The school year is officially in full swing, which means that many are back to sitting at desks and studying to show themselves approved in the academic sense. Among that group are thousands of first-time and returning seminarians, people from a variety of backgrounds who aren’t just bound to be pastors, fill pulpits, and preach. But all of this is unbeknownst because most people have only known seminaries and theology schools to be the training ground for the future pastors and spiritual leaders of America. Today we will tackle some of the misconceptions that follow the seminarian. This list is by no means exhaustive but it will help shed some light on the fact that seminarians are not just holier than thou students. So without further ado, here are seven things that seminarians aren’t.
Maybe there are a few saints roaming the halls of your local seminary—doubtful considering the criteria for sainthood–but for the most part seminaries are full of everyday people who struggle with sin and salvation–especially when they are sitting in a class called “Sin and Salvation.” Their prayers don’t get to God any faster. They don’t walk around quoting the Bible—well not all of them and sometimes it’s necessary to quote and memorize scripture if you are about to walk into the Old or New Testament exam. They may not always be compelled to acts of charity and service—because the reality is their schedules might not permit for it. They are not always nice…Long story short, if there was a process for canonization available during a seminarian’s time in school, not many would make it. Blame it on the seminary or the seminarian, either way, saints are few and far between.
It is not uncommon for someone to step into seminary and step out of the prayer closet, this happens for a variety of reasons not limited to the fact that seminarian schedules are hectic. Between coursework, internships/residency, work, family, and life, prayer can become the last thing on anyone’s mind. I say this from firsthand experience, as someone who came to seminary as a fervent and frequent pray-er, and left as a periodic pray-er because my schedule and the rigor of my courses made prayer difficult–and lest I be remiss what I learned brought my previous understanding of the spiritual of discipline into question. To this latter point, the other thing about prayer in seminary is the practice is sometimes challenged by what is learned in class. How does one pray when they think about predestination, triple pre-destination, providence, reign of God, and all of those other big theological concepts? Why pray if everything was preordained at the beginning of creation? Does prayer change God or does it change us? Prayer can be complicated in seminary both theoretically and practically speaking.
Pastors in Training
It used to be that people came to seminary because they were called to pastor a church or go into another ministerial capacity but now only 4 in 10 MDiv—Master of Divinity—students plan to go into pastoral ministry full-time. More are considering a bi-vocational path and many more aren’t considering ministry, in the traditional sense, at all. Hundreds of thousands of people go to seminary as part of vocational discernment and then discover that they want to be professors, lawyers, marriage and family therapist and counselors, non-profit leaders, hospital or corporate business chaplains, and more. Or they just want to learn and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they took the seminary detour. And lest I be remiss, because I’ve spent some time around such people, some may want to reconsider who they heard calling them to pastoral ministry. Not all seminarians should be pastors and not all seminarians want to be pastors.
Saved…or even Christian
During my time in seminary I discovered that “saved” was not a term many people liked. This went for both students and faculty. The term reminded people of some factions of conservative Christianity whose primary goal is to save people and condemn the rest to hell. “Saved” language seemed exclusive and didn’t allow for a more open understanding of what life in the faith is. My Systematic Theology professor helped open some of us up to a different understanding of the term encouraging us to reflect on being “saved from something and saved for something.” But semantics aside, a popular misconception is that everyone who goes to seminary is “saved” in the same sense. Not to say that people don’t share a common salvific experience but they don’t use the same language—and sometimes not the same narrative of “coming to Christ”—to speak of the experience. It doesn’t make them any less “saved” as it may be popular known and constructed in Christian circles, there is just a difference in how people articulate their understanding of salvation personally and communally. Furthermore, not all seminarians are Christians. In a survey done by the Association of Theological Schools of 7,075 students across 174 schools, 0.5% were Buddhist, 0.2% were Muslim, 0.8% were Muslim and 4.5% were other. These may be small percentages but they still represent the fact that theology schools across the country are not just full of Christians but people from other traditions as well.
All White Men
According to the same survey referenced above, seminaries aren’t full of white men. In fact, African Americans are the second largest enrolled group representing 16.9% of enrolled persons in MDiv programs with Asian students right behind them at 10.2%. The existence and thriving of historically black theological institutes such as the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio also attests to the racial diversity present in theological institutions. In terms of gender diversity, women account for 34.7% of MDiv students, and, as we have bore witness to, they are also part of the burgeoning population of women preachers, spiritual leaders and leaders in the workforce in general.
Sane, Naïve, Sure, Ready…:
I posed the question of what seminarians aren’t to my fellow seminarians past and present and the responses were many and varied. Among those responses were one-word answers such as “Sane. Naïve. Sure. Ready.” There is a measure of truth to all of these. Practically speaking, the sanity level of some people is questioned when they leave a secure career, significant others, or a hometown to pursue a theological education that will, at one point or another, drain them of everything. Yet very few seminarians are naïve about the space they have walked into, recognizing that it is going to require much of them—and possibly “steal their Jesus” as the urban legends in seminary goes. Surety and readiness are also part of the seminarian’s struggle because answering a “call” to go to seminary doesn’t mean that the called individual is sure or ready for any particular role in ministry or elsewhere. But, that is the beauty of the seminary space, that individuals who answer and engage themselves in the work of theological education are also in a space to continue to discern their call and find surety and readiness.
One respondent to my question pointed out that seminarians aren’t just seminarians. Of this she said, “…because many of our fellow students were scientists, authors, talent agents, and business professionals, in addition to being parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.” Among some of my classmates were doctors still on call, pilots, business owners, and writers just to name a few. This was in addition to the pastors and preachers who were serving congregations and traveling out of state to preach every Sunday only to get back home late Sunday night and tackle hundreds of pages of reading and dozens of pages of writing. And, lest I be remiss, there are the seminarians who are also parents—single, married, committed partnership, or other—whose other major task, aside from being a student, is raising a child or family and attending to their needs almost as much as they must attend to the seminary work.
In conclusion, while there are many things seminarians, or better put after this article, “people who attend seminary” aren’t, the argument can also be made that they are all of these things. And yet we know that they are more than can be lumped into these seven categories. They are saints and sinners, prayer warriors and prayer cowards, pastors in training and people still discerning, mostly white men and a rainbow of cultures, insane, sane, unsure, sure, ready, unprepared, etc. The moral of the story is that people who choose to go to seminary can’t be lumped into simple categories, aren’t easily defined, and do live lives similar to most everyday people. They are people who choose to make a theological institution their home for one or more years, and may use that education as a launching pad for their life in ministry or a point of departure for other endeavors, but that decision doesn’t make them unlike anyone else outside of a seminary context. Long story short—too late—people who go to seminary aren’t any one thing you think they are.
Are you currently in or have you graduated from/attended a seminary, theology school, or Bible school? If so, what do you think of this list? What would you add, subtract or expound on? Let us know in the comments.