Sharon

An Open Letter to Seminarians

Sharon Leadership, Ministry 7 Comments

It’s hard to believe that I graduated from seminary nearly six years ago, because I remember it like it was yesterday.

I remember cramming for my church history final with fear and trembling. I remember crying on the first day of my ethics class because I was so moved by the lecture. I remember going to Haiti as part of a class trip, and having my world turned upside town. I remember plowing through Hebrew by memorizing endless flash cards. And I remember trying to decipher my German theology professor’s lectures, because his accent caused “world” and “word” to sound exactly the same to me.

Many days seminary felt like drinking from a fire hydrant. I absorbed so much information as I prepared for ministry; it was both exhilarating and overwhelming. This abundance of knowledge is both a strength and a weakness: it equips the called, but it can also puff one with up with arrogance, producing the Annoying Seminarian Syndrome that afflicts far too many of us.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is Lord over the process, and as time goes by he takes our little lump-of-clay selves and molds us into beautiful vessels of grace. It takes time, and the sculpting is hard, but the Master Potter knows exactly what He is doing.

Looking back, seminary was only the beginning of my education. It laid a foundation that I have spent the last 6 years building upon, and each year has been a new chapter in my learning. It’s easy to think that you steal away to seminary for 3 years and then emerge fully prepared for ministry, but the reality is quite different. Seminary is only the first leg of the educative marathon.

Conversely, ministry doesn’t begin once you graduate. In fact, ministry doesn’t even begin outside the school. Instead, your first opportunity for ministry begins in the classroom. In fact, she might even be sitting right next to you.

According to the Association of Theological Schools, the 2011-2012 academic year saw the following demographic breakdown among M.Div. students:

Women: 29.6%

Blacks: 16%

Hispanic:  4.3%

Asian: 6.4%

White male: 44%

Depending on the seminary you attend, these percentages will differ. In some seminaries the male to female ratio is about even. In others, the numbers are far more skewed. The average percentage of female M.Div.’s at evangelical seminaries, for example, is just 21%.

And why should this matter to you, seminarian? In my doctoral research, I’ve learned that students in numerical minorities are more likely to experience feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. What’s more, these emotions can translate into academic disadvantages. When students belong to a numerical minority, their academic performance is frequently inhibited, and their overall experience is more difficult. In fact, it can be downright miserable.

My conversations with women and minorities have borne up these findings. Students report feeling unwelcome, or simply invisible. One African American woman described feeling like a “tree,” that her white male classmates simply looked past her, and that her presence was about as valuable as the birches that peppered the campus grounds. Others reported feelings of isolation and loneliness. Some women even experienced hostility from male classmates because they were thought to be a sexual temptation.

It is disheartening to hear of these experiences in seminaries. Seminary, of all places, is an institution designed to prepare students for ministry. Seminaries exist to help form students in the model of Christ, who famously touched people on the margins and saw the unseen. What, then, does it mean when seminarians are perpetuating marginalization, rather than upending it? What does that mean for the future of the church?

To be fair, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. When I was in seminary, I saw my task as mostly academic. Get in, learn, get out. I viewed my classmates as doing the same, and I wasn’t much concerned with how they felt.

But let me encourage you, seminarian, not to make the same mistake I did. Rather than view the classroom as a sanitized bubble, separate from the world and from ministry, view it as a part of your formation. Rather than concern yourself solely with knowledge, concern yourself also with the process of becoming.

Now is the time to form the habits you will carry with you into the church. So love and serve your fellow classmates the way you will one day love and serve a church. Look out for the vulnerable members of your seminary community, in the same way you will care for the vulnerable members of your church community.

And finally, remember that how you live during seminary, and the practices you adopt, are just as important as the knowledge you acquire. I suspect we might all do seminary just a bit differently if we viewed it not through the narrow lens of academia, but the more holistic lens of Christian mission.

 

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Comments 7

  1. Kim

    As a white middle-aged woman at an evangelical seminary, I have felt anxious and experienced self-doubt on multiple occasions. The antidote of a community of fellow female students I developed through a campus organization for women has been essential for my keeping balance and perspective.
    If you’re in the minority, don’t try to go it alone. Find those who are in the same boat or sensitive to your situation and encourage one another. Share the hurts and frustrations, share how you’re growing and being challenged. This, too, is a good ministry practice to establish early.

  2. Suzanne Burden

    HI Sharon:

    I so appreciate this. Thank you for reminding us of what’s important in seminary: people. Women called to study and serve are a vulnerable population. I’d love to go on for an M.Div…but I’m barely going to make it through my MA in Theology. Funny, but my academic performance didn’t end up suffering in the end; the opposition and lack of support drove me to try harder. I suppose it’s the “I’ve got to prove myself” thing to a degree; then again, I found support in other places. That’s the only way I made it through. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Tim

    I was just talking about this with some colleagues in a class I was teaching. We weren’t talking about seminary, but about people in our courtrooms.

    Sociologists have studied how people can consider themselves to be in the ingroup or in the outgroup, and it goes along with what you write about here, Sharon. For judges, we need to make sure that we are not exacerbating this in/out phenomenon with how we interact with people in the courtroom. It’s bad enough when someone is there and realizes they are the only person with their color skin, or sex, or age, but when the judge’s actions reinforce the separateness it’s even worse. I bet the same can happen in seminaries.

    Tim

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