The Stages of Seminary

This is a guest post by John Dyer. John is the director of web development at DTS and creator of the site Best Commentaries.

In my final year at Dallas Seminary I began to emerge from a time where I had become somewhat cynical. As I thought about how I had changed and observed students going through similar phases, a common pattern seemed to emerge among all of us. Not every seminary student will follow this pattern, but you might see yourself or someone you know somewhere along the continuum.

Stage 1 — Enthused – “I love Jesus”
First year students are often the most joyful people on a seminary campus. They love the Lord, and they are excited to dedicate their life to serving him and his church. They do every assignment with vigor, attend every chapel the campus offers, and tend to be a little mystified at those students who do not have the same fervor that they do. Stage 1 can as long as a year or two, but sadly has a tendency to fade out rather quickly.

Stage 2 — Smug — “I love Barth”
Sometime in the first year or two, students begin to notice that what garnered attention at their home churches — deep love for God and his people — is not as noticeable in the classroom. The academic setting naturally emphasizes the importance of knowledge — knowledge of theology, theologians, and theological positions. Slowly, students stop raising their hand in class to ask questions, and begin to raise their hands to make statements showing their brilliance.

The ancient spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and Scripture meditation tend to a backseat to skills that can be graded numerically. In conversation, students at this stage are more likely to drop the name of an obscure theologian (“It wasn’t assigned, I’m just reading it for fun”) than to speak of the goodness of God. This phase is one of the longest, and quite often students from Bible colleges or strong Bible churches tend to skip Stage 1 entirely and begin seminary at Stage 2 (I know I did!).

Stage 3 — Disillusioned — “I hate seminary”
All of the gesturing and posturing of Stage 2 eventually gives way into a third stage characterized by cynicism thinly veiled as “critical thinking.” The tell tale sign of students this stage is the tendency to be decidedly anti-something or other. They might have been pro-something before, but now they are very much against it. They regularly point out serious — grave, even — errors in their church, their tradition, or their seminary. Perhaps the student noticed his or her own smugness from Stage 2 and begins to question the entire concept of seminary itself. If you hear a student start a sentence with “The church never —” or “Christians always —” he or she is mostly like struggling through Stage 3 which, along with Stage 2, is often long and difficult.

Stage 4 — Broken — “I hate pride”
Somewhere toward the end of seminary or perhaps some time after it, something remarkable begins to happen. The finger that was pointed at everyone and everything in Stage 3 is supernaturally turned back toward the accuser. As the student enters this final stage, he begins to realize that the problem is not the American church, systematic theology, or Zondervan. “The problem is me,” he finally realizes.
Although the student is now an expert in critiquing sermons, theological systems, and church models, he begins to remember that the reason he entered ministry was to bring the Gospel to broken people, not already perfected people. It dawns on him, “Of course the church has lots of problems. Why else would we need to go to seminary to learn how to minister to them?” The sharp cynicism that was only able to point out the problems is now capable of illuminating needs and seeing opportunities to minister to the very people to whom God has called him.

My Journey
For me, seminary functioned a lot like how Paul described the function of the Law. There is no problem with the Law; it was not designed to save us, only to point out sin and point us to Christ. I used to think that seminary was supposed to save me, and instead it made me cynical. I finally realized it wasn’t seminary that had changed me, but my flesh that had ceased upon seminary as a way to amplify my pride. Thanks be to God that seminary eventually performed its function as schoolmaster to point me to Christ that I might point others to him.

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Ryan Burns
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  • I confess I cycled through this exactly as you described. Having experienced significant heartache (immediately after graduation) that changed my life, I am grateful to God that He propelled me to the “I hate pride” stage.

    I do hate it. It’s evil.

    God’s providence used the pain to highlight the nauseating pride, and I realized that I am one the broken ones, too. The Cross levels everything.

    bleeks last blog post..surprised by grief

  • This is great…

    Do you think it’s a bit different for students that happen to hang out on “satellite” campuses mostly?

    I think there might be a few additional stages perhaps… maybe not.

    Johns last blog post..Atlanta— Tomorrow!

  • Thank you for letting me vent. I was excited when I saw this thread.

    Let me give you my first impressions of Seminary. I am a whole week into my first classes for my MT and I am extremely depressed and disappointed. First, I believe my college does a horrible, absolutely horrible job of preparing new students. My orientation consisted of me being shown how to use the internal student website and that was about it. I received no assistance whatsoever on writing papers, class structure or anything else and was basically told “it’s alot of reading”…when selecting my first classes I was basically shown the schedule and I picked out two classes to start with and received a “those sound pretty good to me”…I had no idea what I am getting into.

