Many things about my seminary experience would fall into the category of “non-traditional.”
I remember receiving counsel at the beginning of my seminary education about starting slow.
“Consider three classes the equivalent of a full-time job.”
“If you are a full-time student, consider limiting your outside work to 25 hours a week.”
Well, the need to keep my full-time eligibility for my scholarships and to feed another hungry mouth who was born in my second semester threw my neat and clean, page-protected plan for seminary out the window.
Seminary for my family had its particular challenges. My wife and I moved to Louisville, KY to pursue a Master of Divinity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2014. Three and a half years, 89 credit hours, two kids, two different full-time management jobs later I received my diploma.
My wife and I regularly make passing comments about how crazy the whole period was for our family and we are thankful that God sustained us through that exciting and challenging season. My busiest semester included 5 seminary classes, 40+ work weeks and the birth of our second child. It goes without saying that my wife is the MVP on my family’s roster.
Many people make comments about “principles for thriving in seminary”, such as the Gospel Coalition article “Your 4 Priorities in Seminary“. and I would heartily recommend a work such as “How to Stay a Christian in Seminary” by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell. They all emphasize the priority of the local church, the family and a personal relationship with God, not just knowledge of Him.
But a non-traditional student, one who works a full-time or 30+ hour job and continues his or her education at a full-time or part-time pace, has their own particular challenges.
In addition to the great material that others have written about being successful in seminary, here are 6 thoughts I would recommend for the non-traditional seminary student:
Stretch your days, maximize time
Depending upon the type of job you work, if you are going to work full-time and study full-time at some point you are going to need an alarm clock.
The key to working full-time and studying full-time is efficiency; making the most of your time when you have time. For the 9-5er’s your study time is either nights, mornings or weekends. For the non-traditional worker such as the service industry, your study time is the inverse, either mornings, nights or weekends. But for anyone, get into the habit of setting that alarm clock and getting up early or staying up late and setting the alarm clock for work in the morning.
Everyone works differently and the needs of the family are different at different periods. While managing at Chick-fil-A, I ended up closing regularly and sometimes would accomplish assignments after an 11 pm close while my family was asleep. When I was with Starbucks, I got into the habit of waking up at either 4 or 5 am and studying before work or when the family got up for the day. If I had a later morning shift such as getting to work at 7 am, I would go in early and put in an hour of school before work.
Make sure to maximize the little seconds as well. Listening to lectures on drives, having Quizlet apps for language vocabulary, carrying a textbook or backpack with you wherever you go for that 20-minute lunch break, you’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish in the little moments of your day.
Get a calendar and plan ahead
Before every semester I would pull out my calendar and write out all of my assignments and due dates. Then I would go to my work and plan out as far in advance I could my work responsibilities and add my weekly schedule. Then factor in family events, birthdays and date nights. Then I would go back through and see where potential conflicts or busy periods might make school or work complicated and plan to work on assignments differently.
Different industries have different peak periods. For food service, Holidays were really busy times. There were many black Friday’s I was preparing for exams and finishing up papers. If you are in sales or customer service, ask your boss what periods are particularly busy and when you might be expected to work more than normal. Do you have a busy work period around a major project that you might need to start earlier?
Also make sure you communicate with your professors far in advance if you are going to have to miss class for a work responsibility. They appreciate the heads up and can help give you the same material ahead of time.
Build good relationships with your employers
Most bosses do not care if you are in school, but they care if you are a good worker. I know when I was at Southern, many businesses for better or for worse had preconceptions of the seminary student. Some thought they were great, others not so much.
Never use seminary as an excuse to be lazy or call out of a job responsibility. Your work is your responsibility and how you are providing for yourself. If you have a job, God has called you to do it, and it reflects more than just you as a worker. Many people today have bad notions of seminaries and churches because of students who were bad workers for the 2 years they were in town.
If anything, reflect what you are learning by striving to be a good worker. If you are in a pinch for an assignment or have a last-minute thing come up, your boss is going to be much more willing to work with you if you have significantly contributed to their success as a business rather than if they cannot trust you as a worker.
Be strategic about classes and professors
Many students do not know about the many ways classes are offered by their schools. For the non-traditional student, say goodbye to the four classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. A great thing about Southern was the variety of classes they offered such as modular-hybrid, online, block and evening classes. Some classes are full-term, others are half-term. Some classes you only need to be “in-class” for two days. The key is to plan out classes which fit well with your work schedule.
