What I learned at seminary


Have I mentioned before how difficult theological training was for me, how uncomfortable seminary education made me feel pretty much on a daily basis? And I don’t mean the academic work, although that was challenging enough.

Theological training – going to seminary – is often one of the most difficult experiences there is in education, and that’s counterintuitive, I suppose, because most people probably think seminary is like one big Sunday school – with snacks and craft projects and loving moms who teach. In other words, just like Sunday School – only better.

But, curiously, that’s not what I found.

In fact, there were no snacks or craft projects or loving moms anywhere to be found. There were no flannel boards to illustrate Old Testament stories.

What happened instead – and this is probably not what happens in the sciences or business administration – what happened instead was an immediate confrontation, a confrontation with everything I had ever been taught, with everything I had ever believed, with everything I previously thought.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think chemistry does that. Or tax law.

I could give plenty of examples. I don’t think there was a single lecture in “Introduction to the Old Testament,” for example, after which I did not go back to my dormitory room in a cold sweat, sorting out what I believed.

For me the hardest, most difficult, most challenging classes of all were in preaching, so of course that’s what I decided to concentrate in.

I grew up with an outstanding preacher. The preacher in my childhood was like a theologian in residence. He studied all week in his office on the top floor. And on Sunday he appeared and preached brilliant sermons.

And so, not surprisingly, that’s how I imagined myself.

But church life turned out to be so much different from what I expected. Spending all week in my top floor office, keeping my Hebrew and Greek up to date, was not going to work in the church into which I was ordained.  I quickly discovered that no one much cared about my biblical language skills.

And preaching, I soon discovered, was not limited to those weekly appearances on Sunday mornings. I soon found myself offering words of comfort and hope in hospital rooms, funeral homes, assisted living facilities, and even the prisons where my church members went to visit each week.

No prison inmate has ever asked me about the meaning of a word in the original language. I was always ready with the answer, but the question was never asked.

The people I found in church (and other places) wanted someone who knew them, someone who understood a little about their lives. They wanted someone who knew what it was like to be tested, to have failed, to have been beaten up a little. Unexpectedly, that’s what the “Introduction to the Old Testament” did for me.

My theological training did exactly what it was supposed to do. It took my Sunday School faith and made it grow up. I will always be grateful.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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9 Responses to What I learned at seminary

  1. Carter C. Good November 8, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    “The Easy Button” comes to mind and maybe worthwhile things are not as easy as just pushing a button? We’ve spent some time together, in a group, with these ideas …

    Your writing now may be easy, at least a bit for you, but the journey that got you to that relationship with yourself, and via the writing with others, maybe was not?

    Jesus’s answering the call and a pastor answering his or her’s requires a strength those of us who have not can scarcely imagine

    Thank you for opening a window through your writing. Maybe we can go through the right door as a consequence?

  2. Cerena Fischer November 8, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    Well said Doug. At the end of each day, I reflect and realize that I can’t do everything, but with God’s grace and God’s hand I can do something! It is difficult sometimes – no most of the time- but His love endures.

  3. James Brazell November 8, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    Ah, I still remember Dr. Mann’s OT lecture that challenged the Exodus and other foundations of faith. Still, Greek and Hebrew do provide me a (sometimes pompous) alternative translation when someone else misunderstands the authority and intent of Scripture.

    • Marcos Van dorn November 8, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

      What happened instead – and this is probably not what happens in the sciences or business administration – what happened instead was an immediate confrontation, a confrontation with everything I had ever been taught, with everything I had ever believed, with everything I previously thought……AMEN and AMEN

      • Doug November 8, 2014 at 11:55 pm #

        Marcos, I hope your theological training is going well. Would you to catch up and hear all about it.

    • Doug November 8, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

      I remember that lecture too, Jim. Formative day!

  4. Betty Strunk November 8, 2014 at 3:09 pm #

    I am grateful for your dedicated study and preparation for the important ministry that is yours. It was wonderful to learn from your sermons, and especially helpful to feel known as a person in the worshipping community but especially in a time of crisis.

    • Doug November 8, 2014 at 11:55 pm #

      It’s wonderful to hear from you, Betty!

  5. Charles Scouten November 10, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

    Science may seem a bit mysterious, but most of us are assured it is well-behaved that if you put something in a given place it is there, Not so in the quantum world, Put an electron in a box and it may not be in the box. Or the idea that making a measurement has an effect on the object being measured. Not what I was told learning how to use a measuring tape! And how about going from spin state A to spin state B without going through any intermediate stages? I think there is plenty in any real education to challenge the learner. What is not easy is resisting the urge to accommodate one’s faith to society, instead of the other way ’round.