Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
April 7, 2016
This meditation was delivered at the Seattle Pacific Seminary New Student Orientation on September 8, 2015.
In just a moment, I’m going to show you a clip from the movie, A League of Their Own, a fictionalized story about the All-American Girl Professional Baseball League. The clip shows a conversation between Dottie Hinson (played by Geena Davis), the catcher of the Rockford Peaches, and her manager, Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks). Dottie has been a star player all season, but, just on the eve of the World Series, decides to leave the team when her husband returns, wounded, from military service. As the other players are boarding the bus, Jimmy catches her climbing into her car. Years before, Jimmy himself had been a great professional ballplayer, but he had ruined his career by drinking. Filled with regret over his lost opportunities, he had only agreed to coach a “girls’ team” to make ends meet. But thanks largely to his leadership—and Dottie’s skills—the Peaches had enjoyed great success that year. This restored Jimmy’s sobriety and self-respect. But now he is outraged to see a great athlete at the top of her game voluntarily walking away, and tries to dissuade her from going.
You are about to discover that seminary is also hard—and I’m here to tell you that the “hard” is what makes it great. It is hard in three different but related ways. First, it is intellectually demanding. This is graduate school—the “big leagues” of American higher education, “the Show.” The books you will read are long and dense. The writing assignments—research papers, sermon manuscripts, counseling verbatims, expository précis, exegetical essays and journal entries—are widely varied in form and content, and you’re expected to master the conventions of each. You should plan on spending about four hours of study time each week—on top of classroom “seat time”—for every quarter credit you carry. So if you take nine credits in a given quarter, you will not only spend nine hours each week that quarter in class, but thirty-six more each week doing homework. And if your average academic load is nine credits per quarter, it will take you over three years to complete a “two-year” MA, and over four years to complete a “three-year” MDiv. Buckle thy seatbelt!
Second, seminary can be emotionally draining, financially depleting, and sometimes even physically exhausting. Working at a church or Christian non-profit agency is immensely rewarding—but it’s not always fun. Supervisors, colleagues, clients and parishioners can be demanding, short-sighted, petty and hypocritical—in spite of their faith, and sometimes precisely because of it. If you are married, and especially if you have children, you must learn to balance the requirements of seminary courses with the needs of your family and the responsibilities of your place of employment. Tuition is $500+ a credit, and the salary you command as a pastor or agency employee is apt to be low. Debts may pile up. And if you live some distance from campus, you will have the cost and hassle of commuting. I say: “The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.” And you reply: “No, the ‘hard’ is what makes it grate on my nerves.” Yep.
Third, and most significantly, your time in seminary will be spiritually challenging. For theology is an inescapably self-involving discipline. “Religious studies”—philosophy of religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion—are less so. You can study religious “phenomena”—other people’s beliefs and practices—scientifically, without feeling that you yourself are under scrutiny. But theology is different. There you are studying the beliefs and practices of the church community to which you yourself are ostensibly committed. And you are forced to ask yourself whether you are truly being faithful in your devotion to its scriptures, in your assent to its creeds, in your participation in its ceremonies, in your allegiance to its professed values, and in your obedience to its authority? In theology, you are not just mastering an academic subject matter—an “it.” Rather, you are interacting with a living Person—a “Thou.” And the procedures you are using to do so are not those of self-detached scientific inquiry, but those of interpersonal dialogue, conversational prayer and the always frightening examination of your own character and conduct. It’s hard.
And it always has been. St. Paul wrote two letters of encouragement to his young protégé, Timothy, who was discovering the challenges of ministry the way all of us do—the hard way— the right way. Paul underscores the intellectual demands of the ministry. He exhorts Timothy to “rightly handle word of truth,” a skill that requires a lifetime of rigorous study and deep reflection, but cautions him to “avoid godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness,” and to “have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” Theological study is intellectually demanding, but it is not a head trip, a competitive sport with theories and concepts and citations. No, theology is ordered toward the godliness of one’s hearers, not the inflation of one’s own ego or the advancement of one’s professional career. Paul also warns Timothy about the emotional and physical demands of apostolic work. He refers to his own experience, to “my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings….” And he tells Timothy to expect much the same. Finally, as for the spiritual demands of this work, Paul notes that Timothy is suffering from “shame” and “a spirit of timidity.” Partly this is due to Timothy’s feelings of inadequacy and personal weakness. Who is he to take the word of God on his lips? Godliness is a precondition for ministry, but who among us can claim to be as godly as we ought? But beyond that, Timothy is afraid of being ridiculed for bearing witness to the gospel in all its audacity and majesty.
The work on which you are entering—the work of seminary education, and the work of ministry on behalf of God’s present and coming reign on earth—is hard work. But it’s the hard that makes it great, and the great that makes it hard. Amen.