. Learning isn't passive; it's active. Catholic philosopher Sertillanges writes, "The qualities of character have a preponderant role in everything. The intellect is only a tool; the handling of it determines the nature of its effects." Until scientists create a pill that downloads information directly to the brain, education will always be an active process that can be practiced well or poorly. Your ministry career doesn't start at graduation. It starts at admission.

Education shouldn't stop just because we've left the ivory tower. By saying "I didn't learn that in seminary," we suggest that education shouldn't be necessary after graduation. Much of what I studied in seminary applies to my everyday Christian journey. But more importantly, seminary taught me how to learn. Sure, it helped me fill my ministry tool belt, but it also gave me directions to the nearest Home Depot.

I learned that the gap between the head, the heart, and the hand isn't as wide as we've been led to believe.

My ministry trajectory shouldn't be reduced to "first learn, then do." It should look more like this: "When learning, apply the knowledge. When doing, learn from the process. Rinse and repeat." Seminary taught me to be a life-long learner, so I'm not satisfied with the bare minimum. Every manuscript I edit, every article I write could be researched a little more. The minute I believe my work is as good as it could possibly be, I stop growing.

Seminary isn't for everyone, and not all seminaries are created equal. There are valid reasons (financial, for one) to forgo a graduate degree. But I learned things in seminary about God and about myself that I couldn't have learned anywhere else. And I encounter people every single day that would benefit from those same lessons. By embracing the education experience—the good and the bad, the boring and the vexing—I am blessed with a reminder that there's no such thing as wasted time. And I learned that the gap between the head, the heart, and the hand isn't as wide as we've been led to believe.

Kyle Rohane is Editor at LeaderTreks in Carol Stream, Illinois.

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