How to prepare for seminary?

November 15, 2010 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

I’m in an unusual situation.  Most people don’t apply to seminary until near the application deadlines.  (Princeton Seminary’s deadline is February 15, and most apply in January or February.)  I am ten months from starting the Fall Term next year (or eight months if I take advantage of the Summer Language program) and I’ve already been accepted and have confirmed my attendance and paid the deposit.  Most people are also already doing something before seminary, either school or work.  I’m not – I’m at the end of a period of unemployment and I have a very-part-time business.  So I’m in the rare situation of having a lot of time before seminary starts and a lot of free time (whether I like it or not).

So I come to you, particularly those of you who have graduated from a seminary or are attending one now.

What would you do to get ready if you had a lot of time to do so?  What would you read?  What activities would you undertake?
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There are a few required activities that I will be undertaking related to both seminary and the PC(USA) Inquirer process.  I will be scheduling the required Career Counseling (ie. psych eval) soon.  And I have to work on getting my NJ state-required vaccinations.  But that’s about all I’ve come up with.

Help me out, either with comments here or on Facebook or twitter.  Thanks!

PresbyMEME: Why I am voting yes on Amendment 10a

November 12, 2010 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

Sometime between now and next Summer, presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be voting on changes to our Book of Order and Book of Confessions.  One of those changes is labeled Amendment 10-A, changing a paragraph in the Book of Order (G-6.0106b) that was added in 1997.  The current text of that paragraph reads:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

The new version would read:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

The history of this paragraph is unquestioned.  It was added to the Book of Order in 1997 in response to the controversy over the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer individuals to the offices of Deacon, Elder or Minister of the Word and Sacrament (with most of the controversy over Ministers).  The existing language is the only place in the Book of Order where an individual “sin” is chosen as something that would make an individual ineligible for ordained office.  (I use quotes around the word sin because I personally do not agree that homosexual activity is sin.)

Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, a friend of mine and moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the PC(USA), has created a meme in the blogging world around the voting on this amendment.  He has a list of questions and answers for those who support this change.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  I am not an elder or minister, and will not actually get to vote on this amendment.  But if I were able to vote, this is how I would vote.  I will be attending the meetings of presbytery dealing with this amendment as an observer.

So here goes:

Name, City State:  Mark Smith, Hamilton, NJ

I can be found on Twitter and Facebook.  (I’m protected on twitter but welcome follow requests)

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The FIRST reason that I would vote for this amendment is that it restores the Presbyterian principle that those responsible for determining the fitness for ordination of an individual be the people who know that person best.  For Elders and Deacons, that’s the Session of their church.  For Ministers, that’s the Presbytery.  Let’s face it, we are all sinners of one variety or another.  If sinlessness were required for holding office, none of us would be eligible.  What the current language of G-6.0106b does is elevate a group of “sins” to a position of primacy – indicating that history of some sins is acceptable in ordained individuals but that some “sins” are never acceptable.  The reason that our polity traditionally uses communal discernment and personal knowledge of the ordinand is that it leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of those making the decision and in the heart and mind of the ordinand.  Reducing eligibility for ordination to a checklist is idolatry of the checklist, and idolatry of those who created the checklist.

The SECOND reason that I would vote for this amendment is that I don’t believe that homosexual practice is sin.  (I could go on with jokes about the word “practice”, but I use it here because it was used in the original Definitive Guidance to separate orientation from activity.)  I have read the handful of scriptures that are purported to establish a prohibition on sexual activity between people of the same gender.  I have read the arguments on the interpretation of those scriptures, and I find the most compelling argument to be that the actual Hebrew and Greek words mean something other than a loving balanced relationship between people (generally they are referring to temple prostitution or forced sexual activity or the use of the sexual act in a manner contrary to the God-given orientation of the actor).  So I don’t see the sin here.  No sin, no prohibition.

The THIRD reason that I would vote for this amendment is that I know a number of folks who are not exclusively heterosexual and who are very clearly (to me) called by God to be leaders of God’s Church.  Some are already ordained.  Some are in the process and a few are stuck because of this issue.  Some have left the PC(USA) to its detriment.  And some may be hearing the call of God but are ignoring it because they know that the PC(USA) will prevent them from ever fulfilling it.  This makes me sad, and it makes me angry.  I trust that God is working to fix this situation and that I do not understand all of God’s ways.