    I am 43 years old and I havent been in a classroom in 20 years. So, I was very excited to attend my first class but literally from the first 5 minutes the professor walked in, he started lecturing and didnt stop for 3 hours. And reading? There is just a MOUNTAIN of reading. An unbelievable amount of reading. A ridiculous amount of reading. Then I attended my second class later in the week and that was better but I still feel like something is missing.

    I got to thinking about it all this week and I have come to the conclusion that I am actually disgusted with Seminary. Maybe my expectations were not set correctly from the beginning, but what I am seeing in a non-emotional droning on about history, culture and different Christian theories that to me just seem out of touch and really vanilla toward Jesus and the entire Christian faith.

    Then I dive into my mountain of reading and I find that all the books are written by these PhD guys that have way too much time on their hands where they rip apart the smallest little detail in the bible and want to examine it , disect it, compare it to other thought processes and to me it is just offensive and nauseating.

    I thought I was going to Seminary to learn more about Jesus, about reaching people and about how to spread the gospel. Reading 200 $5 words in 10 pages of reading is just not what I think the Lord had in mind. And you know what, everybody puts up with it because “that is the way it is” I guess. I have heard and even read on this site “well it’s a Masters program, it should be hard”…and then I get on this site and I see all the posts about all the billion different Christian concepts out there and you all sound like little clones — it is complete rubbish. How your families are suffering because you are in school, how hard it all is, how deep you go and all that. It honestly shouldnt be like this. I am all for formal education and really digging in deep, but the scholarly aspects of Seminary just get under my skin. You know, Jesus really isnt that hard to understand. But these books and all the professors, writers and yes, even students, just want to take it all to a new level and put it under a microscope and manipulate it and ask the big “what if” questions and then compare theories and make up bigger and bigger words….urgh.

    You know, I bought into the cute little marketing campaigns these Seminaries put into Christianity Today. How they show a rough street kid and the words “How are you going to reach him?”…well something tells me he just isnt going to understand or want to hear about the Calvanist approach, all the different theories about Paul, or how your class required a 30-page research term paper and dinged you because you didnt format it correctly.

    I am 43 years old, I used to manage a $500M business and I gave it all away because I wanted to spread the gospel and I wanted to be a solider for Christ. I took the concept of picking up your cross daily and not inheriting the world to forfeit my soul very seriously. I have been volunteering at a drug rehab center for 5 years now just helping these guys find the love of Christ and I so badly wanted to have a formal education and the credentials to really help these guys out and get on the front lines….but after just one week, I am ready to call it quits. Not because I cant do it — but because I DONT BELIEVE IN THE SYSTEM! And just 6 hours of classroom time has soured me so much on the entire thing that I am an inch away of calling it quits because I cannot even fathom 2 more years of this.

    You know, I was telling my wife, going to Seminary should be a joy. It should be encouraging. It should be uplifting. Not every day will be perfect, but you should at least have your college lifting you up….but what I get is seeing people with 1000 yard stares and the light gone from the eyes and them telling me just how much work they have had to do and how hard it is. over and over again. There is no joy, there is no energy….just tired eyes and beaten down stances…

    It shouldnt be this way. 30-page research paper as part of a Gospels class? Give me a break…..

    Sorry if I brought any of you guys down, but I have just had a very very bad week….I would write more but I have to go back to reading the ton of pages that are required by Tuesday….I cant make sense out of any of it because the book’s author’s pride and the fact that he just cant make a point and spit it out, he has to take you the very long way around all his philosophical banterings to justify his PhD….

    I will just do ministry without a formal education and get on with life.

  • Yeah, the writing and reading don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me either. The multi-dimensional intrpretations of Scripture seem to deflate the life right out of the Gospel. I am just glad that I had a substantial amount of philosophy in undergraduate school lest I would be completely insane and faithless by now. Edification is not one of the semanary’s strong points.

    I experienced the same lassiez-faire attiude when signing up.
    I received no assistance and did not even receive instruction on how to access the website, etc. It was frustrating, but I figured most of i out for myself. It is unfortunate that there isn’t someone to help you transition into seminary life.

  • I am SO glad you said that. So glad! I thought I was the only one that felt like this and I have honestly have been feeling “less Christian” and like I let down Jesus or something since I started Seminary just a week ago. A single week ago and 50 hours of reading! I think you hit it on the head about the entire multi-dimensional interpretation of Scripture that just shocked me.

    As I dug into that mountain of reading, I was just floored by how the PhD authors treated the scriptures like it was some scholarly project that they could just tear apart. I could smell pride on every page. Just all the in-depth comparisons and some even said that Paul was “mentally unbalanced!”

