My Experience as a Second-Career Student at Princeton Seminary, part 2

May 26, 2013 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

This post is a continuation of post 1 from yesterday.  I recommend that you read that post first.

2.  I feel like I don’t know as much as others.   If your first degree wasn’t in Religion or Theology or something along those lines, then you will enter seminary knowing less than some of your classmates.  Some of them will take the option to test out of classes like Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, or Systematic Theology based on their undergraduate work.  Others will in essence take those classes over again.  In your first year, it will be common for you to hear terms in class that you have never heard, but that others around you understand completely.

DON’T panic.  You can catch up.  Google is your friend – most of the names and terms that you will hear are easily defined online.  I remember the first time in Old Testament class that I was taking notes, and an unfamiliar name came up.  I looked puzzled, and a young friend leaned over and wrote the correct spelling of the name on my notes.  It was a great help.  One staff member who was herself a second-career student at PTS told me the story of how she heard the term “hermeneutics” and wrote in a paper about the theologian “Herman Neutics”.

DO get help from others.  The professors and teaching assistants understand and are usually willing to help you catch up.  Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament class is not intended as a “weed out” class – the professors truly want you to get through and do your best.  The same goes for the language classes.  Your fellow classmates will also be willing to help – both the young and the old.

DO know that the situation will reverse itself later.  In your second and third years, the classes shift from those with a flood of information in huge lectures to classes that require more thinking and discussion in smaller settings.  Your life experience and work experience will be of benefit to you.  You may be taking preaching and have to write a funeral sermon, and some of your classmates may have never attended a single funeral.  You may take a speech class where you learn to say the Words of Institution for Communion, and your years of hearing them said over and over will greatly help you memorize.  In a pastoral care class you may be called upon to role play a situation that you’ve experienced, while your younger classmates have not.  At this point, your willingness to share your life and experience will help them.

Also, you have undoubtedly worked in the world, and the same practical work skills (organization, time management, self-direction) will be of great benefit as you learn how to study again.  The seminary degree is one where doing all of the assigned work is impossible – you have to figure out what readings must be read, and how to skim them, and how to write.  It’s likely that you’ve done that in your career.

3. I feel like I’m missing out on things.  This is particularly true if you live off campus.  A lot of the community building that happens takes place in the evenings, in the dorms, and between the apartments.  If you come on campus for classes, bring your lunch and eat alone, and then go home you will miss out on community.  This can also happen if you live in the dorms or apartments.

There are a few ways to fix this.

DO eat lunch at the dining hall every day that you can, even if you bring your own lunch.  A lot of the social structure of the campus gets built in the dining hall.  DO join groups of people that you don’t know periodically.  DO meet friends of friends – some of my strongest friendships can come from those connections.

DO come back to the main campus at night for events and organizations and special worship services.  Some of the neatest things that happen at seminary happen outside of the classroom.  I participate in the handbell choir that meets every Wednesday for rehearsal, and that time of the week feeds me.  Others attend worship services with groups or participate in other organizations.

DO socialize with classmates of every age outside of class.  Outside of lunch, too.

Now, this may sound like you have to be a social butterfly, maximum participation extrovert.  That’s not true at all.  You know when you need to study, and you know when you need to take time for yourself.  I’m a fairly strong introvert, and I manage this.  One thing that I learned the hard way (by almost burning out) is that seminary forms all sides of you – the academic, the spiritual, the social, the practical.  You won’t make it if you concentrate on homework and reading.  Sometimes you have to make the decision that right now, this minute, it’s more important for me to connect with other people than to keep up in a specific class.  And you have to listen for the working of the Holy Spirit in those moments.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is to sit in the dining hall hoping that someone will sit and distract you from work.  Because those conversations turn out more often than you’d think to be important moments in your formation.

4. A few last thoughts.

Attend chapel.  It’s worth it.  And the preacher is often a senior.  Someday you will be that senior, and want others to attend your service.

The schedule isn’t set up for those who work.  It’s just not – that’s not their priority.  Even if you construct the perfect schedule that balances your classes and work and whatever outside life needs there are, it’s not going to work every week.  Shoot, the schedule isn’t even set up for those who have Field Ed (except for Wednesday afternoon), and that’s a requirement.  Here’s the thing – ministry isn’t on a perfect schedule either.  You have to learn to be flexible, and to build resources into your life to compensate for those unexpected emergencies.

