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.


Support – does it have to be for everything?

July 1, 2008 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

In an off-blog discussion about churchy things and blogs, the following question came up.

Can you support the church, but not support absolutely everything the church believes or does?  Can you be critical of the church on a specific issue while still supporting it in general?

This has implications at all levels.

The concept is central to my personal blogging dilemma – can you criticize the local congregation on a blog?  Are you being unsupportive by being critical on one issue, or do you have to evaluate the entirety of your reactions/words/writings about the congregation?

It also has implications about unity, purity and peace within the church.  Can you disagree with what another church member or congregation or presbytery is doing, but still be a supporter of the church?  Does your support of one or many facets of the church require the support of ALL facets?

Or are we stuck with absolutes:  Never criticize your congregation in public.  Never criticize the denomination.  If the church or even one member does or says something that you disagree with, you have to either leave or force the member or church to stop.

This reminds me of an old story.  A woman was talking about her husband to their children.  This man, living in the St. Louis area, was subscribing by mail to the Mountain Mail newspaper of Socorro, New Mexico.  When she was asked why, she explained that he used to subscribe to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, but then they printed something he didn’t like in an editorial and he canceled his subscription.  He tried the New York Times, the Chicago Times, the Washington Post, but canceled them all when he read something he didn’t like.  He was now forced to get his news from this tiny newspaper many states away.  And she wasn’t even sure how long this paper would survive with him.

What do you think?  Is forbearance required?  Do we have to put up with hearing a certain amount of criticism of ourselves and our institutions?  Or are we supposed to unquestioningly support our church?

Why We Do It

October 8, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

If you ever wonder why youth leaders volunteer several hours per week (at least) to work with a bunch of teenagers, last night’s senior high youth group session provides the answer.

The youth director was very busy this week (Confirmation started yesterday) and didn’t really have time to plan out last night’s meeting.  God stepped in.

We had music on at the beginning, and the youth who were there were grooving to it.  The youth director tossed a few rhythm instruments around the room and we all jammed to the Beatles for a few minutes.  Later he taught us a few songs of faith from foreign lands, and the youth loved it.

For the rest of the meeting, we used M&M’s to talk about what happened in the last week.  Red was how you experienced love, Yellow was a joy, Brown was something bad that happened, Blue was when you were sad, Orange was when you saw God, etc.  This ultimately brought out some difficult issues that some of the youth were dealing with.  What was most heartening to me was that when this happened, other youth jumped in to help the youth in tears before the adult advisors could.  Because of our covenants the group provided the safe space required to work through the emotions.

The youth director said that this was by far the best evening he’d had since he started working here over a year ago.  It was decidedly the best that I’ve had.  THIS is what youth ministry is about.

What’s Going On? Redux

July 13, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Life, Religion, Work 

It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ll give you another wrap-up.

This past Monday at work I experienced what might be a last-straw event.  As last-straw events tend to be, this was a little thing that pointed out a pattern that I had seen before.  The short version – I was helping a co-worker and a Vice-President work through an issue.  The Vice-President said some rude things and cut off discussion with an “I make the decisions, I don’t have to listen to ideas I don’t like” attitude.  I responded by starting to walk away, and then returned to finish the discussion when drawn back by my co-worker.  I was upset and talked to my direct supervisor about the situation.  I was even more hurt later during a conversation with my co-worker.  She stated rather vehemently that she didn’t want to get involved because you can’t take on a Vice-President and it would only end up hurting both of us.  I found this ironic because I have fairly recently gone WAY out of my way to help this co-worker.  I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to work in an environment where power and position bring the privilege of behaving badly towards lower-level people.  I also expect myself and others to speak truth rather than avoiding conflict.  I really don’t think I fit in here anymore.

A confession:  My birthday is coming up rapidly.  This will be a year ending in “9”.  I kinda wish that nobody would notice this year.  (THis is NOT a veiled attempt to drag birthday wishes out of my readers – it’s an emotional statement.)

