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.

The Planner That Will Finally Solve All Your Organizational Problems

Like so many others, I feel a thrill whenever I wander through a store aisle full of back-to-school supplies. Even if I am just on a quick dash to CVS to buy ant traps, that intoxicating odor of fresh pencils and tempera paint gets me every single time.

I remember squeezing my father’s hand as we gazed together at shelves and shelves of spiral-bound notebooks. I remember carefully attaching those sticky multicolor tabs to the dividers in my three-ring binder. And, not least, I remember the enormous care I put into selecting the perfect day planner.

Every single year — even once the math facts and spelling quizzes had given way to college essays and problem sets, even once I was old enough to know better — I managed to convince myself that, if I only bought the right planner, everything else would fall into place. I would never miss another deadline. I would measure out my days in fifteen-minute increments, gentle but precise. I would finally be like the beautiful straight girls whose specters haunted me all through my twelve years of school.

I bet you had these girls at your school too. They had flawless handwriting. They had perfect hair. And, though even as a kid I suspected they didn’t truly have it all together, they had something even more potent: the ability to fake it.

I had none of those things. Not by a long shot. But I was sure, absolutely sure, that the right organizational tool would help me acquire them all.

Ha.

Ha ha.

AHAHAHAHAHA.

Just kidding. That was a dumb thing to think. There is no planner that finally solved all my organizational problems, and there is no planner that will finally solve all of yours, because there is no planner (yet) with the capacity to rewire your personality from the ground floor up.

BUT! Even if you are, like me, congenitally disorganized and chronically late, there is no reason for despair. There are plenty of tools out there to help you get your life — or at least your working hours — in shape. Everyone has a different style; my personal preference these days is to schedule meetings and appointments (not to mention professional development) in Google Calendar, but use a paper journal for to-do lists, reminders, and blocking out those long stretches in the office where I have to get fifteen small tasks done in no special order.

If you’re starting to shop around for a new planner as September approaches, here are a few that are either tried-and-true favorites or have sparked my interest (h/t the forum at Young Clergy Women International that tipped me off to several of these):

Church-Minded Planners

sacred ordinary daysSacred Ordinary Days. This is a favorite among the Young Clergy Women, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s now available in either an academic-year or a liturgical-year format.

Pros: Elegant design, 7.75×8.75″, with a hard cover and ribbon bookmarks. Pages are cleanly laid out and include Revised Common Lectionary readings, as well as room for daily goals and projects. There are also cool extras like a liturgical wheel calendar and a (fingertip-scaled) prayer labyrinth.

Cons: At 2.5 pounds, this planner is a serious doorstop. It is not a good choice for hauling around in your purse. It will also set you back $47. Several fans reported that they love using this book as a prayer journal but would never rely on it as a daily planner.

episcopal liturgical appointment calendarEpiscopal Liturgical Appointment Calendar. This was my day planner of choice before I switched to an online scheduler, and now I use it for daily devotions — when I read the Bible passages from the Daily Office, I make little notes of thoughts, themes, and sermon ideas.

Pros: Handy size (8.5×10″ fits in a purse but still gives you plenty of space to write); beautiful layout; includes Daily Office and RCL Bible passages (conveniently listed on each day of the planner so you don’t have to mess around with a chart), plus extras like art, quotations, and the liturgical color for each day. Luxurious two-page spread for each week. Also, the 2018 edition is PURPLE.

Cons: Starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which is very spiritual and so forth, but most people do not celebrate the liturgical New Year by breaking out a new planner.

calendar and workbook for church leadersCalendar & Workbook for Church Leaders. This one comes in both an ecumenical and a United Methodist-specific version (thanks, Abingdon Press!).

Pros: At 6×9″, this is a bit more portable than the calendars above. It also features extra space on Sundays so that you have plenty of room to write down worship details, and there are designated pages for the contact information of your church staff.

Cons: Not nearly as elegant-looking as the calendars above. RCL readings are squished into a teensy little chart instead of listed for each day, which would drive me insane.

Justice-Minded Planners

planning to change the world a plan book for social justice teachersPlanning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers. Includes lots of book recommendations and lesson plan ideas that would not be out of place in your Sunday school.

