So, how do you get the most out of your theological education? The obvious answer is to choose the right institution to provide that education. But not everyone has the resources or the opportunity to study where they would like, and even if a person does get to study at a good school, there is still more work to do.
Good theological education does not happen by accident. You—the student—have to be intentional about it and take responsibility for it. Here are some ways that you can do that.
Recognize that Theological Education Isn’t Just for Ministers
Seminaries evolved as training centers for ministers and missionaries. Over the years, they began to offer training for people in related fields (for example, counseling or Christian school administration). More recently, seminaries have begun to offer degrees for those who want to increase their theological knowledge but who have no interest in pursuing a vocation in ministry or related fields.
What is the point? You do not have to be called to preach to go to seminary. The fact is that we need more lay leaders with seminary training. Here at B. H. Carroll, we offer Master of Arts degrees that can benefit anyone. Other seminaries do, too. If God has called you to be a teacher or administrator in your church, you might be a good candidate for one of these degrees—even if you never plan to pursue ordination.
Here is another idea. Most of this post is about graduate level theological education, but if you are enrolled in an undergraduate program at an evangelical college or university, you can get quality training for Christian service by minoring in a field like biblical studies or religious education. I have known several people who did this, and it is an approach that I highly recommend.
Get Your Head—and Your Heart—Right
This may be a surprise (and a relief) to some, but most people do not come to seminary as fully mature, emotionally healthy followers of Jesus. In fact, seminary is a lot like church in that people bring to it all their hopes, their hurts, and their habits. And, like church, some people think that simply sitting in a seminary classroom will magically cause them to stop sinning and launch them into as yet unseen heights of joy.
Of course, those of us who have been to seminary know that it normally doesn’t work that way. In fact, seminary has a way of exposing our weaknesses and bringing old wounds to the surface. You need to prepare for this experience just like you would any other spiritually challenging life event. Pray—a lot. Ask God to show you those areas where you need to grow. Have honest conversations with mentors and peers. Seek counseling for any unresolved issues that you discover.
Getting rid of spiritual and emotional baggage will help you deal with the stress of seminary life more effectively. But that isn’t all that this kind of preparation will do. Some hurts are too deep to be removed in this life. That’s okay; God can use them to make you a more sensitive and more effective worker. Nevertheless, if you do not know that the hurt is there (and do not seek appropriate help in dealing with it), it can derail both your personal and professional life. Too many times, I have seen talented people throw away their ministries (and even their lives) because they came to seminary with issues that were unrealized and unresolved. The difficult theological issues necessarily raised by seminary education only exasperated their underlying uncertainty about who they were and what they wanted to become. I know that it may be difficult to confront the monsters that hide in the dark corners of your heart, but it is better to deal with them now than it is to wait and have a crisis while you are in seminary.
Demand Spiritual and Theological Integrity from Your Professors
I know that this section of the blog may not sit well with some of my colleagues in theological education, but you have a right to demand that the people who teach you be men and women of theological and spiritual integrity. This is not the same is demanding that they agree with you. For one thing, your professors know things that you do not. That is, after all, why you came to seminary (to learn from people who know more about the Bible, theology, ministry, etc. than you do). For another, none of us have a monopoly on the truth. When Christ returns, we will all discover that we were wrong about some things. And that includes you.
Demanding that your professors have theological and spiritual integrity is also not the same as demanding that they are perfect. Those of us who teach are just like you. We have hurts and habits that impede our devotion to Christ, and, often, we are not fully aware of what they are. We need your patience and your grace.
Still, you have a right to expect that your professors subscribe to the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. You have a right to expect that your professors participate in and submit to the authority of a Christian community that encourages them to grow theologically, spiritually, and morally. And you also have a right to expect that your professors apply the lessons they learn from church and academy to every area of their lives. Professors are more than just fountains of arcane knowledge; they are (or at least are supposed to be) mentors for young minds and shepherds of young hearts. When a professor has no meaningful connection with Christian orthodoxy, he or she has little to contribute to the work of those who serve the church. When a professor is arrogant, cruel, or predatory, he or she brings disrepute upon the gospel and models ineffective patterns of ministry for students.
Demand Intellectual Integrity from Your Professors
You have a right to demand intellectual integrity from your professors. This is a different kind of integrity than we just talked about, but it is no less important. Your educational experience will be vastly improved if you study with people who do not expose you to a variety of perspectives. This is particularly important if you pursue doctoral work.
This is one of the many reasons why the institution you choose for your education is so important. A professor cannot expose you to alternative viewpoints if he or she is constantly in fear of being labeled a heretic. I know that lay people often get frustrated with scholars who constantly beat them over the head about academic freedom, and some of that frustration is justified. Nevertheless, academic freedom ensures that students have the opportunity to hear all sides of a debate, which, in turn, gives students the opportunity to make up their own minds.
Read—and Ask Questions
One of the real difficulties of seminary is that you never seem to have enough time. When push comes to shove, a lot of students let their reading assignments slide. It is important to remember, though, that you will only get out of seminary what you put into it. Professors assign reading because there is a lot that we cannot cover in class. If you will take those assignments seriously, you will get a lot more out of our classes.
It is not enough, though, just to read. You need to critically interact with what you are reading. When there is something that you do not understand, bring your question to the class. This will help your professor know what issues may be giving you trouble, and it will help your classmates know that they are not alone (yes, they are struggling with the reading, too). Moreover, the discussion that your question sparks may be far more interesting—and far more meaningful—than the lecture material the professor had scheduled for the day.
One of the most important things that you can do while you are in seminary is to build relationships with your professors and your fellow students. These relationships are not simply tools for professional advancement (although they will help with that). They are the laboratories in which you can experiment with what you are learning. They are also the support system that will keep you sane when you just don’t feel like you can juggle the demands of home, work, and school any longer.
What else can people do to get the most out of their theological education? Post your comments below. You never know when your advice might really help someone.