What are your greatest hopes for the 10a debate that will take place on the floor of your Presbytery? I hope that the discussion will be both loving and real.  Our presbytery has some very liberal members, some rather conservative members, and a lot of people somewhere in between.  Like every other presbytery there are sometimes heated discussions.  But I do not feel actual hatred on the floor of our presbytery.  The worst that I feel is frustration that we can’t work out our issues, and frustration with the tension between what each person believes is God’s message and the difference with what others believe.  I see a true spirit of trying to bridge that gap in tension with standing up for God’s message as each person interprets it.  What I hope for this discussion is that it will be held in that place of love and respect, rather than degenerating into hatred and pain. I have a lot of optimism about this.

How would you respond to those that say that if we pass 10a individuals and congregations will leave the PC(USA)? We’re already losing people.  I was out of the church for over 15 years.  This issue was one reason.  The judgment and control over others’ lives shown by the concentration on people’s bedroom behavior turned me away.  I had decided that church was all about a small group of people trying to control a larger group of people.  I’ve come back because my theology about people has changed.  I see that all are sinners, that all are saints.  I see the attempt to control others’ behavior as a part of their attempt to do what they believe God is calling them to do.  But make no mistake – we’re losing people (particularly young people) because our concentration on controlling others’ behaviors rather than our own has painted us as judgmental and controlling.  If those who feel the need to control others leave because they find themselves unable to do so, so be it.  I will mourn their departure.  But know that our inward focus and focus away from ourselves and on others (Matt. 7:1-5) is causing us to bleed our future.  God calls us to be righteous in ourselves and to do God’s work in the world.  God calls us to guide others.  But I do not feel that God calls us to coerce others.

What should the Presbyterian Church focus on after Amendment 10a passes? My flip answer to this question is “Go have a beer together at the bar”.  And I think that’s part of the answer.  We need to put aside our disagreement on this issue and find commonality with those who disagree with us on one or two issues.  I have always said that church fights should be like hockey fights – battle with all you’ve got for a few minutes, and then go have a beer together after the game and laugh about it.  Then, when we’ve made some progress restoring our relationships, it’s time to face outward again.  Mission should be our focus – both mission in the form of evangelism and mission in the form of helping others.

How does your understanding of Scripture frame your position on 10a? First, I am not yet a scriptural scholar.  That will soon change to some degree.  So I rely on others to do the heavy lifting in the areas of exegesis and translation.  Today, I see Scripture as a document inspired by God which has been handled by humans and as a result is as imperfect as we are.  We only need to look to the recent admission of intentional mis-translation of the Heidelberg Catechism to see how human beings likely have changed Scripture to suit their beliefs and motivations.  Add to that a need to understand what the words meant to the authors, as opposed to what they mean to us today.  That’s how I see Scripture.  And it has framed my position on this issue – some folks just aren’t reading Scripture the way it was intended.  The hard part is figuring out who (or which side) that is.  That’s where we need the input of the Holy Spirit, and communal discernment.  And I believe firmly in the statements that “men [sic] of good characters and principles may differ” (G-1.0305) and that “they [the Church as a body] may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow” (G-1.0302).  These are Scripturally-derived principles, and our Church and any other institution created by mankind is subject to them.  I have no doubt that if you ask me in 3 1/2 years as I walk to graduate with an M.Div. degree that my answer will be different.  This is how I see it today.

Trading Limbos

November 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Job Search, Life, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Work 

Sometime last week, I realized that I’ve traded one kind of limbo for a new kind.  A better kind, from where I sit.

For the past 2 years while I’ve been out of work, I had a soul-crushing type of limbo.  Any day I could get a response to a contact or job application inviting me to an interview.  Any day could start the process of becoming employed again, in as soon as a few days to a few months.  A number of times that process happened over the 2 years, but that was a very small part of that time and never resulted in ultimate success – a new job.  The rest of the time I was left with the depressing, esteem-destroying time trying to make that happen.  For most people there’s only one path out of that limbo, and it’s always the last path that you take.  (That’s a lot like the truism that you always find your lost items in the last place you look.  If not, then you’re wasting your time after you do find them.)  Some folks get lucky and get the choice of two paths out of the unemployment limbo, but to me that looks more like two branches of the same last path.