    You know, if Seminary is going to make me feel like this for the next 2 years, I would rather save the $30K (I am getting NO financial aid, all of it comes out of my pocket) and give it to missionaries and go about my business serving the Lord in my current capacity. My main goal to even attend Seminary is not to preach, I just wanted the educational background of the scriptures and a deeper understanding of Jesus so I can help people come to the Lord. Maybe act as a outreach pastor…plus I have a real affinity for the Mormons and bringing them back to the real Jesus…I was thinking that maybe I would go that route after graduation to do missionary work to them. But I am seeing just after 6 hours in the classroom that I dont need a Seminary degree to do that, plus I want to partake in nothing that takes away from my love of the Lord or my zeal for Him, his apostles, his message and His word!

    I am thoroughly disappointed and quite honestly, very depressed over my experience so far, like I am this huge failure…but after much thought and prayer, I kind of feel like “maybe this is why Christianity is having such trouble in the US and Europe” — our Seminaries have forgotten to teach Jesus’s love and are more concerned with scholarly crossing of Ts and dotting of I’s and the never ending points of view on scripture…seems everybody has a theory….

    Anyway, again, sorry for venting, but I am really frustrated and I literally gave away an entire 20 year business career to pursue Seminary and I am really quite angry with my school for not enlightening me on what it was really all about instead of the slick marketing advertisements and all that and the total lack of help or assistance. The President of the University is coming to my town in a week and I think I am going to make an appearance and just let him know what I think and how disappointed I am in it all….I wonder if he will even take it seriously.

    I remember reading somewhere that “God opposes the proud…change and become like little children”….let me tell you, Seminary has some changing to do….

  • PS. Its not like I am taking anything hardcore or out on the fringe…my first two classes are New Testament 1 (The Gospels) and New Testament II (Acts-Revelation)…you would think that we would actually be taught the New Testament…

  • D.D., thanks for being so honest, and you are certainly not alone in this!

    Yeah, your struggles are something we all can identify with. It reflects the fact that the seminary model as we know if a product of medieval scholasticism and the Enlightenment. If you study the history of Christianity in the West, that is the time where you see theology become something so intellectualized. While I think we’ve certainly made some healthy recoveries since then, the marks of being rooted in that tradition are still very, very evident.

    I’m not sure if you saw the interview Ryan and I did with John Frame, one of the professors at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, but he is pretty active in promoting something different than what our seminaries are like. And I think he’s right–we need to focus a lot more on the practical aspects of what it means to be engaged in ministry.

    I do think it is important that pastors and church leaders be knowledgeable and able to deal with theology and other related scholarship, and so I do see a place for that in seminary. But, as Frame suggests, maybe we need to find more ways to learn how to put that into practice and make the connection between theology and practice.

    Don’t forget also that different seminaries have different flavors. There really are no two alike. Maybe the seminary you are currently attending is very academic. Although it would be quite a significant change, maybe you could consider attending a different seminary. Maybe you could find out the professors at your school who have the most pastoral heart and get to know them well and find out how they balance the scholarly with the pastoral. Find some fellow students who are struggling with the same thing and get together once a week to talk about how to deal with it all, how to make some of the things you are learning relevant for the people you are ministering too. Pray with them and encourage each other.

    One other thing to remember is that when it comes down to it, your grades really don’t matter very much at all. Nobody is going to ask you what your grade was in Greek or in hermeneutics. Sure, you want to do your best and make an honest effort to learn, but you don’t want to kill yourself with overloading. There’s a balance to find. Sometimes you’re just going to say “forget it” when it’s near the end of a semester and you haven’t opened a book yet, and that’s okay. A lot of the professors don’t expect you to read everything they assign. They know that would be ridiculous. Part of the learning is learning how to balance and prioritize your work (a very important thing to know how to do once you are a pastor!).

    I hope that can offer a little bit of encouragement, D.D. I always have a huge deal of respect for guys like you who are willing to give it all up to go back to school, especially to seminary. It shows the devotion of your heart to following the call of the Lord and your faith in Him to lead you. It is humbling. I hope that in this struggle He will give you strength. Remember that you are doing this for His glory, and His strength is often made known in our weakness!

    My prayers are with you, and I hope you’ll keep us posted on how things are going.

    Jake Belders last blog post..Discussion Question 1

  • D.D. & Gregg,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. Many probably share them … and many have had a polar opposite experience (my wife and I at Multnomah here in Portland have tasted of the latter and not the former, as you have). We have grow more in love with our Savior, and become more passionate to see His church become all she has been redeemed to be.

