By: Wayne Meisel, Executive Director of The Center for Faith and Service
Originally published on The Huffington Post
As the son of a preacher, the last thing I ever wanted to do was go to seminary. Oops! Granted, I waited eleven years after graduating from college. I tried to slip into class on the first day without anyone noticing but the professor called my name out and asked if Don Meisel was my dad. Goodbye, anonymity. Hello, teacher’s pet.
Why was I so embarrassed to tell people, even my parents (especially my parents!), that I was going to seminary? What would everyone think? My parents: Oh, we’re so proud of you! My friends: What the...? And me: What the... ?
Why does going to seminary carry so much weight, a kind of baggage that students in other graduate programs don’t have to shoulder? There are certain assumptions that go along with attending seminary; for a long time they kept me from really exploring the idea.
I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but where? Law school? Don’t like to read that much. Business school? Not very good with numbers. I kept coming back to the idea of seminary. I knew that I needed to find a way to sustain my commitment to the service and justice work I had done all of my life. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried or what kind of progress was made, there was always more to do. I was getting discouraged. From there, I realized it was more important to be faithful than successful and that if I wanted to go deep in my faith, seminary was the place to do just that.
I’ve made a list of the 11 assumptions about going to seminary that swirled in my head back in those days and shared them with current seminarians. Their responses are below.
And if you’ve never thought about going to seminary but have gotten this far in the article, then go to our website, Seminaries that Change the World, and read more. No one needs to know... yet.
1. YOU HAVE TO BE GOOD TO GO TO SEMINARY.
I’m not entirely sure what ‘good’ means, but based on my experiences growing up in East Tennessee I’d assume most people think you have to be ‘good’ to go to seminary in the sense that you can’t drink beer, cuss, have sex, enjoy crass humor, etc. If that is true then my peers and I should not be in seminary. Most of us are not ‘good’ in that limiting sense of the word. However, we are trying to make the world a better place and create fulfilling and just relationships among ourselves and with others, and we can only do that by bringing our whole selves, past experiences, fears and hopes and a good dose of humor (and often a beer).
2. SEMINARY AND DIVINITY SCHOOLS ARE EXPENSIVE
I’ve heard that seminary and divinity schools are expensive in that the cost of educating seminarians is high; however the amount of financial aid (scholarships, grants, fellowships, etc.) available makes it one of the most affordable graduate degrees. Many seminaries are largely supported by endowments that greatly subsidize the cost of tuition and housing in order to reduce the limitations on those called to seminary. I receive enough grants from my school, church and denomination that I do not have to take out loans to pay for this degree, and there are very few people in other graduate programs that can say the same thing. I am grateful and excited for the ministry opportunities I can accept upon graduation without having to consider student loan payments.
3. YOU HAVE TO HAVE IT ALL FIGURED OUT BEFORE YOU ARRIVE AT SEMINARY.
This is a total lie! I still don’t have it all figured out — but life is a discernment process that is filled with callings that will change as new experiences come. I came to seminary very unsure about my future, and found fellow classmates who were in the same boat and willing to journey with me. Through classes, community work and an internship, I’ve found a greater understanding of what I want to do when I graduate, but I know that will continue to shape as I continue my studies. I’ve learned to embrace the adventure of the unknown!
4. YOU HAVE TO HAVE DECIDED TO GO TO SEMINARY EVEN BEFORE YOU WENT TO COLLEGE.
There are many paths to seminary, not all of them straight and simple. Those who have both decided to go before entering undergrad and then actually go on to seminary just as planned are a rare bunch! You are neither less prepared nor less fit for seminary if you one-day feel the tug of the Spirit to go to seminary against your best laid plans. You’re in faithful company.
5. YOU HAVE TO MAJOR IN RELIGION TO GET INTO SEMINARY
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life before I entered college (and still don’t, most days!). I started freshman year as a Biology, Spanish, Music triple major. That didn’t last too long, and I eventually ended up with a degree in Music Education. I never took a single religion class in undergrad, and I’m learning a lot in seminary! But seminaries are looking for people from a wide variety of backgrounds... not just religion majors. Your life experiences, passions and personality make you unique, and all of that brings diversity into a seminary classroom (which is a GOOD thing!).
6: EVERYONE WHO GOES TO SEMINARY ENDS UP BECOMING A PASTOR WHO PREACHES ON SUNDAY.
Not everyone in seminary is interesting in becoming a pastor, and some do not even have a desire to preach. Seminarians are diverse in their skill sets and interest. Some Seminarians choose to study religion because it informs the work they choose to do. Some of my colleagues are interested in working with the government, holistic medicine, social justice, non profit organizations, and some are interested in academia. Seminarians are school teachers, spiritual directors, counselors and much more. You can be who you are called to be no matter how different it sounds to the world.
7: ALL SEMINARIANS ARE DORKS.
Some definitely are, but if you have ever seen the Princeton University Ultimate Frisbee team, or the USC Trojan football team, you’ve seen some seminarians doing their thing. Seminarians love to learn and think about theology, but we are also people-persons! We love to talk with, chat to and interact with folks from all different walks of life. We’re not dorks, we just care... a lot!
8. YOU ONLY STUDY THE BIBLE AND THINGS LIKE HEBREW AND GREEK WHEN YOU ARE IN SEMINARY.
When I decided to complete my graduate studies at divinity school, it was not because I felt a call to traditional ministry. What I did experience was an overwhelming desire to study in a place that would provide me with opportunities to explore the ways in which my academic interest area (religious ethics) moved off the page of a text book and into real life while allowing my deep rooted passion and commitment to community service and social justice to flourish and grow. While in graduate school I realized that the call on my life was to work in the name justice, kindness and to walk humbly. Now, as the Director of an AmeriCorps program, I realize that there was no better place for me to study than Yale Divinity School. My work in the community service field is my ministry. A ministry that I am well equipped for thanks to my theological education.
9. SEMINARY STUDENTS ARE NOT INTERESTED IN COMMUNITY SERVICE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE.
Seminary students are at the forefront of community service and social justice issues. We are the next generation of dreamers trying to change the world. We are in in the community amongst the people being that instrument of change that Jesus calls us to be.
10. IF YOU GO TO SEMINARY IT WILL LIMIT YOUR CAREER OPTIONS.
I believe going to seminary could potentially broaden one’s career options. A lot of my former classmates from Harvard Divinity School and Candler School of Theology have been involved in non-traditional ministries following their seminary work — including non-profit management, hospital chaplaincy, social work, public health, law, etc.
11. YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE SEMINARY OVER OTHER PROFESSIONAL SCHOOLS.
I was afraid this was going to be true, but more and more seminaries and divinity schools are finding ways to make dual degrees possible, with social work, public policy, law and various other programs. And, by doing a dual degree, you can cut out some time (and money!). I’m doing a dual degree with social work and it cuts out a year, so I do the two degrees in four years. I would never have been willing to go to divinity school if it wasn’t for the opportunity to do social work as well. I’m so glad I didn’t have to give up either option!
Eleven feels like a pretty incomplete number, so if you have a 12th assumption that you have turned into a myth, please share!