Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Seminary, Part III - What Degree Do I Pursue?

Picking up where I left off a few weeks ago before being sidetracked for the umpteenth time, we continue the blog series on seminary.  So, we've covered the why of seminary here and the where of seminary here, today, we look at the what.  There are a number of possible seminary degrees to pursue, which one is right for you?

Part of this will certainly be driven by you and your desires, but some of it may also be driven by where you want to go.  In order to be considered for ordination, or at least to have a smoother ordination process, in most denominations, you need to have a Master's of Divinity (M.Div.) degree.  This is not a degree for the faint of heart, take it from someone who did it in the process of growing his family and working full-time in a church.  If you know you want to do this, you should do it with as little encumbrances as possible.

Don't get me wrong, I love my family and my job, but it was an exercise in discipline to accomplish everything that I needed to accomplish in the way that I did.  While there are options within the M.Div. degree, for ordination within any of the major denominations, you will need to take both of the biblical language, Hebrew and Greek.  These two languages are one of the big reasons this degree is not for the faint of heart.  Anyone who has studied languages knows the time required to master them, let alone become familiar with them.  Discipline is the name of the game, and if you are lacking in discipline, you might want to figure out if there is a better way to pursue your degree or if there is a simpler degree that might suffice for you.

There are other options for degrees if an ordination track is not high on your list of importance.  Most other seminary degrees would be Master’s of Arts degrees in a variety of areas.  The seminary I attended offered degrees in Christian Thought, Marriage Family Therapy, Ministry Practice, and Transformational Leadership, and Theological Studies.  Many of these are used as stepping stones for those who want to continue to pursue higher degrees, but others find them sufficient.

I hold a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, which was a four year degree.  The total number of credits required for graduation was over 136 credit hours.  My seminary degree required 144 credit hours.  Even at 4 credits per class, that’s still 36 classes.  Like I said, not for the faint of heart, but well worthwhile if you are really seeking to be educated and transformed in the midst of your education.

When I made the decision to pursue a seminary degree, I had already been ordained in a large nationally recognized denomination, so ordination requirements were not a driving factor for me.  But, I did know that in order for that ordination to be recognized by others denominations, a seminary degree would need to accompany it.  I also knew that I had a lot to learn, not determined that I would learn it all in seminary, but knowing that it would be a good place for me to start figuring out ways in which I could begin pursuing knowledge.

Since my days in engineering school, I have never been fond of academics.  There are many in academics who are there simply because they have a strong desire for knowledge, some who are there because they have a passion to teach, and others who are there because they were not able to make it or survive in the “real” world.  I have always gravitated towards those who have mixed knowledge and praxis, often finding that the best teachers are the adjuncts who understand better what is happening in practice because they are entrenched in it.  Thankfully, I did not find many in the halls of academia in my theological institution who were overly consumed with knowledge without a healthy combination of praxis.  In fact, I was struck by the overwhelming “humanness” of my professors.

In conclusion, if you’re pursuing a seminary degree for yourself and for your own personal edification, you’re going to have a lot more freedom in determining what you want.  If you’re pursuing a degree with the intent of pursuing ordination or some other credentials in the future, you would want to check with your credentialing agency in advance to find out what additional requirements might be required of you.  If you are not pressed for time, you don’t mind the work, and you’re able to discipline yourself through heavy academics, you might want to consider a Master’s of Divinity degree.  It might take a while, but I think it will be well worth it in the end.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New Beginnings

Life often provides me with experiences that seem hard or near impossible to describe in words.  Of course, not one to accept defeat easily, I somehow manage to push through and find a way to describe what it is that I experienced, but it's a challenge, nonetheless.  It seems that experiences like this have been happening an awful lot lately.

This past Sunday was a new day.  We started a new church.  Not something that happens every day nor something that everyone sets out to accomplish in their lifetime.  It's also not necessarily the best description of what happened on Sunday as the details behind it are far more intricate and detailed than that, but now is not the time nor is this the place to explain the back story that led to it.  The long and short of it is this: God is doing a new thing with people who are ready to stop playing church and start being the church.