    One of the challenges of writing articles here is that our experiences cannot be so generalized in words as to perfectly relate to the specific particulars of everyone’s experiences.

    Every seminar is different, probably for good reason. The contributors here attend Asbury, Southern Seminary in Louisville, and RTS Orlando, as well as my wife and I at Multnomah in Portland. Not sure what school you’ve been at this Fall.

    I welcome any interaction off the GTS site (my email is below) if that helps.

    Any else have words for our brothers in Christ?

    Because of Jesus,

    Jeff Patterson
    jp at deTheos dot com

  • You guys are awesome, I really appreciate the help and support. I thought I was the only one and I honestly felt stupid for even bringing it up. Couple that with the fact that everybody I know is excited about me going to Seminary and keep asking me about it so the pressure is pretty intense (my own doing).

    On the grades aspect, that may be some of the problem. At my age, I am sincerely not worried about grades, “C’s” are fine, but at the same time, I dont have enough experience yet with Seminary to know how they grade or what they test on, so I am taking it all very seriously and reading everything assigned. Also, the research papers that I have to do this semester just are freaking me out. Literally I am scared to death. I looked at some sample papers and I havent done a paper in 25 years! I looked at all the different format styles and I think I am just lost. I have a 15 page paper that is required for my first class and another smaller one for my second. I looked online at some sample papers and I thought they were clinical, sterile and honestly, a waste of time. I guess you learn something through them….

    I have done alot of thinking and praying about this alot. I am setting up an appointment with my pastor who is also very supportive to talk to him about all of this and get his opinion and counsel.

    I am Assembly of God and one of the reasons I even wanted to go to Seminary is because I found that at my church (it is large, 7 pastors) only 2 of them have an actual formal Seminary education and I thought that was not acceptable so I wanted to really go after it and add to the staff’s knowledge. That was before I found out what Seminary was all about and its funny because the 5 pastors at my church that dont have a seminary education are always asking me how it is going because they are scared of it too lol.

    My Seminary choices are actually very limited where I live. It would take a move if I wanted to go somewhere else and that is totally impossible. BTW: I go to a Fuller Seminary extention (the fact that it is an extention may have something to do with my issues)/

    So, I very much appreciate your prayers, I could use all I can get. To be specific, here is what I would like you to pray for:

    1. I love the Lord with all my heart and I want to serve Him. Here is my biggest issue – I want to be a Kingdom builder. Not to get too personal, but I made alot of money when I was working and I learned to give most of it away and fund different projects around the world. I got right with money and used it for the Lord. When I quit working , I couldnt make that kind of contribution anymore and was thinking the Lord was now leading me to Seminary and a more active pastoral role building His kingdom. At 43 (44 in 2 months) that is a big time change. Now, with what I have faced with Seminary, I am really struggling to see if I am on the right path and maybe I shouldnt have quit my job afterall because my role was to “fund” the Kingdom and not lead it. Know what I mean? So prayers towards that would be outstanding. What does He want me to do? Oh yeah, to add more complexity to the entire thing, my company fired my replacement and has personally asked me to come back and take my old job back. Urgh!

    2. If I do stay in Seminary, prayers of support to help me get used to it (it is a culture shock, go from a corner office and suit to a classroom, jeans and homework lol) and accept the way the program is set up and learn all I can from it.

    Again, I appreciate all of your support and prayers. It means alot to me. This is a fantastic site! I am starting to feel better already lol….

    God Bless each of you in your ministries….


  • DD

    It seems that you have many of the frustrations that I see with new “older” students at Asbury. The average age of a new student at my school is around 28-30, but after that we get a large amount of 2nd (and 3rd career) students. The ones that I have talked too do look at the work load a bit and freak out. I think that many school aren’t geared towards the older student, especially since you are at an extension. Fuller is starting to get the reputation as a top notch school, and the academics are getting emphasized more and more (I have several friends at the main campus). I think that many of your issues are tied up in the extension campus world, but thats all I am going to say about that.

    Is there an official estimate of how many pages you have to read a semester per hour? At Asbury I think it is in the neighborhood of 5-700. For an intro class, a 25 pager does seem to be a bit much-but is it the only thing that you are having to write?

    My first semester I took a class in which the professor required us to take notes on the reading and turn a notebook in at the end of the semester. Mine was around 220 pages, but the reason behind it was for us to have a resource in our own writing that we can use for future reference, and I use mine at least twice a week.

    I would talk to your prof’s. Is there an office of community life, or a school chaplain that can help you? I work in our chapel office and have calmed down many new students this year.

