1) Enter classes and conversations with humility.
Perhaps you majored in Bible and Theology as an undergraduate, or you toured the country doing Bible quizzing as a child. Maybe you have certain hot-button issues that make you turn red with passion. Well, neither classrooms nor casual conversations are outlets for proving your worth nor for winning arguments. The sooner you realize this, the better your seminary experience will be (not to mention the experience of your colleagues!). Remember that freshman in college who comes home after a semester of psychology and proceeds to diagnose all your problems around the dinner table? You don’t want to be that person. Practice humility and realize that you’re entering theological puberty—a season of waiting, learning, and soaking in the wisdom of others.
2) Learn about the local culture where you live.
Honor the place where your seminary has planted its roots. It may be uncomfortably rural, splendidly urban, or common and suburban. Don’t scorn the place. Rather, find areas of interest to take your family. Build routines around local places. Rub shoulders with those who don’t completely understand or may even resent the presence of your seminary in their neighborhood. Allow yourself to learn from the physical place and people where God has you for a season, and be that light in the darkness.
3) Commit to a local church.
It may sound scandalous that students being trained for service in the church should even have to be reminded of this. Nonetheless, seminary is like a repeat of college, where you have to find your moorings in a local community. If you’re not intentional about this, before you know it, you may be handed your diploma without ever having committed to making a local church your people. By all means, take some time to visit with churches and learn from traditions that you’ve never been exposed to (I actually highly encourage this), but at some point, overcome your fear of commitment and being under spiritual authority by giving yourself to a local church. Both you and your church will be better for it.
4) Find a life-giving pastime that isn’t expressly spiritual.
Put a bird feeder in your backyard; explore the hiking trails nearby; practice amateur photography; volunteer at an underprivileged organization; learn an instrument, etc. Everyone needs an outlet. You may be surprised to learn how this pastime fuels and refreshes you, and you may even come to encounter God in these moments in ways you couldn’t anywhere else.
5) Expect to cut down on entertainment.
Remember that you’re in graduate school, and even more, the task before you is a profound act of consecration to God and his kingdom. Have you developed a taste for binge-watching your favorite TV shows and movies? Is your idea of winding down having your friends join you in your dorm room for an evening of first person shooter video games? There’s nothing wrong with occasional acts of indulgence, but the act of consecration requires sacrifice, and seminarians have a wonderful opportunity to develop habits that will carry them through a lifetime. You’ll likely have to cut down significantly on habits of entertainment.
6) Honor the academic dimension to ministry preparation.
Don’t cram for tests, and get an early start on that research paper. These may have worked just fine in college, and you may get away with it sometimes in seminary, but this is robbing yourself of the proper education that you’re paying a lot of money for. It also cheats your future church/organization of the standards they’ve come to expect from a servant-leader. Prayerfully consider what it means to love God with all of your mind while you’re in seminary.
7) Get to know 1-2 professors more closely.
Slant your courses to weigh more heavily toward one or two professors in an attempt to build a mentor relationship. Oftentimes, faculty members are willing to invest more in students who show an eagerness to learn and excel spiritually. So read works that the professors have published, learn about their experience and education at previous institutions, and most importantly, demonstrate a profound humility and gratitude for the attention they’re offering you.
8) Learn how to read wisely and effectively.
Expect to read around 300-500 pages per credit hour every semester. Sound daunting? It is! This will probably be the biggest investment of your time outside of class meetings. Unless prevented by a professor’s express statement, practice speed reading and learn how to not get stuck on every sentence. However, if you’re not comprehending what you’re reading, you may just have to sacrifice the extra time and read your assigned works thoroughly. A helpful measure is to read all prefaces, introductions, and appendices thoroughly, then regularly flip back to the table of contents to make sure you’re aware of the big picture as the book’s argument progresses. Keep a highlighter and pen on hand so that you can refer back to areas of importance later in the class and in your ministry career, and develop your own note-taking shorthand for future reference.
9) Take the financial costs seriously.
Be diligent in your search for scholarships, and don’t rely on your loans for funding those fancy espresso drinks at the local coffee shop. Speak with your school’s financial aid advisers honestly about your lifestyle and what you’re expecting to be doing when you graduate from seminary. Keep in mind that churches and non-profit organizations typically offer modest incomes and paying back student loans on a minimum monthly payment schedule can take decades. Furthermore, the market is saturated with Bible/Theology majors and even highly-qualified PhD graduates are realizing, rather painfully, that there are more scholars than there are positions at academic institutions. But this shouldn’t discourage you from attending seminary—only from approaching your education with pretense and entitlement. If God has called you, he will faithfully provide for you. Tens of thousands of seminary graduates can testify to this. Be creative and listen for how he leads you throughout your education.
10) Keep up with your contacts back home.
Do you have a sending church or sponsoring organization? Did you leave important friends and family behind? Don’t forget about them. During your time in seminary, God may surprise you with the details of your calling, but that’s never an excuse for keeping people in the dark once you do discover your calling. Try to honor the commitments you made with sending updates and newsletters. And when you do visit, be humble about the knowledge you’re gaining in seminary. It’s usually just enough to be dangerous. In the words of John Wesley, “An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” (for more on this, you really should read the classic A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke)
11) Don’t give up when it becomes difficult.
You’re preparing for ministry—how hard could it be? Very. You’ll quickly come to appreciate ten dollar words like exegesis and the skills required of Inductive Bible Study, crafting a sermon, navigating denominational requirements, maintaining spiritual rhythms, honoring and loving your family, etc. Don’t get discouraged! After your first semester or your first year, you may take an honest appraisal of your call to seminary (read, graduate-level) education, however, don’t let the difficulty of it be what sets you off-course. Nearly everyone in seminary finds it to be challenging, and your professors are usually highly understanding and more grace-giving than they let on.
12) Above all else, love God and press into Him.
There’s a running joke that seminary should actually be called cemetery, because it’s a place where the passionate faith of so many ministers has turned into skepticism, cynicism, and crises of faith. But as J. D. Walt points out, it really is a cemetery—it’s the place where you’re called to go and die to yourself and press into the abundant life God has for you. And because “seminary” comes from the Latin word for seedbed, seminary is also the place most conducive for personal growth in holy love for God. So pursue devotional reading of Scripture with an equal measure of passion as in your studies, don’t relent in your prayer life, and try to find a small group of spiritual friends you can journey together with.
#7 is invaluable. Regarding #6, keep in mind that seminary is not a “glorified” camp meeting! As deeply spiritual as seminary can be, it is still an academic institution. At the same time, never forget that the Holy Spirit works in all places – the chapel, the classroom, the prayer room, the dorm room, the lunch room and even the President’s boardroom!
Recognize it is not a degree, or a qualification – but a calling! Remember why you are there, and who called you…