Last Sunday I went back to camp to help out with check-in again.  As it turns out this was a good idea; there were about 230 kids to check in – nearly every unit between just short of capacity and just over capacity.  We ended up dividing the medical form job that I learned the previous week between three people and were able to hang on and keep up.  I was only there for a few hours – I went to church back at home first and then drove to camp.  I didn’t stay for dinner – it was 94 in the shade and all those bodies in the very full dining hall would be … ripe.  Camp must really mean something to me to get me to drive 3 hours round-trip to spend 4-5 hours working.

I was scheduled to fly again tomorrow but the club canceled the flight – the plane I had booked needed a repair.  I just looked and another plane is scheduled to come out of maintenance just when I need it, so I don’t think I’ll chance scheduling that one.  I probably won’t get into the air this weekend, but that’s OK.  I have family stuff to do Sunday afternoon so Saturday I really need to spend the day on chores.

Job discernment continues.  I’m reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation right now.

That’s the roundup.  Lots going on in my head, but most people in my life wouldn’t notice.  The important people in my life do.

The Dangers of Being a Majority Supporter of a Minority Group

February 8, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Religion 

If you’re like me, you’re in a unique minority.  I’m white, male, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, live in the suburbs, protestant.  I’m a member of every majority group.  I AM WHITE BREAD.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), my genetic and environmental background have combined to form a desire for justice in my ethical framework.  I want to work hard for a society where personal attributes like gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic background do not have any effect on how a person is perceived.  We have a long way to go, but I really want to help get there.

This has drawn me to support, actively and passively, civil rights groups that I do not belong to.  In general this is fulfilling work – I am doing something to help people other than myself (a very Christian activity) and helping to reshape the world into a better place.

Unfortunately, I have found that there are a number of pitfalls to this activity.  Recently, I experienced some of them again.  My comments on the Washington State “Defense of Marriage Alliance” proposal drew some strong negative comments from members of the gay community, here and on other blogs and forums.  This echoed some more personal experiences that I had working even more closely with the Presbyterian gay rights movement about 12-15 years ago.

So, for your edification and to help me get past the pain recently experienced, here are some thoughts on what can go wrong when a member of the majority tries to work on behalf of a minority group.  These are generally addressed to the majority person trying to work on behalf of the minority.

1.  You will never be a member of the group.  Ironically, this can make you a 2nd class citizen in the minority’s community.

Don’t forget this – you are not and will never be a member of the minority (well, with sexual orientation or economic status that’s not strictly true, but you get the idea).  Some members of a particular minority are likely to view anyone not of that minority with serious doubt as to their commitment to “the cause”.  In some cases, there will never be trust of a non-minority person.

As long as you are willing to toe the party line, you are probably safe from criticism.  The minute that you choose to criticize the beliefs or tactics of the minority group (or even one faction of that group) you become open to having your sincerity doubted.  You may be attacked for being a 5th-columnist (someone who attacks from within) representing the oppressive majority or a group of such people.

In today’s civil rights movements, an insidious concept has been invented – a pathological fear or hatred of the minority.  This is true in some cases – burning a cross on the lawn of a black family shows a tendency to dislike black people.  However, this concept of psychological fear or hatred of a group has been turned into a widely-used insult.  Nowhere is this clearer than with the gay rights movement.  “Homophobia” is the term used to label those who do not believe that homosexuality (or bisexuality or transgender inclinations) is fully acceptable in today’s society.  A breakdown of the term itself would lead one to believe that homophobia is talking about fear of homosexuals.  (or perhaps fear of homogenized milk?)  In actual use it is an insult hurled at those who do not support full societal acceptance of homosexuality.

The problem with this insult is that in many cases the root definition is not true.  Most anti-gay people are not afraid of gay people.  They do not cringe in fear, crawl under their beds (or into closets?) and lock their door when two men walk down the street holding hands.  They have (to some degree and depth) made a personal judgment of the ethics and morals of homosexuality and rejected it.  No fear – just a personal decision.