I’ve taken an unusual path out of that limbo – the path of further education – made even more unusual by my future vocation.  This is a riskier path and I likely wouldn’t be taking it except for a few unusual circumstances.  First and foremost there is God’s call to ministry that I have discerned (and will continue to discern in the years ahead).  Second, there are some things about my place in the world that are fortuitous (whether you credit God, good planning, or dumb luck) for this path.  I live near one of the most prestigious Presbyterian seminaries (and I seem to be comfortable in the culture there).  My wife has a very solid income that is big enough to support this.  We were able to (and chose to) save severance and unemployment money.  And we have chosen a lifestyle that doesn’t include the expenses that others need to plan for – mainly children and their futures.

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But it’s still limbo.  I need to figure out what to do with the next 10 months.  I would prefer to make some money by doing small church-related projects like Revive!  (last spring’s justice revival, which employed me as a 15-hour-per-week project manager for a few months).  I can make some money from my itty-bitty tiny computer consulting company.  I could go to a temp agency and see what they’ve got.  I’ve also got some time to work on myself, to try to continue the personal growth that the last 6 months has included (and the last 2 years, for that matter).

So I’ve exchanged one limbo for another.  And I’m in a better place as a result.  But the future is still not completely clear.  But … part of my growth of late has been comfort with ambiguity.  I’m feeling good about all of this.

Princeton Theological Seminary, here I come

November 3, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

So, Mark … anything new going on?

I’m so glad you asked.


Princeton Theological Seminary

Ok, let’s back up a bit.

A few months ago, I told you about my change in career and life direction.  I’ve continued pursuing that direction.  (If you follow that link, it backs up even farther)  In late August I was enrolled as an Inquirer in my presbytery, confirmed by my presbytery in September.

I’m geographically bound (my wife has a job here that pays well enough for me do follow this path), so my choices for a Reformed seminary came down to two:  Princeton Theological Seminary and New Brunswick Theological Seminary.  Both are fine seminaries with different focuses.  Princeton focuses exclusively on the full-time student who is able to complete their M.Div. degree in 3 years (4 for a dual degree).  Princeton is a PC(USA) seminary, and is very academic.  New Brunswick (a Reformed Church in America seminary) focuses on the part-time student (though some students attend full-time) and emphasizes the practical aspects of ministry, with a concentration on urban ministry.  Princeton Seminary has an ivy-league-like setting surrounded on three sides by Princeton University, and has about 600 students at any given time, with about 475 of them in a Masters program.  New Brunswick is in a mixed college/urban setting, surrounded on three sides by the Rutgers University College Avenue campus (where I earned my undergraduate degree in Computer Science).  New Brunswick has smaller graduating classes of 50 or so.  Princeton has some ethnic diversity, but New Brunswick is so diverse that it’s hard to call any ethnicity a majority.  Both share about the same gender diversity.  Theologically the student bodies are quite different.  Princeton’s students are 50% Presbyterian, with the rest scattered among many denominations and non-denominational backgrounds.  New Brunswick has few Presbyterian students (and not even a majority of Reformed students) with a very wide spread of denominations and non-denominational backgrounds.  Both reside in my presbytery, and have connections to my Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) and students from my presbytery.  Princeton is a very residential school – nearly all students live on campus in either dorms or apartments.  New Brunswick has very limited housing and most students commute (and many work full-time and study at night).

I visited New Brunswick last May during one of their open house events.  I had time one evening to meet faculty, staff, current students and other prospective students.  I was able to attend chapel, receive a tour of the campus (primarily the library), and attend a class.  What I discovered was a very family-like atmosphere – it was clear to me that the faculty and staff truly care about their students as individuals.  The class that I attended was professionally taught and intimate – about 30 students for a course that would have over 100 at Princeton.  The main building is about the size of one of Princeton’s academic or administrative buildings, if not a little smaller.  I felt that I could study there, but I also felt out of place demographically and theologically.

I have had MANY connections and experiences with Princeton Seminary.  My church employs 4 seminary interns each year, and we have 3 Princeton students not “of the congregation” under care for their own journeys.  I have attended events like the Institute for Youth Ministry Forum.  On the advice of a friend, I audited a class at Princeton last spring.  I have a large number of Twitter friends who are current Princeton students or alumni.  A few church members and staff relatives are employed at the seminary.  My presbytery work and the Revive! event last June brought me into contact with many other folks who fit all of those categories.

