Earlier this year I was hooded for the second time as I completed my Master of Divinity at the age of 51. I started grad school well into my 40s after nearly 20 years of ministry experience. I earned my undergrad from a secular university and had taken the course of ministry classes through a denominational school to get my credentials but I always wanted to complete a Master’s Degree.
I wound up earning a Master of Arts in Ministry Leadership, and then went on to get my Master of Divinity. Returning to school was a shock to my system and if you are returning as an adult learner, it will be to yours as well. Here is a list of things in no particular order that I wish people had told me when I started grad school.
If you are going to add something to your life you have to remove something else.
If you are a returning adult learner, in all probability you already have a life. You may have children, a career, family, and hobbies. It is not possible to add a 15 to 20 hour a week time commitment and not get those hours from somewhere else. For me, that became a little unhealthy as I went months without any real Sabbath. In essence, I no longer had a day off. Be more strategic than I was in choosing where to get those hours from. Your spouse may have agreed to this when you started, but check in periodically to make sure they are still on board. There was a Summer that my wife told me I could not take classes. She saw the toll it was taking on me and it turned out to be a prophetic sign that I was going to need my attention focused elsewhere that season.
Get Logos Bible software.
One of my greatest regrets is that I did not purchase Logos early in my education. I have used e-Sword for years and years for sermon prep. But this is not sermon prep. If you are an older student, chances are you have a little bit of extra money and you’re going to be buying reference books like commentaries and dictionaries. You absolutely want to be buying those in Logos. This way, not only do you have your reference material with you everywhere you go, after grad school when you are writing sermons it will be there as well. If you can’t afford any of the packages get the free version and buy the Bible you like to read from. Then when you get reference books they will be linked to your Bible. You will thank yourself especially when taking any classes on the original languages. Old versions of Logos were hard to use. It is completely new now and super easy. There are tons of testimonials on YouTube. Check one out. I have heard Accordance is better if you plan on being a Greek or Hebrew scholar but if that is the case you should already own it. At this age, just be happy to get through the classes.
I don’t know why this isn’t taught the first semester of every seminary program. Zotero is going to manage all of your academic papers that you have to read and manages all your citations and footnotes. It is literally a cheat code for grad school. Watch a tutorial on YouTube. It will change your life.
It takes time to develop a rhythm.
When you start school, your life is going to change. You are constantly going to be having assignments due, and books to be read, and videos to watch, and papers to write, and forum posts to respond to, and lectures to attend. You are going to be reading books with a dictionary next to you because you are not going to understand the words they are using. That’s okay. You will develop a rhythm. You will also learn how to read for grad school. At the beginning of the semester map out all of your assignments from your syllabus by due date and figure out what days you’re going to do schoolwork. Develop a plan and follow it. You can do this.
Start general then go specific.
Many programs have a list of required courses but not necessarily an order to take them. Don’t start with special topics in New Testament studies, or a specialized theological studies class. They are going to build on classes you haven’t taken yet, and you are going to miss out on a bunch. Start with your survey of the Old and New Testament classes. Take systematic theology. If your program includes Greek and Hebrew do that as well. These classes will form a foundation for your specialized classes. Likewise, take your history classes before you take your modern theological issues classes. You’ll make more friends when you don’t advocate for long ago debunked heresies.
Take off the ministry hat and be a student.
At the risk of being accused of ageism, don’t be like the kids who argue with the professor. I have a saying I developed early in my coursework. “Seminary is the place where people who read little books argue with people who write big books.” Don’t be that guy. You paid a lot of money to sit in a classroom and learn from people who have given their life to study one subject. Shut up and listen. I didn’t agree with all my professors, and I had no problem discussing my disagreement with them. Sometimes they won me over. Other times I still disagreed. But it was always my goal to understand what they were teaching not to try to get them to understand what I’m teaching. If you are already in ministry, you know what it’s like to greet guests in the lobby and have a first-time visitor preach to you how they would’ve delivered your message. It is super annoying, and you don’t pay attention to them. That’s who you are when you argue with the professor.
Find your professor’s office hours and use them.
You are an adult. These professors are not your colleagues but they kind of are. You both have the goal of increasing the knowledge of God in the world and advancing the Kingdom. They have office hours and if you have follow-up questions, concerns, or feedback, I would never hesitate to schedule a visit virtually or in person. Good professors love talking with learners. I have found that even after leaving grad school my professors are more than happy to talk to me about questions I have in their areas of specialty. I even did a small group based on one of my professor’s books and he sat in on our final meeting and answered questions.
If you have been in ministry for a while, you know what your interests are. Go deep in that. Almost every class is going to require either a research paper or project at the end of the semester. By the second year I knew what I wanted to specialize in and I would meet with my professors to discuss how that project or paper could somehow build upon my area of specialty. If your heart burns for teaching people how to study the Bible, writing a 3000-word paper on Chalcedonian Christology may not be that helpful. But studying how the Council of Chalcedon came to its conclusions would be immensely helpful. Talk to your professor. They know more about the subject than you do, and they can help guide you in your learning.
Prepare to be challenged.
Grab your Bible tight because your spiritual journey is about to get rocky. If your beliefs are not deeply challenged by attending Seminary you are either not doing the reading or you are in a cult. When I started seminary, an older pastor gave me a warning about guarding my faith. I completely dismissed him because I knew what I believed, and I’ve been in ministry for a long time. Oh how naïve I was. Your professors don’t care what preaches real good. They care about what the Bible actually says and what the original writers meant when they wrote it. They don’t care what sells books, gets clicks, or gets butts in seats. They care about being faithful to the Tradition. You are going to learn that a bunch of stuff that you have preached is not really in the Bible. That’s going to get scary. It’s also going to be tough to sit and listen to message you now know aren’t faithful to the Scripture and Tradition. But you went to seminary to learn, and learn you shall. It will produce a deeper faith in you which will enable you to be a better disciple and produce better fruit.
So enjoy the journey ahead and “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” The road is arduous but if God has called you to increase in knowledge, His Spirit will guide you through the journey.
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