Unsolicited advice for the young seminarian

Melissa, the always-insightful proprietor of one of my favorite blogs, has evidently had some highly irritating encounters with some of the arrogant young punks among her classmates, prompting her to offer seven points of advice to "You 23-year old, straight-from-undergrad, ain’t never known nothin’ but school and your mama MDiv student at Princeton Seminary."

I was once just such a student (not at Princeton, but at a comparable school, and I hope I wasn't too much of an arrogant punk, but I was certainly young and never knew nothin' but school and my mama). Now I am -- or will soon be -- Melissa's counterpart -- a student returning for a second Master's degree,* older and wiser-enough to know better than to call myself wise, still pursuing the elusive target of becoming whatever it is that I am going to be when I grow up, while also getting used to the idea that I already am who I am going be when I grow up.

So what would I say now to my younger self and her peers, just starting seminary or divinity school more-or-less straight out of college, from the safe vantage point of not having to actually interact with any of them?

1. Relax -- you don't have to have it all figured out by the time you graduate.  You are probably in a big hurry to get a start on "real life," while also being somewhat afraid of it -- which may be part of the reason you're in grad school. (Not that I blame you. I don't envy anyone trying to find their first real job -- or any job -- in this economy.)  Three more years of schooling feels like an eternity before you can get on to the next thing you're going to do, but at the same time, you may feel like you're already behind.

Take a deep breath. It's going to be okay.

Your first sermon doesn't have to be an oratorical masterpiece. You don't have to have the perfect words of solace and wisdom the first -- or the thousandth -- time you try to offer comfort to someone in distress.  You aren't hopelessly behind the curve because you haven't yet read the book that everyone else seems to know (or rather, you are hopelessly behind, in the sense that you'll never get around to reading all the books you could read, but we are all hopelessly behind, even your professors, and somehow we all still manage).

You got to where you are now be being a striver, and that's good, to an extent. But keep that perfectionism up in ministry or the academy or wherever you're going next, and it's going to be the death of you. Give yourself, and those around you, a break. You'll have all the time you need to get to where you need to go.

2.  You may not get into that Ph.D. program.  If you do win the academic lottery and get into a good Ph.D. program, you have a very good chance of not completing the degree. (Ahem.)  If you do complete the degree, you have a very good chance of not ever getting a tenure-track job at a college, university, or seminary.

You don't necessarily need to know right now what your plan B is going to be, but beware of putting all your eggs in the doctoral basket. If ministry is your plan B (and it is perfectly okay for ministry to be a plan B, although if you find yourself thinking of it as a last resort, you might not be cut out for it), take that preparation as seriously as that for your desired academic career. If you don't have any idea what your plan B is, read "So What Are You Going to Do with That?"

3. If you think you want to get married someday and haven't done much dating yet, now would be a really good time to start.  It's easy to think you'll have time for fun or frivolous stuff like dating once you're done with school, but (1) dating isn't frivolous, and (2) life never gets less busy. Moreover, finding people to date when you're a pastor is really tricky. You think it's tough to find a date now? Try finding one when you're living in a town with a population under 10,000 where just about everyone you know thinks of you as a spiritual authority figure and is ethically off-limits.  So open your eyes, put down the books, and get out there.

This advice is not intended for those who have attached themselves to an almost uninterrupted string of romantic partners since the age of 14 or so -- for you, this might be a very good time to take a break from dating.

This advice is also not intended to rub salt in the wounds of those who have been seeking a partner without much success. If you need to step back from the pursuit for a while and concentrate on your studies, that's a legitimate choice. It's better to be comfortable with your singleness than desperate for a partner.

If you just really haven't given much thought to dating, though, realize that it doesn't usually just happen like a bolt out of the blue. Go to social events, meet people, allow (encourage!) your friends to set you up, accept invitations, ask someone out, don't be afraid that you don't have the time or emotional energy: this is worth doing.

Full disclosure: I dated more in seminary than in the entire rest of my life combined, which still amounts to hardly at all. My dating track record in seminary is distinctly underwhelming: a few first dates who never called again and one brief and disastrous relationship. But you know what? I'm glad I did it. Even the parts I wish I had handled differently, I learned about myself and how to relate to others.  See #1 above: I didn't have it all figured out. And that's okay.

4.  Learn to master, rather than be mastered by, your technology.  I don't quite get how your minds work -- it seems like you're always on, always reachable, always plugged in. It may be much harder for you than for previous generations to read difficult texts and contemplate complex ideas.  Learn to disconnect from the grid enough to connect to great ideas and real human beings.

5.  Pray with other people.  Seminary can wreck havoc on your spiritual life if you let it. Private prayer can become more difficult when you spend most of your time thinking and talking about God and/or when your internship has you constantly leading other people in prayer and worship. So, don't limit your prayer life to private prayer. Go to chapel religiously. Find a prayer partner or group. This is the most important piece of advice I can offer you. My prayer group was my lifeline -- particularly in the aftermath of the brief and disastrous dating relationship mentioned above. If you can find friends like the praying friends I found, you will be blessed indeed.

6.  Be kind.  Particularly to those who seem to think you're just another arrogant young punk. You may find they have a lot to teach you.

*I guess maybe I haven't mentioned here yet that I'm going back to school -- I announced it on facebook, but I forget that not everyone who can see this blog is my facebook friend. So: I'm going back to school. And I'm quite happy about it. More on that another time.


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