Ask for help when you need it – with schoolwork, with mental health, in spiritual crisis, when your car breaks down.  There’s an aura at Princeton that seems to require us to act as though we have our stuff together all of the time.  The truth is the total opposite – nobody has their stuff together all of the time, and it’s rare that any person has all of their stuff together at the same time.  The school is starting to work on breaking down this need for apparent perfection.  What that means for us is that we need to work on it from the other side.  Let your dirty laundry show some, let people know that you need help, and offer help to others.  I hear from others that this is an issue unique to Princeton.  Let’s fix it.

Have fun.  It’s not possible to study and work and pray and such all of the time.  Be sure to take time out to enjoy yourself and recharge your batteries.  A 20-minute power nap helps many people to work for several more hours.  It’s the same with fun – a fun afternoon helps you to work all weekend to finish a paper.  All work and no play makes you a terrible minister.


Last – if you are planning to attend Princeton or considering it, please feel free to contact me with questions.  If you will be there for the 2013-14 year (my senior year), please find me and we’ll chat.  I live in the area and expect to do so after graduation, so I’ll be around.


My Experience as a Second-Career Student at Princeton Seminary, part 1

May 25, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

I’m a senior at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I’m also a second-career student – my first career was in the Information Technology field for 20 years.  I live off campus at my home near the seminary.  This makes me unusual at PTS.  I’m an odd duck, but this duck has learned to swim.  Hopefully other ducks can learn from my experiences.

This seminary is really set up to provide a residential experience.  The dormitories are surrounding the quad and are near the classroom and other buildings.  The apartment housing is separated from the main campus by several miles, but forms a community of its own.  PTS has intentionally created a residential community where people will interact outside of class as well as inside.  Living off campus I miss some of that.  A duck in another pond, as it were, visiting occasionally.

The student population is overwhelmingly in their twenties.  There is a small but significant percentage of people who are older – anywhere from thirties through sixties – but for the most part the students either came straight from college or had a couple of years between college and seminary.  In my mid-40’s, that makes me unusual.  An older duck.

Last, the seminary does not allow part-time study for the M.Div. degree.  There is limited part-time study for the M.A. degrees.  There are very few evening classes and I have yet to see one designed for Masters’ students.  The expectation is that school is your first priority.

It’s important to know that the seminary knows that it has set things up a certain way, catering to the needs of mostly-younger students who live on campus.  It’s not designed to make things harder for second-career students or to turn them away but we need to realize that we are a small population.  There are beginning to be signs that they recognize the need for part-time studies, and that the percentage of students who are older is increasing.  But so far, it’s a twentysomething full-time on-campus world.

I think that I have found my way through that.  It’s easier for me because my wife works and has a well-paying job, so I am able to attend school full-time without needing a lot of outside work.  It’s also nice to come home to a single-family house rather than a dorm room or apartment on campus.  But I miss things that happen on campus and it’s a different experience.

Here are some thoughts on what you should know and what I recommend that you do if you’re a duck like me, in order to get the fullest experience on campus.  The first thought today, another three in the next post.

One note – there is a lot of “us and them” language below.  It really doesn’t work that way most of the time at school.  It’s more like each of us is at a different place along different spectra – maturity, age, spiritual growth, academic achievement, etc.

1. They’re so YOUNG.  Yeah, they are.  It’s a bit jarring the first time that you have a conversation with someone and realize that they were born after you graduated from high school.  Some of your classmates are about the right age to be your children.  For some older students, their children are older than their classmates.  It takes some getting used to.  You will make references to things from your youth that get blank stares.  You will remember events that were just history book entries for your classmates.

You have something to learn from them.  They speak the language of younger generations, and you will someday minister to those generations.  Many of your younger peers come from college with a Religion degree, while your degree may be in something else entirely (in my case, Computer Science).  They will know things that are really useful in class that you have to catch up on.  They may have greater technological savvy than you do (though maybe not – at seminary we joke that there is no math requirement).

Even more important than that is the fact that we all grow and mature at different rates.  You will be more mature than some of your younger peers.  Some of them may be more mature than you.  All of us are on a journey of growth and discernment of vocation and theology and becoming who God calls us to be.  We are developing our pastoral identities.  We have something to learn from the younger folks, and they have something to learn from us.

So a few things to do.  DO make friends with younger folks.  Try to experience life through their eyes as well as through your own.  You will be helpful with life experience.  They will be helpful with perhaps more energy than you have, and their differing life experiences.  Spend time with them doing what they enjoy.  Introduce them to what you enjoy.  Share common enjoyment.  You’ll find that you learn as much from them as they do from you, and that this a gift to both parties.