Pros: At 9×11″, this planner will give you lots of space to write. Also, there is so much cool stuff in it! (See sample pages here.) Full of interesting birthdays and historical dates of people and events that made the world better.

Cons: Not the most portable of the bunch.

justseeds-eberhardt-press-organizer.jpgJustseeds Organizer. There is simply no lovelier planner anywhere, and your purchase will support the worker-owned Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.

Pros: Visually stunning, especially if you are a sucker for woodcuts like me. Art on the art pages and clean, unfussy design on the calendar pages. Available in two different sizes.

Cons: 2018 edition is not available yet (the link will take you to the 2017 edition). Two weeks on each two-page spread would cramp my planning style, especially given that the larger version is only 5×8″.

slingshot organizer

Slingshot Organizer. Feeling a little blue about your decision to become a tool of the institutional church? Keep your radical streak alive with the Slingshot Organizer (you can find it at Microcosm Publishing if you’d rather not buy it from Amazon).

Pros: DIY/zine aesthetic. I used a Slingshot for a year and really liked it, especially the inclusion of important dates in labor history and the list of key phrases in various languages (e.g., “freedom and mutual aid” and “Where is the library?”). Two-page spread for each week. Comes in a bunch of colors and two different sizes.

Cons: DIY/zine aesthetic, which is not everybody’s thing. 2018 edition is not available yet (links will take you to the 2017 edition). Some of the art may startle your parishioners when you open your planner at the stewardship meeting. Also, at 5.5×8.5″, I found even the large version of this planner to be slightly too small.

Fancy Pinterest-Minded Planners

bullet journalBullet Journal. I understand that the “Bullet Journal” is, uh, not a planner but a movement. To me, Bullet Journaling just seems like an unnecessarily labor-intensive way of keeping a to-do list. However, if you watch the video and decide it’s a method that suits you, by all means go for it. You can spring for the fancy branded journal linked above, or just get yourself a nice plain notebook.

Pros: If you are naturally artistic, Bullet Journaling gives you lots of room for creativity. You can do it in any old notebook, rather than springing for an expensive planner. The little symbols seem to really work for a lot of people.

Cons: Did I already say “unnecessarily labor-intensive way of keeping a to-do list”? Also, if you are not naturally artistic, don’t spend too much time looking at Bullet Journal exemplars on Pinterest or it will give you the blues.

passion plannerPassion Planner. For keeping your staff meetings and your deepest passions all in one place, a concept which I find sometimes appealing and sometimes annoying, depending on the day.

Pros: Visually elegant. Includes space for reflection and dreaming about the future. Available in multiple colors and sizes, and in academic-year, calendar-year, or undated format. Again, if you are naturally artistic, the Passion Planner will give you room to go wild.

Cons: To me, this seems like a planner for someone who is already extremely organized. Between the “weekly layouts,” “monthly layouts,” and “passion roadmaps,” I would mix myself up and miss a dental appointment in no time.

plum paperPlum Paper Planner. The infinitely customizable planner for the modern age. If you enjoy scrapbooking, or perhaps if you enjoy the idea of scrapbooking but would prefer someone else to mess around with the scissors and glue, Plum Paper is for you.

Pros: Colorful and visually appealing. Available in many patterns and sizes. You can add seven custom daily sections, and there are various additional page packs available for purchase (e.g., wedding planning, baby planning, and fitness planning, not to mention homeschooling and direct sales if you are into such things).

Cons: The scrapbook aesthetic, especially in the workplace, is not to everyone’s taste. Also, customization is expensive. The 8.5×11″ planners start at $42, but can quickly double in price, depending on how much stuff you want to add.

erin condren lifeplannerErin Condren Lifeplanner. Not quite as customizable as Plum Paper, but another solid choice for clean layout and pretty designs.

Pros: Styles range from stolid boardroom (black and navy faux-leather covers) to fantastically girly (sparkly flowers everywhere!!!!). The calendar pages are available in three different layouts to suit your scheduling style. Also comes in a hard-bound edition, if you find spiral bindings annoyingly snaggy. Included are a pouch, folder, and one million stickers.

Cons: These things start at $55 and climb quickly in price as you customize them (unless you go for the academic-year student planner, which is not as fancy but begins at a more reasonable $25). I never use those pouch/folder/sticker extras, so to me they just take up extra space.

