The summer before I started seminary, there were many well-meaning and lovely people who asked me, jokingly, if I was ready to start “cemetery.” I would always laugh politely and tell them, jokingly, “Well, yes, of course!” This half-funny reaction was the only response I had for such an unusual question.
I suppose I knew where they were coming from. I had heard that many people have taken the road to seminary only to lose their faith in academic Christianity. They come out on the other side of a theology degree with a head full of knowledge, but an empty heart for ministry and the church. Apparently, they enter the crypt somewhere in between “Church History 101” and “Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Full.”
Yet, after a year of seminary, I have become more deeply aware of people, our world, and Christ. Or in other words, I feel more alive. This is not to say that the morbid sentiments about seminary are not true, it just may be that the journey is not supposed to end at the cemetery.
Before the start of seminary I already had an established nerdy appreciation for theology. I would read Barth’s “Dogmatics in Outline” for the fun of it. Theology was something I discovered in college, and it became the subject where my brain and soul was naturally curious and challenged. Along with experience working with Young Life and University Ministries, the table was being set to pursue ministry full-time. After many hours of conversation with small groups and mentors and a few nights of “Seminary, really?! Are you serious, God?” prayers, I began to look for theological schools that would be a good fit.
The Seattle Pacific Seminary was in its first year when a friend suggested taking a look at the program. Everything about it was a good fit; the vision, the faculty, and the emphasis on learning in a spiritual community became points of certainty. God was nodding his head, “Yes, this is the one for you.”
Common wisdom suggests that one should enroll in a graduate program with a long-standing reputation and credibility. With SPS being so young it was a risky move to attend, and one that called for an act of faith. My moment of decision was significant and might be a reason why I have yet to enter the “cemetery”; I began my journey into full-time ministry with an act of faith, not an act of career advancement.
Ministry, I have come to find, is a calling not only to Christ and the church, but to a life of head-scratching and “huhs?” I think this may be because those in ministry cannot just think of career advancement nor have a normal conversation with a stranger. This is what I mean: When I meet a new person out on the town, the first question one usually asks is, “What do you do?” I have to say “seminary” or “grad school in theology.” Especially in this part of the country, that gets a “huh?” or “why?” To you this may seem like a great opportunity to witness the good news, but mostly it’s just awkward and totally uncomfortable.
My identity, or “what I do,” is now entirely wrapped up in Christianity—the good, the bad, and the kooky. My biggest fear is that I will spend the rest of my life explaining the Inquisition and televangelists at social functions.
This discomfort is now a reality, but it is probably a good one for any Christian to be in because it requires faith. Whatever sense of comfort or control I once had about fitting in or sounding normal is now completely gone. Instead I have to live on faith that these dislocating situations follow in the way of Jesus.
The academics of seminary take its toll too. Long nights questioning your beliefs about the world and theology can drive a person bonkers. Studying about God means that you are always thinking about existence—your own and others. This is very tiring work. And then you’re tested on it.
The community I have found in seminary and around Seattle has been the most important factor in keeping me alive. Through friends I have had companions in laughter, grief, confusion, endurance, compassion, and life. The journey of life cannot be done alone; that much I have learned in seminary.
I would not be a good seminarian if I did not make some allusion to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So here it goes. It may be the case that one may enter seminary and leave feeling like they were with the dead, but we must recall that it was Jesus’ way to the tomb that really brings life. So if seminary really is as bad as the cemetery, then following that path must mean I do so with Christ in his new life.
Christology 101, A+, please.