I'm not sure what next Sunday will hold, but if this past Sunday was any indication, good things are in store for Church in Restoration.  It's not perfect, it's not complete, but it sure was a pretty good start.  Not sure I've ever heard of a church "plant" that starts out with over 700 people on its first Sunday, but then again, we're not the typical church plant.

The thing of it is, the numbers aren't really important.  What's most important to me and the other leadership is this: that Jesus Christ be lifted high and exalted and that others might know the restoration that He brings to our lives.  If we had 3000 people next week and there was no impact on those who had never experienced the life-changing power of Jesus Christ, then it would be a waste to me.

I left a lucrative career to pursue full-time vocational ministry.  That doesn't make me better than anyone else, I did it because that's what I felt like God was calling me to do.  I did it because I didn't feel like I was making a difference where I was.  I've met plenty of people who were and are making a difference doing the very thing that I left, but it just didn't work for me.  Over the last few years, since my kids were born, I have had a strong desire to let them see and know how important it is to me to make a difference.

I think we're making a difference, but only time will tell.  I'm not taking any of the credit, because it is God that is at work within me.  It's gonna be a wild ride, but I can't wait to see what happens.  If nothing else, we'll at least say that we tried our best to make a difference for Christ.  I'll let you know what happens next week!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Touching Heaven, Changing Earth

In a conversation with someone last night, I realized that I had been leading worship for more than 20 years.  It's interesting to think about that, considering that's more than half of my life.  Corporate worship is a very poignant thing to me.  We come together as a community of faith, our hearts united to bring glory and honor to the One who has saved us, who calls us His own.  It's not about us, it's about Him.

A few years back, I wanted to bring the teams that I led through a teaching time on worship.  I looked around to see if I could find appropriate curriculum, but I felt like everything I found was coming up short.  So, I sat down, and over a course of months, I put together my own curriculum.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a start.

When I finished it, I had to think of something appropriate to call it.  Simply calling it "Worship Study" wasn't really satisfactory, at least, not to me.  I had been a fan of much of what was coming out of a church in Australia called "Hillsong" for a number of years.  I had read the books written by their worship leader and was fond of the songs that were being put out by them.  Many years earlier, they had put out an album called, "Touching Heaven, Changing Earth."  It seemed a fairly appropriate description of what we do when we come together as a community to worship God.  We seek to allow the words of the Lord's Prayer to come true, that God's kingdom would come, on earth as it is in heaven.

My church has been experiencing some amount of difficulty as of late, but we have seen God's hand in the midst of it all.  In fact, on the day that much of the difficulty came to a head, without any knowledge of what would be taking place, we had planned a night of corporate worship.  Many people, after having had very difficult afternoons dealing with some of the circumstances, came together that evening for the sole purpose of worshipping God.  God had planned for us to come together, perfectly ordained it, for a time of worship and healing.  He brought us together, not to focus on ourselves, but to focus on Him, the One who has always and will always provide for our needs.

In 20+ years of leading worship, I have never experienced an evening of worship with such poignancy.  There was something different about that night, and when it all came to an end, there was almost a sense that people did not want to leave.  People found something in the presence of God that could not be found elsewhere.

I know that there are many people who decry contemporary praise songs for their emotionalism and sentimentality, but anyone who knows me, knows that I do my best to be prayerful and thoughtful as I choose which songs that we sing as a congregation.  All of the songs that we sang together that night spoke deep into the heart of where we were, and I had chosen them well before the events of that day.  I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit was instrumental in making those decisions.

Today is a new day.  The difficulties are not behind us, but there is brightness ahead.  We may not see clearly everything on the path before us, but God gives us just enough light to keep our anxiety at bay and withholds enough so that we never think that we can do it without His help.  We are on a journey, an adventure of sorts, as we are written into the story of God.  As we come together, seeking to be used by God for His purpose, my prayer is that we can touch heaven and change earth, and in the midst of it, we will be changed ourselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Seminary, Part II - Where Do I Go?

