This post is the first of a three part series. (Beginning, Middle, End) Owen Strachan is a Southern Seminary alumni and is presently a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can also listen to our podcast interview with Owen reflecting on Southern Seminary.
Every Christian seminary is different, and SBTS is no exception to this rule. Our seminary has its own quirks, its own flavor, its own strengths, its own weaknesses. And yet we can also guess that the experience of a Southern student has much in common with that of a Trinity student, a Southwestern student, a Westminster student. Whether in Illinois, Texas, Philadelphia or Louisville, every seminarian goes through certain seasons, certain periods defined by common trials and joys. It is the purpose of this series to briefly reflect on the various seasons of a seminarian through my own three and a half years at SBTS. I hope that my recollections interspersed with more general commentary on seminary life will prompt recollection about your own seminary experience. In covering this subject, then, we remember and celebrate the experiences of that uniquely blessed and taxed creature: the Christian seminarian.
The Seasons of a Seminarian: Beginning
We come to seminary from a wide range of backgrounds. Some have worked in campus ministry, some in local churches, some have been missionaries, some were accountants or lawyers or investment bankers in past times. This is part of what makes seminary a profitable experience: the wealth of diversity accrued to a campus that pursues a common goal, namely, training for the ministry of the gospel. I came to Southern after an action-packed year in Washington, DC, where I interned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the U. S. Department of State. Like many seminarians, I had thought it best to take a bit of time off from school following college graduation, as I was a bit weary of books and quizzes and papers and classes. After a year in “local church bootcamp” (I assure you, an affectionate moniker for the CHBC internship and church experience), I felt ready for the Christian academy. Like many prospective seminarians, I knew some theology and had read through the Bible, but I had little sense of the bigger picture behind it all. I wanted to really know the Bible, to be able to read it for myself in the original languages, and to learn the history, philosophy, and theology that it birthed. I was old enough to know a little, but young enough to be aware of the same. I was young and hungry, and seminary was the answer.
But which one? There are a number of evangelical seminaries in North America, and they all have distinctive pluses and minuses. Some are better situated than others; some offer more rigor than others; some are more ministry minded than others; and not insignificantly for the seminarian demographic, some are more expensive than others. In my personal assessment of the North American seminaries, SBTS offered the best education for the lowest price. Plus, I knew a number of folks at the school, and I was impressed with Dr. Al Mohler, the only Southern faculty member (and perhaps the only Southern Baptist) my New England ears had ever heard of. With that criterion, and a healthy dose of advice from several men who knew me well, my application was in the mail, and I was set to sail for Louisville, KY, a place I had encountered only in a couple of quick viewings of the Kentucky Derby.
Seminary experiences prior to matriculation obviously vary to a great degree, but there is commonality for many seminarians in that many students move to a new culture in a new location. This reality is exciting even as it is testing. When one senses a call to ministry, sees that call confirmed by one’s church, and determines that seminary is the next step, there is only one act left to do after deciding where to go: to begin life in a place far from where we lived before. After spending most of my life in a small coastal town, I moved to Louisville, which felt to a Yankee like the heart of the South—though I was informed by my deep-south brothers that Louisville felt to them like the North! For the next three and a half years, Louisville would become my home. As with many of my fellow students, I began the long and conflicted process of adjusting to life in a place I never thought I would be, filled with people I never planned to meet and experiences I never intended to have.
The early period of seminary life can be a bit jarring. Students well beyond the Louisville campus will resonate with these words. For many of us, the cushy days of college are long gone. Now, we support ourselves, we make our own decisions, and—oh frightening thought!—we cook our own meals. Gone is the campus dining hall with its bountiful spread, its plenteous harvest, its solicitous staff with their freshly chopped items for our overloaded omelettes and waffles. Present is the dreaded Totino’s pizza, the ten cent Ramen, the versatile chip-and-salsa combination. Gone is the financial ease of parent-supported existence; present is the UPS job, the Starbucks barista career, the odd vocation you never thought you would have—childcare, insurance sales, basket-weaving (just threw that one in, though someone out there probably does it!). Oh yes, there’s also classes. For those taking a full-time load, this means a delicate balance of three or four classes, mandatory reading, weekly quizzes, Greek vocab with seemingly twelve syllables, hollow Hebrew vowels that simply do not behave, job responsibilities, church involvement, friends, and badly cooked, undernourishing meals. Suffice it to say that those little red lines you get in your eyes from lack of sleep become so common as to very nearly be fashionable. Yet though the early period can be a bit rough, all this academic exercise and investment is quite rewarding and deeply gratifying to those who have waited for such an education for a good long while. Coming from a very secular college, one that offered gay and lesbian studies as a minor, I was moved by the penchant of my professors to open class in prayer, I was gratified to discuss biblical texts with my classmates, and I was ministered to even as I learned by lectures that were eloquent and profound, stirring and informative. Never having been educated in a Christian environment, I found Southern a refreshing change from the secular academy.