Last spring during the Youth Forums, and on days that I audited the class or had a Revive meeting on campus, I sat on the steps of Miller Chapel and tried to imagine myself as a Princeton student.  It was a lot easier than I expected.  Being there just felt right.

So I worked diligently on my application from August through the end of September.   I wrote my long essay and the short answers that were requested by the application.  I found friends who would write my references.  In short – I treated the application project like any of my other projects and pursued it relentlessly and with a smidge of overkill.  I submitted my application at the end of September.  My last reference was received on October 22.  I’d already had my interview on October 6, so my application was complete at that point.
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From October 20-22, Carolyn and I (she wanted to go) attended the Princeton Seminar – a three-day admissions event at the seminary.  We had time to eat and meet with student hosts, faculty, staff and others.  (The President, Iain Torrance joined Carolyn and I and our campus host for the first dinner – to our surprise and delight.)  We were able to attend classes and hear presentations from different administrative departments.  We ate at the campus dining facility – both private catered meals and along side the students.  We were also given a walking tour of the campus.

Two different things stood out during the visit.

First, I was comfortable there.  REALLY comfortable.  So comfortable that I’ve only felt as free of anxiety in a few other places in my life – at my home with Carolyn or at Camp Johnsonburg.  The morning before we left for the visit Carolyn asked me if I was nervous.  I thought about it and answered (to my surprise), “No.  I suppose I should be but I’m not.”  I found the classes fascinating.  I found the conversations stimulating.  I found the presentations interesting.  And throughout it all I had none of the nervousness that I’d expected to have – given that I was being evaluated even while I was doing the evaluating.

Second, I kept bumping into people that I already knew.  Carolyn and I ran into my spiritual director in the first 10 minutes on campus.  I met one twitter friend for the first time, and bumped into two others (literally bumped into in one case).  I sat in a class taught by my CPM chair, with one student who is a member of my church.  I ran into students from the class that I audited last spring.  I ran into people who worked on Revive with me.  I ran into people that I had only previously met at Camp Johnsonburg.  In short – all of my church-related worlds collided during this one visit.  It’s as if many, many, many of my church experiences intersected at a single point – at Princeton Seminary.  Biggest of all for me was the sense that I got from my friends and prior contacts that they were happy to see me at Princeton.  For an introvert like me, that is hugely important.

During the visit, I thought I’d heard the Director of Admissions mention that the Admissions Committee meets monthly, with a meeting “this Wednesday” – which I took to mean the day that our visit started.  I assumed that I’d missed the deadline and would be waiting a least a month.  The Wednesday after the visit I received a thin envelope from Admissions at PTS.  After a moment’s panic I opened it only to read “Your application is now complete and we will begin processing it.”  Heart-attack averted.  On Friday, I e-mailed a Princeton staff member who is on the Admissions Committee about a church-related issue, and got back the reply “I hope we see you as a student at PTS next year!”  I took that as a good sign.

This past Saturday, I received a thickish envelope from Admissions.  I brought it inside to the kitchen where Carolyn was cooking.  I casually tried to sort through the mail to make the pile of things I should open, and about halfway through the process just dropped the rest of the mail and tore open the envelope.  “Congratulations!  It is my great pleasure to inform you of the decision of our Admissions Committee.  You have been accepted into candidacy …” and that’s as far as I got before I started jumping up and down like a six-year-old (scaring Carolyn and the cat).  I immediately send a DM to one of my favorite friends who has served as native guide through the process, called my Session Liaison, and then tweeted the news.

This morning I spent some time in silent prayer about this decision.  Both schools have pro and con attributes and arguments, but there is one clear direction.

Tomorrow, while I am at Princeton for the Institute of Youth Ministry Conference on Emerging Adulthood, I will stop by Admissions and drop off my Letter of Confirmation and deposit.

I will begin my Master of Divinity (M. Div.) program starting in the Fall Term of the 2011-2012 academic year, making me a member of the class of 2014 at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Next September I will be a seminary student.

And I’m happy, nervous, and have this feeling of rightness about it.  I believe God is in this decision, and all of the little interactions over a number of years that led up to it.