So, back to our intrepid non-minority volunteer.  If you choose to openly criticize the beliefs or tactics of the minority group (or often any portion of it), prepare to be labeled with all of the bad attributes of those that you’ve chosen to fight against.  You will be seen as “one of them” and not “one of us”.  Your words will be devalued.  In short, the minority will try to make you feel as held down and victimized as they do.

Even worse – members of the minority itself experience this.  One member of the gay rights community talked to me about how any gay person who challenges the tactics of the group gets labeled as “self-loathing”.  He’s got his own internal homophobia.

I’m sorry – but this is all BS.  It’s just the use of names and labels in an attempt to control that majority volunteer.

2.  Members of the majority will decry you as well.

In order for there to be a civil rights struggle by a minority group, there must be members of the majority to oppress them.  (Side note – the oppression might no longer exist, but the fact that it once existed is enough to prolong the cause.  Ask a left-handed person.)  If you choose to be publicly associated with a minority group, you may draw the ire of members of the majority.  If you support minority group Z, you will be labeled as a Z-lover, and probably as a Y-hater.  You will be told that you (are you ready for this) have hatred towards your own people – your own self-loathing.

If the majority group has chosen to level morality charges against the minority, you will be open to them as well.  For gay rights, your sexuality and sexual behavior may be questioned.  You may be a “closeted gay”.  In racial conflicts, this used to lead to your ancestry being questioned – that you aren’t as “pure” as you thought.

Paradoxically, this criticism is often easier to take than the criticism from the minority group itself.  You are at least pointed in the right direction – you are taking fire from the front – from those that you have chosen to battle in your drive for equality for the minority group.  The attacks from the minority group will more often come from behind, forcing you to battle on both fronts at once (and stand sideways, apparently).

3.  You will be told that you “can’t understand” what the minority group is going through.

This is true.  You truly are unable to feel the day to day pain caused by attacks on you for what you are.  You might be part of one minority other than the one that you are speaking of, and in that case your pain is somewhat transferable.  If you are a member of more or less every majority – you truly are unable to feel the pain.

HOWEVER, you obviously have a reason to be battling on behalf of the minority.  You are expending energy and feeling pain (and joy sometimes) as you work for the cause.  These emotions may pale in comparison to what a member of the minority is going through, but you feel them nonetheless.

You are lucky in that you have an escape route – you can simply stop working on behalf of the minority.  It’s easy to melt back into the passive center of your majority group.  However, this too comes at a cost.  In order to stop the pain from your work on behalf of the minority, you must feel a different kind of pain caused by your decision to ignore your ethics and morals.  In order to avoid the pain caused by this work, you cause yourself new pain by not being true to yourself (and in some cases, not being true to your religious beliefs).  For those altruistic enough to try to help people without helping themselves in the process, turning your back is actually painful – an self-inflicted assault on your soul.

So what do you do?

Majority people helping a minority – remember that you truly cannot feel the pain of the minority.  Remember that you are working with wounded people – people who are under attack for being what God made them.  They will sometimes react illogically to you and to themselves.  Be sensitive, and try to learn as much as you can.  Avoid hot buttons.

Minority groups dealing with help from the majority – be patient.  Those who want to help you fall into two groups – those who truly care and those who want to appear to care.  Members of the latter group will generally fall away over time.  The former group are the folks that you want to keep – people who are doing this for no personal gain (other than maybe satisfaction of doing the right thing).  Help them understand the pressures that you face.  Teach them about your community.  And remember that they are unlearning behaviors taught to them by ignorant people – they will come around in time.

All – everybody has the right to their opinion.  Sometimes asserting that opinion may cause pain.  Sometimes that opinion is right.  Sometimes it is wrong.  Sometimes it is ignorant.  Educate each other.  Avoid using the tactics of hate and marginalization on each other.  You’re all facing in the same direction trying to accomplish the same goal – don’t confuse each other with the enemy.