DO make friends with the other second-career people on campus.  PTS runs a second-career group (up to 40) and a third-career group (40 and older) through the chapel office.  Take advantage of those lunches.  Find the people that you can talk to when you need to have a conversation without explaining Reagan’s presidency or the Saturday-morning cartoons that you watched when you were a kid.  Find the people who learned to learn the same way that you did so many years ago.  Find the people who share the life stage that you are in, and know what you are dealing with.

This list continues tomorrow with part 2.

The Temptation of the First Career for the Second-Career Student

October 25, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Job Search, Princeton Seminary, Seminary 

As I’ve said before, I’m a second-career student at Princeton Seminary.  My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, and I spent 20 years (more or less) working in Information Technology in various capacities.  A few years back after a few prior years of wondering whether I belonged in corporate America and in IT, I experienced a layoff.  That caused me to spend some time thinking about my future, and I decided that some form of ministry was my future.  I’m in my second year at Princeton Seminary.  I’ve had one very successful summer serving as a Chaplain intern, and I’m interning in a church right now.

One of the things that we are reminded of, often, regularly, all the time, is that we who are in seminary (and the ordination process) are discerning our call and vocation.  We are taught that serving the church in some form (pastor, chaplain, seminary staff, etc) are a few possible vocations, but that God calls many people to a “secular” vocation.  In that secular vocation, people are called to do their secular job while living their Christian identity.  Hardly a week goes by without someone asking us what our sense of call is.  I felt a strong call to chaplaincy this summer, and I’m exploring my sense of call to congregational ministry in my current Field Ed placement.

For the first half of the serious discernment about going to seminary, I was also looking for a job in my first career.  Many people had told me that discernment is better as a choice between two options, rather than a yes/no choice of one option.  There were a few times before I made the decision that I needed to seriously look at seminary when I almost was chosen for a job.  I feel that these were God’s way of nudging or shoving me to seminary.  The last was a position as a project manager at a local community college, that I missed by “this much” according to someone at the college.  That was really the final straw that pushed me to seminary.  Interestingly, about a year later (after I’d been accepted, while I was waiting for the fall semester) I got a call back from that college asking if I might be interested in interviewing again for the position – it was open once more.   I refused immediately – I had already decided on a different path.

Recently, school has been taking most of my time.  For some reason, this middler year at Princeton, with Princeton’s new schedule and Field Ed is requiring a LOT of my time.  At the same time, I’ve been offered the chance to work on several small IT projects – some web development, some email migration, some “fix my computer” work.  I’ve had to turn down a few and make sure that the rest understand that I’m very busy with school and not as available as I have been in the past (particularly the year before school started).

At the same time, there’s a temptation.  The IT work is easy for me, compared to my seminary work.  There’s a reason for that … I have years of experience in IT and only a small amount of experience in seminary.  I’m doing a lot of “first time I’ve done this” at seminary and in my internships.  When a friend needed a quick blog installation last summer, I was able to get a framework installed in an hour – domain name and all.  It has taken me more time than that to write a few prayers for Field Ed (it’s faster now).  So there’s a temptation to say – “I can DO my first job, why don’t I stop school and go back?”

In the stressed student, this creates a few mental options for what is happening:

  1. It’s a test.  God is making sure that you are really committed to the path that you are on.
  2. You’re going down the wrong path.  God never really meant for you to go to seminary – you misunderstood and it’s not too late to turn around.
  3. So somebody offered you a chance to make a little money doing what you used to do.  Why not?  You can do the job, and it’s easy for you.
  4. Your future will have pieces of your past and pieces of your future. Keep up the skills.

I’ve tended to see these recent requests in light of option 3, after spending a little time flipping back and forth between 1 and 2.  In between flash cards and readings and writing papers, of course.

I believe that in my case, option 4 is the most likely.  Why would God call someone this late in life and just throw away all of the skills and experience that were built over those years?  At every church that I’ve interacted with, I’ve used my IT skills.  Right now I’m scheduled to be the computer/projector guy on Sunday at Field Ed, and I’m working on converting the church’s email to Google.  But those aren’t the skills that give me life.  Helping people understand God and the message of Christ, helping them process grief or loss or celebration, helping them to worship God – those are the things that are giving me life.  The IT job is fun at times – don’t get me wrong.  But right now I just can’t see doing it full-time again.  I can see ministry in some form being my future full-time – with a little project management and a little IT work in the mix.

And yet, it’s tempting to look back.  So I must turn my head and look forward again.