    DD-my prayers are with you, please stick this through.

    chads last blog post..Warning: Confessional content inside

  • Chad

    Appreciate your insight. I think you hit the nail right on the preverbial head. I think this all boils down to my age and going to school late in life. I had a very successful 25 year career in high tech when I decided to go into ministry and attend Seminary thinking it would be hard work, but not like this.

    I think Seminary is really challenging for somebody like me because we have a ton of experience, but we lack both the desire as well as the mental power to do the work Seminary dolls out. There is another guy in one of my classes and he is late 40s and just starting out and he is overwhelmed as well – deer in headlights. Not sure he is going to make it either. I am going to see him tomorrow at class and I am going to talk to him about it. But I think you are right Chad and its not the Seminary’s fault. They shouldnt lessen the curriculum just because you have a couple of “old” guys in there, it is our responsibility to catch up.

    Extensions dont offer much in the way of counseling or support. It is a small office and I wouldnt expect that they could offer that much nor do I really need it. Pastoral counseling isnt going to be able to help me write a research paper lol. I have just come to the conclusion that Seminary is just not for everybody.

    But it is a shame that it is this tough and there arent alot of options because honeslty, more older people (never thought I would say that about myself lol) would do great in ministry because of our vast experience. I have more organizational and business experience in my little finger then my entire pastoral team including the admin pastor. But that is not what Seminary is for. Maybe I have to look at other routes and options and there is nothing that says I cant be a part of ministry without a formal degree.

    For me, its not the quantity of the work required, but it is the ‘type” of work. I can usually read 200-300 pages at a sitting, but this Seminary reading is so deep that it takes me a half hour to read 15 pages because I have to revert back to the dictionary of terms because of all the words I dont understand plus I dont have the background…and quite frankly, I simply dont like it. It isnt interesting to me and I find it joyless. I am already tired of these writers with all their different theories and philosophies… I mean, I had to look up “eschatology” today and it took me forever to get through it. The definition alone was 9 double column pages and it was just crazy how deep they went. For the 44 year old lay person that just wants to help people find Jesus, it was just too deep and something I would probably never use. I could honestly care less about all the different theories on it. I just know Jesus is coming back and that is enough for me.

    Well, I have been praying for guidance through this, and have pretty much come to the conclusion that I am going to drop out of Seminary and go back into the work world — its just not for me…and that is OK. I am disappointed as will alot of people that have been excited for me and monitoring my every move. Everybody is praying and pulling for me (I am in a large church) and I am going to lose alot of face over this, but I have to do what I feel I am being led to do.

    Both of my profs are fantastic. Extremely interesting, well meaning, great instructors. Its not them, its the entire way Seminary is set up and all the reading that is required….that and the fact that I am an old guy lol.

    Thanks to all of you for your support. It means alot to me. I pray that all of you are successful in your Seminary study and your ministries. Like Jesus said, the harvest is ready….this world is slipping fast and we need to be the light for the world. God Bless all of you….

  • Perhaps it is helpful to keep in mind there is not an all-or-nothing approach to spiritual growth, esp. in knowledge and understanding. I see it from time to time, a thought of “I don’t need seminary… so I scrapped learning” . Thus, that same person who was so excited about seminary leaves, and doesn’t replace what they had *hoped* seminary would do: develop their love for the Savior and knowledge of His Word.

    So, my advice to anyone in that place (actually anyone breathing): develop a plan to get God’s Word in your mind. Without that, we cannot have *renewed minds* (Rom. 12:2), nor can we stare at Jesus and be changed by Him (2 Cor. 3:18). Leaders must do this more than anyone else. We must read, think and meditate on the Text until we burn for Him.

    We cannot be mediocre readers, or we will be mediocre leaders. Plain and simple.

    It is certainly possible to not be seminary-trained and be quite effective in serving Christ (a dozen Apostles and our Savior come to mind). 🙂

    In addition to being people of The Book, I encourage you to:
    Read good books (probably by at least some dead people) — particularly on the Person and Work of Jesus: His worth, work and ways. the latest and greatest simply will not make deep disciples of Jesus who are willing to suffer for Him.
    (If anyone wants a list of the books and authors that have most shaped me, feel free to email me // jp at deTheos dot com.)

    Rub shoulders with godly people – mentoring is key. More is ‘caught than taught,’ as they say.

    Be a servant – one great criticism of seminary is that it does not automatically produce servants. Point taken.
    Do you love the local church? Are you willing to lay down your life for other people, many of whom don’t care about you (or reciprocate)? The key is to sit and meditate on the Great Servant and follow in His steps, in His power.

Written by Ryan Burns