Whatever tools you choose for planning your new program year, I hope the year itself will be a really really good one. My goal for the year to come is to do all my boring administrative work as efficiently as possible so that I can devote myself to being luxuriously inefficient with the good stuff. Every hour of my workweek that I don’t spend in front of a computer is an extra hour I can spend hanging out at a parishioner’s bedside or quieting my mind to pray.

I’m shopping around for a new planner myself, but I no longer fantasize that choosing the right one will turn me into a different person. I will always have “distinctive” handwriting, unruly hair, and less than zero ability to fake it.

And that’s okay with me now. I have grown — or, more accurately, I am still growing — into exactly the person God made me to be.

Not to say becoming a slightly timelier version of that person would be all bad.

Ordination & Seminary Graduation Gift Ideas

When I was getting ready to be ordained, my dad called me up and said, “So, should we buy you a chalice?”

I thought about it for a minute, trying to imagine what on earth I would do with my own personal silver chalice.

I said, “Is that a thing?”

He said, “I thought so. When I was growing up, if a guy from the neighborhood got ordained, the family always bought him a chalice.”

I don’t know whether the personal chalice is still a custom for Catholic priests, but I was pretty sure I didn’t need one of my own. This did not help my family and friends with ordination gift selection at all. Still, they managed to give me some killer presents, several of which I use every single day. If you are on the hunt for an ordination gift or seminary graduation gift, here are a few ideas that are all but guaranteed to be well-received:

Diploma/certificate frame. It is pretty awesome to be able to show off your hard-earned ordination certificate or seminary diploma, but good frames are expensive, so often these treasured documents just sit in mailing tubes for years. If you have around $170 to spend and want a gift that is beautiful AND useful, buy your seminarian a frame with that special UV-protective glass so that the diploma won’t fade. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Take your seminarian and her diploma or certificate to a custom frame store and pick out a frame together.
  • Buy your seminarian a gift certificate to a custom frame store (an especially good option if she is about to move and would rather just leave the diploma in the mailing tube until she gets settled).
  • Campus bookstores often sell diploma frames that are decked out with the school crest and stuff. Call your seminarian’s campus bookstore (or check out its website) and see if you can find one.

Magazine subscription. Now, there are some weird Christian magazines out there. I am not suggesting that you buy your new graduate a year’s supply of Above Rubies or Midnight Call. However, any of these could be a nice treat:

Wristwatch. There are many moments in ministry when you need to know the time, yet it is in decidedly poor taste to yank out your phone. (The graveside service that takes place immediately before the funeral, for example.) While it is possible to spend four or five or six or seven figures on a watch, you can also find plenty of elegant and professional options for much much less. Here are a few that I like, including a lot of Timex and Anne Klein at the lower end because neither brand has ever steered me wrong.

Options under $30:

  • Anne Klein Two-Tone (gold/silver-tone band, rectangular white face)
  • Timex Cavatina (black leather band, white face)
  • Timex Uptown Chic (white leather band, white/gold-tone face)
  • Timex Weekender (this version comes with a blue nylon band, but it’s easy to switch out bands to dress it up or down — my wife wears her Weekender with about half a dozen different watchbands, including black leather for dressing up and green-and-yellow nylon for Oregon game days. Go Ducks!)

Options under $50:

Options under $100:

Monogrammed stationery. My priestly life is one long heroic endeavor to keep the U.S. Postal Service in business. Thank-you-for-running-the-evensong-reception notes. I-enjoyed-seeing-you-in-the-school-play notes. Sorry-to-hear-about-the-death-in-your-family notes. The-confirmation-class-appreciated-your-tour-of-the-sacristy notes. Any clergyperson worth her salt is always going to have a use for nice stationery and a decent pen.

Bookstore gift certificate with a heartfelt handwritten note suggesting your favorite religious book, which the recipient may then purchase herself. Why not just give her the book? There are a few reasons, buddy. First of all, she already has three copies of Mere Christianity. Second, books are heavy and she might be about to move. Third, how are you going to feel if you learn that the book that changed your life is, uh, not quite to her taste? Unless you know the recipient and her preferences VERY well, just let her pick the book out herself. With one exception …

Denominational prayer book or hymnal (bonus for engraving!). In my tradition, this is the Book of Common Prayer & Hymnal 1982. It’s cheapest on Amazon, of course, but if you order it from Episcopal Bookstore, you’ll be supporting a small business with great customer service AND they’ll engrave the recipient’s name on it in gold for just $13. Note: This is also a popular farewell gift from church internship sites, so do discreetly find out whether your seminarian already has one.