Yesterday’s blog was about the issue of why to go to seminary.  Today, I wanted to address the issue of where.  It’s probably a question that might have more to do with your faith background and denomination than anything else, but there are still certain things that are essential.

First of all, is the seminary accredited?  You would be surprised (or maybe not) at how many so-called “seminaries” pop out in churches.  I have not had much personal experience with these seminaries, but I have driven by and seen them before and wonder what their purpose might be.  If it is to simply train and raise up local leaders to lead within the church, I think it’s a great idea.  There are many denominations that have leadership training programs that are beneficial and are somewhat condensed versions of seminary classes.  But if you want your seminary education to be recognized, it would probably be a good idea to find one that is accredited.

Another issue that comes up when thinking about where to go for seminary is the delivery system in which your education will come.  In other words, will it be a residential program where you will have to go live on or close to campus for 3+ years?  Sometimes residential programs can be subsidized by denominations, so it’s important to check to see whether the denomination with which you are affiliated has any such kind of program.  There are some seminaries that have evening programs, allowing for people to continue to work while still going to school.  Still others have distance programs that require a few weeks of residential learning every year.  Distance programs are split to give a fairly balanced approach to students.

My program was a hybrid program created by myself as I traveled twice a year to take classes for a week, I took classes online, and I also traveled to a satellite branch of my seminary to take residential classes for 10 weeks.  I appreciated this approach for myself as I was able to take advantage of some interactions through a more traditional classroom approach but I also benefited from building relationships with a distance cohort with whom I tracked through the program.  My biblical languages were taken in classroom environments, which I thought was helpful for me.  There are options of transferring credits from other seminaries and universities if a hybrid approach is desired.

I started out with the question of “why seminary” yesterday because I think it greatly impacts the “where” question.  If someone chooses to go to seminary just to get through the denominational “red tape” that they need for ordination, their choices might be somewhat limited.  I wanted to go to a seminary where I would be challenged in my thinking and beliefs enough that I would not feel overwhelmed but not so much that I would feel that I was constantly battling orthodoxy.  I have heard of people who have deliberately gone to seminaries where they knew that they would not agree with much of the theology and ideology in order to sharpen themselves.  If I had been younger when I went to seminary, I might have been more tolerant of that approach, but I did not feel that it would have been beneficial for me in the stage of life that I was in.

I wanted a seminary that held to the essential beliefs to which I held.  I did not want to have professors who were atheists or agnostics simply because this was a theological degree that I was pursuing.  I wanted to be taught by those who held to similar beliefs.  I encountered enough fellow students who had differing beliefs, more on non-essentials than essentials, that I felt I still received a diversified education.  There were certain issues that I desired to have resolved or clarified when I entered seminary and I felt that the environment that I entered allowed for exploration enough that I was able to accomplish what I needed to accomplish.

Financial aid and scholarships were an important part of my seminary decision as well.  The seminary that I attended offered great financial aid, scholarships, and was also subsidized by a university with which it is affiliated.  That tremendously helped the cost.  I also received help from my church through their missions budget, something to consider if your church has a larger missions budget.  Between scholarships and grants every year, I received between $3000 and $4000.  Tuition alone for the seminary which I attended was roughly $12,000 per year if 8 classes were taken per year.  They are now moving to a semester system from a quarter system, but I imagine that the costs would be similar.  There are other options such as loans that can be used, I chose not to go into debt for my education as my wife and I had already paid off our college and graduate school loans.

These were the things that were important to me when choosing a seminary.  It certainly helped that I had friends who worked at the seminary and who had spoken highly of the program.  Reputation was important to me as was renowned.  I did not feel that I needed to receive an education from a prestigious institution, but I felt that wherever I went, the institution needed to be familiar or known to people that I would encounter.

I would be curious of others’ experience in choosing a seminary.  Were there other issues that seemed to rise to the top above the ones that I mentioned?  If so, I would love to hear about them.