This post is the second 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.
Seasons of a Seminarian: Middle
The middle part of seminary is a time of restlessness, uncertainty, and major life transitions. The seminarian has made his beginning, and now he enters a period in which he must persevere in faith as the seminary course stretches on. He has much ahead of him, and he will feel this keenly.
At the middle point of seminary, most seminarians have worked through a number of the more basic classes of their degree program. They are now in the thick of systematic classes, reading-intensive electives, and exegetical papers. Most students have gained a sense of the degree program that best fits them. Some transfer into a language-heavy program, others decide that they want more flexibility in their degree. Many students have identified a professor or two they hope to take and get to know; witness the “Wellumites,” who take seemingly every class the man offers (there is a sizeable corps of them, and understandably so). Seminary is now as ever a difficult balance of school, work, family and church. The seminarian in this season is happy as he looks back at what he has already taken and accomplished; yet he is also sobered by the workload ahead. The middle point of seminary is perhaps the most difficult, the longest-lasting, the period in which one has to fight for joyful contentment in the face of remaining requirements.
It is at this point in many seminarian’s lives that they most keenly feel their singleness, if indeed they have come to seminary as a single person. By now, they know a good many married people. They are also observing a number of their friends as they fall in love and proceed towards engagement. This setting creates a holy restlessness in the hearts of many students. The excitement of the early days has worn off, the responsibilities incumbent upon them are many and varied, and they especially feel the need for someone to share life with, to make a home with, to minister with. I observed this in myself and my friends. For a while, it was fun to go to various events and to hang out with friends of the same sex. After a year or so, though, one felt the pull toward marriage. Some of us, of course, had long felt that pull, but let’s just say that the pull grew in intensity in this period. Singleness is fine, and has a few decided benefits, but to many of us, marriage loomed large. Thus I watched as many of my friends, with some false starts, found their way to love, and jumped the shark that bites so many seminarians: lonely singleness. The middle point of seminary in particular seems to mark this shift for many students.
At the same time, this season brings increased involvement with one’s local church. The desire to do ministry, to spread the gospel and advance the kingdom, waxes strong in the seminarian’s heart, even as he realizes that involvement will only tax his already busy life. But many of us could not pass up such opportunities, and we subsequently tried to do the best we could with the time we had. For me, that meant leading college ministry at my little church, Third Avenue Baptist. I wasn’t able to do much at Third, especially compared to what I would have liked to do, but we were able to begin to engage the University of Louisville campus, and to see a small but passionate contingent of believers join our church and become active members in it. That was an exciting development for me, even as I was not able to get on the campus and evangelize. This is part of the difficulty of seminary: so many good things to do, so little time to do them. Many students, however, still attempt to do something, and find that even their small steps are rewarded by a God who is generous to all who serve Him.
The seminarian in this middle season is increasingly approaching a crossroads. In the midst of all that he is doing, he attempts to begin to figure out what to do in the years following seminary. Should he step right into pastoral ministry? Should he pursue further studies? Should he take some time off to work and figure things out? Such questions confront the seminarian and his family. This period of time includes much soul-searching, much prayer, much pursuit of wise counsel as the student attempts to chart a course for himself and those he loves. He knows that the Lord’s generous providence directs all that he does, but he also recognizes that he is responsible for wise planning and careful thinking. Many seminarians find this a time of hope, of frustration, of uncertainty, for the future is both exciting and veiled.
The middle period of seminary is one of paradox. Luther might instruct us that all of life is paradox, and he would probably be right, but the seminarian in this season will quickly agree that these are some of the toughest—and some of the best—years of his life. He lives in this season in two worlds. He is, after all, half-formed. He is trained, but he is trained in part. He has zeal, but he does not yet have knowledge. He has hopes, but in his honest moments he acknowledges that his hopes lie just beyond his grasp. He desperately wishes to share the gospel, to engage his fellow coffee-shop patrons as he completes his required reading, and yet he is aware of the need to complete his reading in order to learn (and, not unimportantly, to pass). He feels guilty over his lack of church involvement even as he sometimes struggles with the duties of church membership when laid aside those of school, work, family and other pursuits. If married, he loves his wife—he treasures her as his choicest gift—and yet he sees her so little, and sometimes sins against her in the few moments he has with her, and ends up frustrated with the whole thing. He wants to be a church leader, but his church is packed with seminarians, and he knows that he must wait his time and be patient for recognition by the church. The student is restless, weary, excited, joyful, sometimes down, often lost in thought. He wishes to be a shepherd of home and church, and yet his own devotions suffer under the weight of his schedule, and his heart sometimes is cold, and his mind quickly distracted, and his times of prayer and Bible reading do not accomplish what they used to. He needs sleep, but sleep is hard to come by. Seminary is great, it is a blessing, but it is not easy. It is a marathon, sometimes a grind, and the seminarian is only at the 13-mile mark.
There is much good ahead, however. I can say this as an MDiv graduate. We’ll cover that in the final installment of this series. For now, it is enough to say that there is much good ahead. Furthermore, in this middle season, there is much good now. I can recall being able to read a line of Hebrew on my own for the first time. I remember memorizing ten chapters of Isaiah for a Gentry midterm—in the original—and I recall how profitable and surprising that was. I remember doing an exegesis paper and absolutely loving it. Here I was, a young man, and I was arguing with scholars, attempting with them to wrangle the meaning out of a difficult text. I remember a seminar with Shawn Wright on fundamentalism and evangelicalism that opened up a new area of church history for me. Our discussions were stimulating to such a degree that we frequently had more to say than time to say it, and almost all the students wrote papers much longer than they had to, simply because they enjoyed the class and its material so much. That class sparked interest in a topic—Harold Ockenga and the Neo-Evangelicals—that I hope to fashion into a dissertation that will benefit the church and the academy.
I remember moving prayer meetings at church, playing with my friend Brad Wheeler’s adorable children, discussing with my co-worker Greg Gilbert matters of foreign policy and deep theology and everything in between (and thoroughly enjoying it). I remember nourishing shepherding group meetings in which I learned about complementarianism and the person of the Holy Spirit and the importance of a Trinitarian-centric theology. I also remember a terrific shepherding group with Dr. Bruce Ware; furthermore, I remember a particularly terrific result of that group, namely, an acquaintance with Dr. Ware’s daughter Bethany, which resulted in a dating relationship that resulted in an engagement that resulted in a wedding that has resulted in much happiness and thankfulness to God. The middle period of seminary has its tests, its challenges, but for the one who walks faithfully with his God through the grace of God, seminary has its distinct joys, its irreplaceable pleasures, its lasting memories.
So the seminarian moves through the middle season of seminary, and grows even as he moves. His faith is being tested, and he is faced with much to handle, but there is great good in the works. He is learning that he can support a family, that God has made him strong for the benefit of others, that he is being shaped by his experiences. He begins to realize that there is no going back; he has made his start, his faith is maturing, and when all is said and done, he will have acquired a body of knowledge, a set of skills, a heightened and broadened character. He has done much, and there is much to do, but God is in this, and God will bring him through, and God will use his years in some way to bring Himself glory. Through the midterms, through the books, through the fights, through the bleary eyes, this is the trust, and the hope, and the call of the seminarian.