Why not a Bible? See above. I have an entire SHELF of Bibles in my office, not including the two very nice ones I was presented with at my two ordinations (diaconate and priesthood). It’s a nice thought and the recipient will surely appreciate the spirit of the gift, but you can find something else that will be put to better use.

Stole! Everybody loves a stole! See the Rock That Collar vestment guide for tips on colors and styles. Some sources for clergy stoles (no promises re: taste) are:

Remember, when in doubt, look for quality fabrics and simple design. A stole like this might make a good wall hanging, but woe to the Episcopalian or Lutheran who tries to pull off such a thing at the Sunday morning service.

Clerical attire. For my ordination, my cousins and aunts banded together and bought me a clergy dress from Casual Priest. It was a wonderfully lavish gift, but darned if I don’t wear that dress at least twice a week, every single week. The cost per wear is plummeting fast.

If you don’t have $220 or an army of relatives to help share the cost, I highly recommend the made-to-measure shirts and dresses from Clergy Image. A gift certificate for any amount is not a bad bet.

Cross necklace. Who needs points for originality when you can give a gift that the recipient will wear every day? As I’ve said before, a good size of cross to wear with a clergy collar is generally 1.5″-2.5″. A few of my favorites (all sterling silver because the quality for the price can’t be beat) are:

Prayer manipulative. Is there a better term for “thing you hold while you pray”? Many world religions use prayer beads or something similar to help focus the mind during prayer. Depending on the recipient’s tradition, a rosary (with beads made from rose quartz, Connemara marble, Murano glass, lapis lazuli, or another pretty stone), Orthodox prayer rope, or set of Anglican prayer beads* can make a beautiful gift.

Almost every Christian tradition uses the cross as a symbol, so a simple wooden holding cross (sometimes called a “hand cross” or “palm cross,” not to be confused with a cross made out of palms) is also a good bet. One of my favorite ordination presents was a wooden cross from ByRon PalmCross, which I love to hold during daily silent contemplative prayer at my church. Rosary beads are too noisy for this purpose, although I confess that I sometimes say a decade of the rosary by counting on my fingers.**

*In my household, we refer to Anglican prayer beads as “the fake rosary.” I’ve never actually met anyone who uses these as part of a regular prayer practice, but I’m sure I will someday.

**I love to pray the rosary, provided I modify the Hail, Holy Queen to make it less depressing and the Fatima Prayer to make it less scary. More on this in some other post.

Travel Communion kit. I just bought a sterling silver necklace at our church rummage sale for $2, so I’m not sure why silver-plated communion items are so preposterously expensive. Almy has the nerve to call its smallest travel kit “economical” at $559. However, if you have an enormous amount of money or a LOT of relatives who want to chip in for a gift, some clergy like to have their own travel Communion kits. Engraving the kit with the recipient’s initials is a charming personal touch and will also prevent other clergy from mistaking it for their own.

Nice leather bag. To replace the ubiquitous grad-student backpack. My first pick will always be a black leather tote big enough to hold a laptop and a prayer book. Some nice choices (all under $200, some under $100) include:

Massage gift certificate. Because not EVERY gift has to last a lifetime. Most graduate students are very short on money or time or both, and small luxuries often drop way down to the bottom of the priority list. I assure you that the gift of a nice massage will be very, very, very much appreciated.

Did you receive a treasured ordination gift that isn’t on this list? What do you like to give to friends who are completing seminary or getting ordained? Let me know in the comments!

Rock That Collar: Featured on Beauty Tips for Ministers!

I’m a longtime fan of Beauty Tips for Ministers, a blog by PeaceBang, otherwise known as my fellow Massachusetts clergywoman the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein. She writes about clergy image and style, offering plenty of beauty tips but also so much more:

So you can only imagine my pure giddiness at being featured on BTFM.

Read the post here.

And don’t worry … Vestment Shopping for the Liturgically Challenged: Part 2 is on its way. I have a LOT of thoughts about how you should look in a cassock.