Expectation Versus Reality in Seminary and Beyond

I don’t know what the deal is, but I’ve been reading a lot of research about seminary lately. This latest reading was a dissertation by Charles R. DeGroat who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). The work (made available here) looks into expectation versus reality among male graduates of seminary who entered the ministry.

In the work, DeGroat focuses on 7 graduates of RTS who, after graduation, went into parish ministry. The purpose of the study was to examine the relationship between expectations formed in seminary and the relationship to the reality experienced within the pastorate. For those of us who are M.Div students or those consider the pastorate after seminary, I would HIGHLY recommend reading the dissertation. Specifically, since I know you’re busy and probably aren’t looking to add another 156 pages to your reading list, I would recommend that you focus on the meaning units expressed by the 7 participants and DeGroat’s textural and structural descriptions (p.40-123).

In this section you can hear the thoughts of men (read the limitations section for why the study only included men) who have been in our shoes (as seminarians) and have since gone on to experience the reality of what we seek (the pastorate… and yes, I know that we’re not all going into the pastorate, I’m just talking to those who are.). In studying what these men share I believe that we have the opportunity to see the weaknesses in our seminary experience and, on our own initiative, take steps necessary to ensure that we will be better prepared to serve those to whom God will call us.

As a word of warning, don’t discount the study by saying, “oh, well my seminary is not like that one.” The reality is that no seminary truly provides a holistic preparation for ministry. Hearing the experience of these pastors will help you to see where their seminary failed to prepare them and will allow you to examine your experience more critically… hopefully resulting in a more successful seminary experience for you.

For those too lazy to download and read for your self (shame on you) here are just a FEW quotes from these pastors that I found enlightening as a seminarian and future pastor:

  • I had to do a funeral three weeks into my first gig in ministry and I didn’t have freaking clue what to do.
  • I wish I learned more about a number of practical ministry things – Weddings. Pastoral counseling. A dude’s kid was molested at one point, and I thought “some good my class notes are for this.” I mean, are you getting the disconnect?
  • I expected that I’d grow spiritually in seminary. I didn’t. And then, I expected that I’d grow spiritually after seminary. And that happened a little. But it mostly didn’t happen. Because the busyness just doesn’t stop. You move from the busyness of papers and essays and exams to the busyness of getting a job to the busyness of preparing for ordination to the busyness of phone calls and hospital visits and teachings and kids being born and interviews with guys like you.
  • If I could say one thing to the seminary, I’d say it’s no use graduating pastors who know how to pass an exam but are spiritually dead.
  • And now I’m realizing that, as I reflect on my seminary experience, is that it was just too much information to absorb and process. So, you scramble to perform to pass tests, and to get credentialed, and to become a preacher. My seminary experience became a means to an end.
  • Nothing in seminary helped with the relational difficulties I’d experience in ministry. The bulk of it I gained in my first ministry position. I saw the level of pain, level of fragmentation, level of brokenness in people’s lives.
  • I didn’t realize how much emotionally energy this (ministry) would require. It’s gigantic.
  • Seminary provided important information for theological and ecclesiastical exams, but not for ministering to broken people.
  • I spend far more time, for good or bad, worrying over how to deal with conflict, or help marriages on the brink of disaster or the best way to accommodate more people, or how to get a group of men who are all older than I, and whom I fear a bit, to get on the same page about something, all relational sorts of things than I do about the exegesis of particular passages of scripture.
  • It is awfully tempting to give one’s time and energy to the things that make it look like you are on the job. I don’t believe I had a good sense of just how much this would be a temptation.

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Ryan Burns
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  • I wonder how many seminaries have classes that deal with these issues? I know at Asbury we have two classes that everyone is required to take, and one of them really touches on some of these issues (isolation, personal spiritual formation, issues involving vocation, etc..)

    I also know that they only way you can learn some of these things is by actual ministry. I spent several years in college ministry before seminary, and I know that I learned as much there about people and various issues we have as I have about theology and the bible in seminary.

    I also know that some denominations require an M.Div for ordination, and in my situation I have met plenty of people that cruise through just cause they want to be ordained.

    I need to read this paper, and find time to do it.

  • Excellent find. All these are the reasons I started Seminary Survival Guide–to serve as a warning to current students about the reality that is coming, and for which they are generally unprepared.

    I look forward to reading it!!

  • Ryan,

    Well said. Looking forward to diving into DeGroat’s dissertation. The most telling quote from what you listed (besides the relational and emotional aspects):

    “I expected that I’d grow spiritually in seminary. I didn’t. And then, I expected that I’d grow spiritually after seminary. And that happened a little. But it mostly didn’t happen. Because the busyness just doesn’t stop.”

    Wow. I’ve always said that if we want to love and learn the Bible we must read it, before we go to Seminary (always be saturated in the Scriptures). But, here we’re reminded that the issue is even deeper, for knowing, loving and enjoying God doesn’t just happen by default, as if we are in an incubator or something.

    And the realization about “emotional energy.” – In many ways, 12 hour work-days, 6 days-a-week is good for us, if that labor is mostly physical. Yet, emotional labor for those stretches seem to wear us down while not building up (as the physical builds muscle). How do we build emotional muscle in the midst of all this busyness?

    Jeff Pattersons last blog post..Better is open rebuke than hidden love

Written by Ryan Burns