I would stack two three-hour block classes on top of each other on a Thursday afternoon so that I could work an 8-hour opening shift and be in class for 6 hours.
One semester I took 2 modular courses, 1 block course, 1 online course, and 1 regular (Tuesday/Thursday) course.
Also for the particularly disciplined, see if you can test out of any classes for credit. I would not recommend this for most people, but as I was heading towards the end of seminary and needed to take Hebrew, I knew it was going to be impossible to make sure that I was in class every week twice a week. So I bought the book, got some flashcards and plowed through Introduction to Hebrew and passed the test. The next semester I took Modular Hebrew Syntax and Exegesis and passed with an A-.
Again I would not recommend that for everyone, but know your options.
Also, relationships with professors are very important during seminary for many reasons. Many non-traditional students are not able to build great relationships with professors because of the nature of online or hybrid courses. So if you have a professor that you like try to take the same professor for multiple classes or shoot for smaller classes. My favorite class was a Puritanism class with four people. I did not know every professor, but I tried to be intentional with a couple of them.
Take Good Notes on Everything
If you are a non-traditional student, you most likely are not going to have as much free-mental space to absorb the content as much as others. There are some days you are not going to be able to give your full attention to a lecture.
But the time in the classroom is not the end of the seminary education. Take notes that you can return to later. Take great notes on lectures, notes on books that you want to return to later, conversations with professors or fellow students. Use Onenote or Evernote. If there is an idea you want to pursue but do not have the time, write it down and return to it later. Have a running dialogue or conversation in your textbooks.
You might not be able to process it all now, but make sure you at least write it down in a way that you can access later. I have organized all of my notes on Onenote and return to things from lectures regularly. I have read back through notes and made connections I never made in the moment.
Commit to Serve in the Local Church
There is an analogy somewhere of a glass jar with big rock and small rocks. If you make the big rocks the priority, the little rocks will fit. If you do not prioritize the big rocks, they will not fit.
A big big rock is the local church. After a long week, Sunday can feel like a deserved day of rest. Many students can hesitate to participate in church, let alone serve. But the best way to balance a seminary education is with service in the local church. Serving is one of the best ways to get to know others in your church as well.
Step out. Put your name on that sign up sheet and let others make commitments for you. I bet they are looking for another hand in the nursery.
When in seminary I played guitar at church and helped in the nursery. There were many times in which I groggily plumped on the floor and played with one-year olds. But putting my name on a list and having people sign me up forced me to make service a priority.
Also do not underestimate the service of attendance in the local church. Many seminary students can become discouraged in wanting to serve in pastoral ministry but not seeing any doors opening up for them. I remember once at my church a pastor made a comment thanking me for my service of attendance. I stopped and asked him what he meant. He responded by saying that it is a service and encouragement to other Christians, particularly the leaders, to see members faithfully participating and attending services and events sponsored by the church. Do not underestimate what your presence and participating means to others.
One of the things non-traditional students need to accept is that they are not going to have the same experience as the regular student. Many days I slumped into the back of a 2 pm class having already worked 9 hours and burning off twelve shots of espresso, staring down 7 hours of lectures. When others were off to spend free-time in the library, I was running to my car in the middle of a lecture to put out fires at my store (sometimes literally).
Non-traditional students can easily become discouraged in comparing themselves to others. Their experience looks different than the traditional student. Jealousy and comparison are close and ready to take over your mind as you drive home after a long day of work and school.
For the non-traditional student, I’ve been there. I understand. But, don’t be discouraged. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. You have been given today to accomplish the task in front of you, whether you are working, studying or with your family. Do your best, pray, be faithful.
Remember God is calling you to be who he created and designed you to be, not your ideal version of what a seminary student should look like. Don’t get caught up in needing to be a pastor one day or getting the best grade in the class or on what you are not able to do. Be who he has called you to be. Focus on what he has given you to accomplish today, in loving your family, working your job and the privilege studying his Word. Be the non-traditional student he has called you to be and let Him take care of the rest.
Jared Poulton (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church Dublin, in Dublin, GA. He is married to Kerry Poulton and they have two children, Riley and Oliver. Jared and Kerry are originally from South Carolina. You can follow Jared Poulton on twitter at @Jared_Poulton, or see his personal blog at @jspoulton.wordpress.com.