Seminarians are often ministry-minded and, increasingly in the current day, concerned with service and involvement in a local church. A good number of students come from a healthy, vibrant church (or campus ministry) and still have the glow of that experience on their face when they arrive at seminary. Such students are not necessarily in for a let-down, as seminary communities typically have at least 14,000 churches, many of them quite healthy, but most are in for some sort of adjustment. When you’ve been discipled, helped, taught, led well, trained, loved generously, helped financially, and commissioned by a certain church filled with people who you love and who love you, it is not always easy to transition. You can see the strain in some students as it can take a long time to find a new church, a problem exacerbated by frequent trips back, which can be helpful but also only increase the longing for one’s prior congregation. After a semester or so, though, most seminarians have settled in somewhere and are beginning to form meaningful attachments and to invest in important ministries in their new church home. Depending on the health of one’s previous experience, twinges for one’s prior church will still hit and may resurface even years later. One supposes that this is not something to be scoffed at; no, such pangs are a tangible reminder that we are not in heaven yet. We must suffer the pain of separation throughout our lives. Ironically, the sadness is never stronger than when an old season passes, a new one begins, and we must say goodbye to what has passed, however good, however happy.
The first part of seminary is filled with contrasting moods and thoughts. The seminarian is expectant, but struggles with doubt; excited, but sometimes melancholy; eager, but one of many newcomers. The season of beginning will likely be marked by times of great classroom discovery, as when Greek or Hebrew or church history begins to take shape before his eyes and make sense. It will contain disappointment, as when he attempts to reconcile an unjust paper grade (perception is everything, of course) with a desire to avoid complaining. It will mean some likely measure of spiritual dryness, as the heavy workload saps the seminarian of time he used to have for devotions and memorization and excitable conversations about missions and Piper’s theology and evangelism. In addition, the seminarian may find a dearth of meaningful discussion about his studies outside of the classroom. That was one of the greatest surprises of my seminary career—the fact that most seminarians didn’t debate theology very much. I was looking forward to this but soon found out that most seminarians were so busy and were already thinking so much about theology that they didn’t have much time or energy for making much headway in the supralapsarian/infralapsarian quandary. For some, seminary means loneliness, as the absence of a spouse hits hard when surrounded by married people and when away from a clearly defined group of friends and an active campus life. Seminary is fundamentally a serious place, and it should be, though this realization can be difficult for students looking to recreate the community of a campus fellowship or collegiate ministry. Times of joy are balanced by times of soberness. This is natural, and it is quite common for new students.
In sum, then, the first season of the seminarian is filled with challenge, with learning, with blessing. At the end of the day, seminary is a uniquely profitable experience, and it is a great thing to have godly instructors training one in the mysteries and profundities of the Christian faith. Now a graduate of the SBC’s flagship school, I well recall early systematic classes with Mohler, great church history lectures with Wills, and incisive exegesis classes with Seifrid. In such environments, the young seminarian is assured of his decision. He is picking up tools for ministry and is shaping a future. The Lord has led him here, and the Lord will see him through. He is one of the few who has the privilege of studying the only divine text given to man, and in quiet moments, he realizes this, and he gives thanks to God. The ramen may be overcooked, the midterms may be impending, but the student has made his beginning, and God is rewarding him with knowledge, with hope, and with character that, though incipient, will stamp him the rest of his days as a Christian seminarian, a steward of the gospel of the One whose name is beginning and end.