It has been nine days since I officially became a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. In the past month especially, I've been asked the question, "So Mandy, how has seminary changed you?" While it is difficult to put into words what I've experienced these past three years, I'm going to make an attempt...
The top seven ways I've been changed by seminary:
1. I believe less, more. Before I entered seminary, I was given ample warnings, "Be careful. Don't let anyone take away your faith." I entered my first class a little nervous, convinced I was going to be dodging fiery arrows for the next three years. Soon into my time at PTS, I dropped my suspicion. I realized that people were not trying to make me stop believing what I believe. Instead, they wanted me to understand and articulate what it is I believe. I have yet to encounter a professor who enjoys destroying faith. Since my time at PTS, there have been beliefs that I have let go of or been more lax with, however, that which I have retained is much deeper than it was when I came. I believe less, more.
2. Only a word or two. This is my favorite "quick response" to the above question. In some ways, practically speaking, seminary has only changed me by a word or two--this is particularly true with my preaching. The hours spent in systematic theology classes, listening to lectures, reading theologians, and writing papers all boils down to changing me by...a word or two. Not big, theologically words, but little words. Little words like "in" or "through." Will these little word changes make a difference to the congregation I am preaching to? Maybe. Probably not. Do they change the preacher? Definitely.
3. Useless vocabulary. Since my time in seminary, I have encountered the limits of using words like "liberal" and "conservative." I had always assumed The Wesleyan Church was a conservative denomination until I encountered Presbyterians who found my church very liberal because we fail to say The Apostles Creed every week. I think these labels have so many meanings tagged on that they cease to be helpful.
4. God is not male. I knew this before I entered seminary, but I'm not sure I truly got it (not that I "get it" now). I recently read Plan B by Anne Lamott and was a little annoyed by her continual reference to God as being "he or she." God is not he or she. I guess you could say God is he and she...and then some. (In general, God is seldom X or Y. ) With that said, I don't have a problem referring to God as "he," (we know God through the revelation of Jesus who came as a male). I do, however, go out of my way to make scripture gender inclusive for congregants.
5. Women in ministry...it's pretty normal. Being at PTS has shown me that being a woman in ministry is pretty normal. On a campus where half the student population is female, I have been overwhelmingly encouraged in ministry. It's not a big deal here. It was at PTS where I heard my first woman pastor preach on a Sunday morning. It was also at PTS where I recieved the Lord's Supper from a woman. I was suprised how meaningful these experiences were for me.
6. God cares for the poor. Again, this is one of those things that I knew, but I didn't really "get." This is probably the area I have been most challenged in--it's also the area that I have the hardest time articulating. To say that "God cares for the poor," doesn't seem to do justice to what I am trying to get across...yet at the same time, it's exactly what I'm trying to get across. Something has changed in me, and I'm not quite sure what--this has also caused some political shifts in me, but more on that later...
7. Cynicism is too easy. Before I officially enrolled in seminary, I asked an older student to give me one piece of advice. She said, "Don't become cynical." I didn't understand what she meant until I began living on campus. Cynicism is too easy. It's easy to be cynical when students do not live what they preach. It easy to become cynical when I see a fellow seminarian getting drunk Friday evening after Friday evening...it's much harder to go to that person on a Wednesday and ask if they are struggling with an addiction. My temptation to be cynical towards my fellow seminarian is dwindling. Now the temptation is to be cynical towards other Christians. Now I must fight the urge against taking shots against what I think might be immature faith. I did not go to seminary so that I can look down upon those who did not have the opportunity to think through their faith in a seminary setting. I am walking away from seminary with the knowledge that I am going to have to fight within myself to keep from being cynical of other's beliefs.
Well, there you have it. Those are the top seven things that came to mind on this Monday afternoon. I have loved my time at seminary. To be perfectly honest, the only reason I enrolled in seminary is because I didn't know what else to do. John was already a student, and I didn't feel ready to get a "real" job. PTS was the right place for me. There is no doubt in my mind.