7 tips for beginning seminary later in life
Those of us in the West with the resources and time to attend seminary should be grateful and be willing to use this privilege, not to serve ourselves, but to serve others.
Next week I will walk across the stage at Southern Seminary to receive my master’s degree. I’m 39 and went back to school well after I’d gotten married, had four children, and had engaged in a writing and ministry career.
I decided to go back to school not long after I began my first pastorate. As I began preaching, teaching, and counseling, I realized I needed formal education beyond what I received in Bible college. So after a year of prayer, discussions with our church leadership team, conversations with my wife, and some outside counsel, I made the leap of faith.
Perhaps you are thinking of going back to school like I was and are a little intimidated by clearing out the cobwebs of your brain and engaging in serious theological studies.
Now that I’m at the end, here are six pieces of advice.
Make it a family decision.
If you’re married, your spouse will bear the brunt of your decision. There will be Saturday mornings where you’ll have to study for a test and not go on that walk to the park or work on that do-it-yourself project.
There may also be expenses involved that will effect the family budget. Approach the conversation with an open hand, making the case for why seminary is important for your future and for your call to ministry. Be willing to delay this until a season that better suits your family dynamic.
Consider it a calling and not a duty.
It is true that a degree from an institution like SBTS could help you toward “success” in ministry, it is not the reason you should enroll. To study theology and the Scriptures is a sacred calling for those whom God has gifted to preach, teach, and lead his church. That should be your main motivation.
If you see your studies as a calling, it will keep you motivated on those early mornings where you don’t really feel like getting up early to read or those late nights when you have to crank out yet another seemingly meaningless paper.
Treat seminary as a servant, not a master.
In seminary, you will be surrounded by young scholars who will spend every second in the library. They have mastered the finer points of even the most minute theological controversies. They can quote Bavinck at will. You’ll feel a bit intimidated. You’ll be tempted to sacrifice everything for seminary. But you should view seminary as a tool to aid your ministry and not the epicenter of your whole life.
One of my professors once said: “For some of you, getting less than an A will be sin because you’ve not worked hard enough. For others of you, with families and other obligations, getting an A will be a sin because you’ve neglected these other stewardships in your life.”
Sometimes you’ll have to do the best you can on that paper, but be content with something that is not as good as if you were a twenty-something who is a full-time student with few obligations. Strive for excellence, but keep your whole life in perspective.
Fit seminary into the margins of your life.
Much of seminary is reading. I’ve never read so much in my life as over the past five years. You’ll read things that will stretch your mind and your comprehension. It will be good for you, for your ministry, and for your life. But you will have to be intentional about finding time to read. I found it easy to fit reading into the margins of my life. I always carry a book with me. A few minutes in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. An hour early in the morning before going to work. During the long stretches of my son’s baseball games (but not when he was batting, of course!), at dance and music recitals when my kids were not performing.
You should also look for flexible class options. Many programs allow you to do your degree entirely online, which makes it easier for many, but I strongly encourage to get some on-campus time if you can.
Find a pace that pushes, but doesn’t overwhelm.
I learned this the hard way. Initially, I signed up for several classes, thinking I could manage the load and still lead a family, hold a full-time job, and fulfill my other writing and ministry obligations.
One semester I nearly burned out entirely and had to take off several days to get work done. I needed several more days off to recover. I learned my lesson. First, I realized I just couldn’t do as many classes in a semester. So I backed off and then also tried to pair the right kinds of classes together, based on intensity. This requires a bit of humility and trust, knowing that personal health and family health are more important than finishing by a target date. Find a pace that works for you and your family.
Bring your false guilt to the Lord.
It is humbling, at times, to be in class with people who are much younger than you, who are better versed in theology than you. At times I was a little embarrassed that I was still working on this degree well into my thirties and had some regret at not having done this after college.
I have needed a constant reminder that God’s love for me was based on Christ’s satisfying the Father on my behalf, not on the number of degrees on my office wall. I have had to tell myself, regularly, that it is God who has directed the steps of my life and God who holds my future in his hands.
Regard your studies as a privilege, not an entitlement.
To study theology in a concentrated, disciplined way from the world’s leading theologians is a privilege few enjoy. There are pastors today laboring in difficult conditions around the world who would give anything just to own a set of commentaries or have theological resources to help them lead their people.
Those of us in the West with the resources and time to attend seminary should be grateful and be willing to use this privilege, not to serve ourselves, but to serve others. Those of us in Southern Baptist Life should be most grateful, considering the faithful contribution of millions of church members whose sacrificial giving makes our tuition affordable through the cooperative program.