What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary: Part 1

Hello, everybody! I hope you’ve been having a fabulous summer. I’ve been offline for most of it, first for an incredible two-week seminar at Canterbury Cathedral and then preaching on this island you can reach only by boat and then serving as a summer camp chaplain at this awesome place. But now I’m home again, snuggled in with my wife and the cats. It feels pretty darn good.

And somehow it’s August, and the start of school is around the corner, and I’m remembering the all the excitement and dread I felt in the last weeks before I began seminary. Overall, I had a positive experience there. But there are a handful of things — mostly nuts-and-bolts kinds of things — I wish somebody had told me beforehand. The next few posts here on Rock That Collar will be a messy roundup of just those things. If you’ve gone to seminary yourself, do comment and let me know what to add.

And if you’re just about to start seminary? Hooray! This post is for you.

For starters …

Everyone else is just as nervous as you are.

When I started seminary, I was twenty-six and had been out of school for five years. This doesn’t seem like such a long time in retrospect, but at the time, I was terrified that I had forgotten how to be a student — how to sift through journal articles, write research papers, speak up in class. You know, student stuff.

Of course, once I got there, I found that my classmates came from an enormous range of backgrounds and age groups and that we were all nervous about something. Some people were returning to school after a forty-year hiatus. Some were doing academic work in English for the first time. Others were coming directly from undergrad and had never paid bills or rented apartments before.

We all had some kind of learning curve. And you know what? We all did just fine.

The most competitive CPE sites fill up way before their posted deadlines.

Clinical Pastoral Education, better known as CPE, is an intensive chaplaincy internship (most often completed in a hospital setting) that is a required component of training for most clergy and chaplains. If, like most full-time students, you want to complete CPE in the summer, you are probably checking out sites whose application deadlines are in mid-November. Does that mean you should wait until mid-November to apply? NO! CPE deadlines are rolling, and if you mail your application on the due date, your top-choice site may be long since full.

Now, competitive CPE applications are not like competitive college applications. Three things make a CPE site competitive:

  1. Desirable location. Are you hoping to complete CPE in a big city, or in the town where you and 8,000 other seminary students now live? Get that application in early.
  2. Popular supervisor at the site. Excellent CPE supervisors are treasures in their own right, and they tend to attract a following. If your seminary classmates speak of a certain local CPE supervisor in hushed and reverential tones, getting a spot at his or her site is going to take some extra work.
  3. Terrible supervisor at a site down the street. What’s that you say? There are only two accredited CPE sites in your town? And one of them has a supervisor who is infamously abusive? So you’re hoping for a spot at the other one? Huh. Better get writing.

Submitting your applications six weeks before the deadline is not a bad idea at all. You deserve every chance to get your top choice so that you can be as traumatized by CPE as the rest of us.

Do not ever say anything mean about anyone in the church to anyone else in the church.

Anything.

Anyone.

Ever.

I actually did know this before I went to seminary, but only because I started out as a lay religious professional. Christendom is not as big as you think. Your denomination, especially, is very very small. Whatever unkind thing you say will, if it doesn’t get back to the person you said it about, at the very least get back to someone else — a potential employer, or perhaps that extremely attractive colleague you are always eyeing at church conferences. How were you supposed to know that they are best friends with the person you called “a cosmic void of self-absorption” when you thought no one could overhear?

Nasty gossip is bad for your career prospects, but it is even worse for your spirit. Just don’t do it. When conversations among church friends turn in that direction — as they inevitably will — abruptly change the subject by pulling out your phone and showing everyone a video of a screaming goat.

Screaming goats are hilarious, but I am not joking.

By the way, if it doesn’t go without saying that this principle applies extra hard to your text and email habits, it should.

Career Services has no idea how to help you find a job.

One hopes this will be untrue if you are attending a seminary affiliated with your denomination. If you’re at an interdenominational school, though, or if you’re an Episcopalian attending a Lutheran seminary (or a Methodist at an Episcopal seminary, or …), do not count on the Career Services office to have even a minimal understanding of how your polity works, how the hiring process happens in your tradition, or when you ought to start looking for your first call.

Does this mean Career Services is useless to you? Of course not. They can look over your cover letters and resume, suggest cool scholarships and fellowships that might suit your interests, and offer plenty of tips if you are considering a vocation outside parish ministry. (For example: Want to teach or become a chaplain at an independent school? Carney Sandoe is where it’s at.)

Find a spiritual director and a therapist BEFORE you need one.

I mean, I guess everybody always needs a spiritual director, but you might not need a mental health therapist right now. The thing is, weird stuff happens. There are the normal things:

  • Your loved one gets sick or dies unexpectedly.
  • You go through a horrible breakup.
  • You are in a scary car/bike/boat/ski/unicycle accident.
  • You just feel awfully stressed out and a little lonely and you’re not sure how to make it better.

Then there are the things that are a little more likely to happen in seminary:

  • Your ordination process hits a roadblock you didn’t see coming.
  • You start to have doubts about your faith, and corresponding panic about what those doubts might mean for your career.
  • A 19-year-old dies of a heroin overdose in the middle of the night at your CPE site and you’re the only person on call and weeks later you can’t stop thinking about it.
  • Your field education supervisor gropes you one day without warning and you really want to never see him again but you need the field education credit to graduate on time.

In my case, what ran me off the rails was a serious back injury that ruined my entire last year of school. I had been hustling through seminary as a reasonably high-functioning grown-up who could juggle marriage and family, a full courseload, and three different low-paying part-time jobs with ease; all of a sudden — thanks to a herniated disc, if anyone is wondering — I was a helpless blob who could not put on shoes unassisted or roll myself over in bed. The pain was excruciating, but the loss of independence was much, much worse.

I survived this brutal period of my life thanks only to the otherworldly patience of my spouse and closest friends, but what helped me hang onto a little bit of my sanity through it was the support of a very kind therapist. Talking to her (usually while lying on her office floor with my knees pulled up to my chest, which was still painful but slightly less painful than every other possible position) was an absolute godsend. Waiting six weeks for a mental health consult from my overtaxed seminary health center before I got to talk to that therapist, though, was less helpful. I wish I’d made the connection earlier and had somebody on call.

… And that’s all I’ve got for Part 1. After you read this post, maybe you can say a little prayer for people who are starting seminary this fall. I assure you they could all use it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s