If I had a published book for every time I had a certain conversation while working at Southern Seminary, I would have more published works than D. A. Carson. As an academic administrator, I could predict the conversation before it started, because it always followed the same script.
Dan, an energetic new seminary student, packed a U-Haul with his new bride Lisa to shuttle all their earthly possessions, including their wedding gifts and their massive school debts, to venture into a new life of theological training. She would hold off on having kids to find a high-paying job in her field of study, allowing him to focus on his classwork and finish his degree in three to four years.
As Lisa searched for jobs, Dan roared into his academics by day and comforted Lisa at night after another unsuccessful day of job hunting. Eventually, finances became tight enough that she had to settle for a desk job in an unrelated field (“at least it provided health benefits and a mission field”).
To make ends meet, Dan took a part-time job that required him to cut back his academic hours. After the first year, they got the unexpected yet joyful news that they were pregnant. To allow her to take maternity leave or stay home with their newborn, he cut his course load in half and scrambled to find a full-time job with benefits, selling mobile phones at a local dealer.
Through sleepless nights caused by the needs of a newborn and the demands of Hebrew class, Dan put his nose to the grindstone to survive financially and make progress on his degree. Just as their “new normal” started to stabilize, baby number two came along. That's when he came to see me.
Dan came into seminary expecting to walk the stage with his MDiv after three or four years. Now, he picks his head up above water long enough to realize that, after four years, he’s only halfway through his degree. He starts to panic and re-evaluate his academic options—quit, get an MA, transfer, finish online?
This conversation happened so regularly with so many students—male and female, American and international—that I began to call it the “mid-degree crisis.” It had all the hallmarks of a successful executive's mid-life crisis (the soul searching, the despair, often the balding head), except the shiny new convertible. But the mid-degree crisis provides a perceptive picture of a theology of work for seminarians.
Myth of the Lazy Seminary Student
There are several myths of the lazy seminary student. Seminary outsiders sometimes perceive seminarians as free-wheeling grad students whose only work is mastering Greek flash cards and pontificating about their preferred view of the millennium. Instead, seminarians usually have a relentless work ethic driven by their desire for training. In addition, most of them have jobs to help strengthen their financial ability since, for those who took out loans in college, the average undergraduate student debt is $29,400.
Seminary insiders sometimes perceive working seminarians as distracted, part-time students who are shortchanging their theological training by working too many hours. Instead, most students don’t have this luxury. For the two-thirds of MDiv students who take on debt, 35 percent borrowed $30,000 or more. Life circumstances require many students to have a job to make income for their growing family and to chip away at their swelling debt load.
Since the Southern Baptist Convention Cooperative Program provides a 50 percent scholarship to SBC students at Southern Seminary, we have a much lower percentage of students who incur new debt while in seminary. Yet even at Southern, the life situation of typical students requires them to work.
Those who hold to these myths misunderstand theology of vocation. Rather than a distraction from theological training, the work of seminarians can be an integral part of it. What may be perceived as a soul-sucking inconvenience may actually be an act of soul-shaping valor.
Value of Work in Seminary
First, work during seminary can shape our theology of provision by providing compensation. Although there is no typical seminary student, most of them can use this season of life to cultivate trust in God’s provision—especially when they do not know where their next paycheck will come from. With the modest salaries of most ministry positions, this is a foundational lesson about how God provides for us through our work.
Second, work during seminary can shape our theology of sanctification by shaping our character. While the classroom primarily shapes the mind, the workroom shapes the heart. Whether it's changing the world or changing diapers, God often uses this season to shatter any sense of entitlement, making students more like Jesus. With the demanding work in most churches, this is a key lesson that will prevent students from allowing their giftings to take them where their character cannot keep them.
Third, work during seminary can shape our theology of evangelism by strengthening our compassion for the lost. Co-worker relationships provide fertile ground for gospel conversations. Work can help students move outside the “seminary bubble” and enable them to learn how the culture thinks and lives. With the life patterns of most faith-based, nonprofit positions, this is an instructive lesson that will create a strong evangelistic trajectory for their future.
Fourth, work during seminary can shape our theology of vocation by revealing both the contexts of many of our congregants and the value of the work itself. Regardless of the job, seminarians will be exposed to a variety of lifestyle patterns they will encounter throughout their careers. Also, in their work itself, they can serve their community and promote human flourishing. Dan, for example, could sell a phone that allows someone to call 911 in an emergency or have a last conversation with a loved one. The work itself is good and contributes to a dynamic community.
Though I have had dozens of conversations with students facing mid-degree crises, their responses usually boil down to two options—either give up and look for the path of least resistance or renew their resolve and look for the path of greatest opportunity. Although many myths persist about the work patterns of seminarians, the most important myth to dispel is the one that says work distracts from the “real” training at school. Instead, work during seminary can be a laboratory where God tests and refines students for a lifetime of fruitfulness.