It’s May, which for most schools is graduation season. Men and women who have invested countless hours in classrooms and libraries are now preparing for the ceremony that will mark the end of a sometimes long and often very difficult journey. All will don caps and gowns and the regalia appropriate to their school and earned degree; some will be adorned with colored ropes or sashes signifying special honor, their names highlighted in the ceremony’s program and the Latin words cum Laude, Summa cum Laude, or Magna Cum Laude: with honors, with high honors, with highest honors.
And then there’s you. You’re at the other end of that journey. You’ve made the big decision to go to seminary, researched and chosen the school, and been accepted. Now you’re waiting for the first class of the first semester and can’t even think of the cap and gown yet, let alone whether your own name will be highlighted. You’re just wondering what it is you’ve gotten yourself into and how you’re going to survive! And you’re wondering what it will take to succeed in seminary.
Success is a funny thing; it looks different for each person and in each context. For some, success in seminary is hanging on for dear life, scratching by, and one day, eventually, hopefully, being able to hang on your wall a piece of parchment that bears your full name—even the middle name that only your mother called you and then only when you were in trouble. For others, success will be measured less by the parchment and more by the asterisk in the program: you want to see those Latin words after your name, and to know you completed your Master’s degree in less time than the catalog said. For some, seminary success is defined by a marriage and family that is still intact, a ministry that is thriving, and a new bank of knowledge and wisdom from which to more effectively serve God and people.
I had taken a circuitous route to my undergraduate degree: a late start following a stint in the Air Force, slow, meandering progress, a mid-course move, and average grades. I eventually earned my Bachelor’s degree after six years in school, just before my 31st birthday. My seminary journey was similar. I began immediately after university—and a 1,200 mile move—but ended after just one class; twelve years, another thousand-mile move, and three kids later, I tried again. Three years in came another move, this time 500 miles south to begin full-time ministry. By the time I finally donned the cap and gown, I was fifty years old when and my son—born shortly after my very first seminary class—had graduated from high school a year before! But I did it!
Whether you start seminary at twenty-two or forty-two; whether you are single and working for UPS or a married mom in full-time ministry; whether you aim for honors or survival…you need to decide what success means for you. Seminary will demand hundreds of hours of hard work and sacrifices all along the way. It will take a toll on you, your family and other relationships, and even any ministry you may be involved in, but you can decide up front how much work and sacrifice you’re willing to invest. One hint, though: No church has ever asked me about my grade point average. There’s nothing wrong with going for the grades and honors, but most churches will be more concerned with your degree than your GPA, and even more concerned with your ability to lead, communicate, and manage your family well in the midst of the inherent stresses of ministry.
Still, seminaries want to turn out successful students, which means not only men and women capable of leading well, communicating the gospel effectively, and counseling compassionately; but also who are academically fit, as demonstrated by the grades earned in class. And while it may be possible to eke out a bachelor’s degree with a C average, most seminaries will put you on probation for that, or for any course grade less than a C. At my school, many professors were very clear about what was required for an A grade versus what was acceptable for a B or a C. Right at the beginning of a class, then, I had an idea how much work would be necessary. I especially appreciated that my professors had a realistic perspective on grades, often reminding students not to neglect family or self for the fleeting honor of a GPA. They never made me feel that I was a second-class student when I settled for a B. But those same profs were also willing to tell me when they felt I was capable of better work.
Knowing the character of the schools you are considering will help you understand what is needed to succeed. Some schools are more academically rigorous than others; what would earn you an A at one school might be barely passing at another. Choose a school that matches your needs and intent. Each professor is unique, as well. I have had some professors who took off points for the most minor stylistic choices in my writing, while others would overlook significant typographical errors as long the writing was coherent and biblically sound. These, too, are important things to understand when you begin each course.
One final thought: be true to your convictions. I can’t count how many of my professors who warned that seminary would ruin me! Even the most diligent of Bible students will encounter new insights into familiar scriptures. Beliefs you have been raised with, convinced of, and studied for years will be challenged. At times, professors will present contrary views simply to play the devil’s advocate to spur your thinking; at other times they will propose strange-sounding ideas that, the more you ponder, will sound strangely plausible. When you write papers—especially those that will result in a thorough doctrinal statement—do not try to rehash a professor’s view in order to please him or her. That may have been advantageous as an undergraduate but will not serve you well in seminary or beyond. (The one exception during my studies was a theology exam in which we were asked to state and defend a biblical case for church membership. Although I believe the biblical arguments are weak, I was able to answer the question with integrity because it was not asking for my views on membership.)
Seminary will challenge you intellectually, spiritually, theologically, socially, emotionally, and probably even physically—even without gym class! Finding success in seminary depends on knowing ahead of time what success will mean for you, then investing the time and energy to accomplish that. And whether it takes two years or ten; whether you come out of seminary as a pastor or counselor or mailman; you will more than likely come out as a stronger disciple, well-prepared to answer Christ’s great commission in the spirit of the great commandments.
About the author: Randy Ehle graduated in 2014 from Western Seminary in Sacramento, CA. He and his wife, Eiley, have a 20-year-old son and daughters 15 and 12. More than a third of their 23 year marriage passed while Randy was studying! Two months after concluding his last class, Randy left a successful Associate Pastorate in Placerville, CA, to focus on his search for a Lead Pastor role. Read his blog at randehle.com or follow him on Twitter @randehle.