What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary, Part 3: Field Education and Internships

Field ed: the best and worst part of the seminary experience. I completed three field education placements while I was in divinity school — Clinical Pastoral Education at a big hospital, a very traditional seminarian internship at a church, and a not-so-traditional case management internship at a teen health clinic. Here’s what I learned, or in some cases watched my classmates learn, in the process.

Field education is like a real job.

This will not surprise you if you’ve ever had one. However, it did surprise some (not all) of my classmates who had come to seminary directly from undergrad. So, at the risk of insulting your intelligence, I am here to tell you:

Treat your field ed placement like a real job. Dress professionally. Show up on time. Work hard at the tasks to which you are assigned, and accept that there will be parts that are boring or difficult, because that is how having a job works.

And yet …

Field education is not like a real job.

Not only because you get paid basically nothing, although that is one depressing reason. But the more important reason is that, unlike the primary function of a real job, the primary function of field education is to educate you.

Yes, if you are any good, the organization you serve will benefit from your presence. However, in exchange for your almost-free labor, you are owed constructive supervision, adequate support, and a portfolio of tasks that will teach you something.

This is not to say you won’t have to take your turn making coffee and emptying out the paper shredder bin. But if you find that ALL you’re doing are mindless office tasks, or conversely that you’re being asked to do work for which you are underqualified and untrained, bring this up with your supervisor. That’s not what you’re there for.

After you’ve completed your required placements, get creative if you’re in the mood.

The ordination process in my denomination required me to complete CPE and a church internship, but I had room for one more field ed placement after that. I wanted to get some experience with case management, and I found a match at an LGBTQ teen health clinic. My year there taught me so many skills that have come in handy in my life as a priest — everything from how to schedule a free consult with an immigration attorney (spoiler alert: it is a huge pain in the neck and you will have to wait months) to how to accompany a scared patient to a doctor’s visit (spoiler alert: just be a calm presence and discreetly offer to take notes, especially if the doctor is delivering bad news).

Is there some local organization doing the work of your dreams? Reach out during the spring prior to the academic year when you want to intern for them, and ask if they’d consider taking on a seminarian. The worst they can say is no.

If you intern at a federal work-study site but are not federal work-study eligible, you may not get paid at all.

Religious organizations (churches and some church-run nonprofits) CANNOT be federal work-study sites, which is good news for you if you’re not eligible for work-study. Health care facilities and secular nonprofits can usually pay interns with work-study funds, and may decline to pay you if you’re not work-study eligible.

If this is confusing to you, make an appointment with your school’s financial aid officer to talk about it. Just trust me.

Choose your field education site based on the quality of the supervisor.

Sure, every site is unique. But let’s be real: the way you will experience your site as an intern is not that unique. At a church, your tasks will involve liturgy, preaching, maybe education or outreach. At a hospital, you will visit sick people. At a nonprofit, you will sit under fluorescent lights and try to print reports from a computer that is running Windows 3.1.

What will make or break your experience is your supervisor. A great one can make even a tough experience positive; a bad one can make an otherwise great experience miserable. Before signing any contracts, always meet with your prospective supervisor in person and see if you click.

If your supervisor is inexperienced, you will need to work harder to get the most out of your time in field education.

Your new supervisor might be a truly excellent pastor/chaplain/executive who has never supervised a seminarian before. The odds are good that this person also has the potential to become a truly excellent supervisor. But it won’t happen automatically. Someone has to be the guinea pig. Oh boy, is it you?!?! Lucky you!

Here are a few examples of things you may need to communicate — gently — to a brand-new field education supervisor:

  • Your school expects you to commit X number of hours per week to field education, including travel time to and from the site. This means that your (e.g.) 15 hours are actually more like 12.
  • If your supervisor is late with certain items of necessary paperwork, they can really screw up your life (for example, you find you cannot apply to graduate because your seminary has not received your final evaluation for field ed). *
  • Weekly supervision meetings are, in most cases, not negotiable. You must have them, and they must last an hour. If your supervisor has to cancel a meeting, they need to find a time to reschedule.
  • You are a seminary intern, which means that supervision is a time for theological reflection. If your new supervisor is not a religious professional (or sometimes even if they are), they might be uncomfortable talking about the spiritual dimensions of your work. If you would like supervision sessions to open with a prayer, or if you want to talk about how God is using you in your field education work, you may have to bring that up yourself.

* Should you find that your supervisor is a little spacey, suggest that you devote an hour of supervision time to sitting there with your laptops and completing your respective evaluation forms. That way, you can make sure everything gets done.

If you find that things are a bit rocky with your supervisor, or at your site generally, go to someone in your seminary’s field education office. Because …

Your field education office is there to help you.

Anyone at your school who’s ever had a bad field ed experience is bound to smack-talk the field ed office, which means that field ed offices are subject to a lot of smack talk. Don’t take it all at face value. In that office, there is almost definitely someone who will listen to your concerns and help you solve your field ed problems.

Some examples of good times to get the field ed office involved include:

  • Your supervisor is laid off or goes on an unexpected medical leave.
  • Your supervisor has no-showed three supervision meetings in a row.
  • You spend a lot of time at your field ed site sitting around the office with nothing to do.
  • You were promised that your placement would include preaching opportunities, but it’s the end of March and no such opportunities have materialized.
  • A parishioner/client/staff member at the site touched you in a creepy way, and your supervisor blew you off when you brought it up.
  • Your paycheck has been “in the mail” for two months now and you’re starting to get suspicious.
  • You’re being pressured to work way more than your contracted number of hours per week.
  • You’re being pressured to ignore standard safety precautions (e.g., always having two adults in a room where children are present, or wearing gloves and a face mask while visiting contagiously ill patients), which I wish I could tell you never happens.

This bears restating in bold font:

When you have a problem at your field ed site, get the field ed office involved BEFORE you reach a crisis point.

Not after you’ve gone four months without a supervision meeting. Not after you’ve contracted TB because “it scares patients when we wear face masks.” Not after your grades have started to suffer because you’re spending 30 hours per week at your site instead of the contracted twelve.

BEFORE. Reach out to the field ed office BEFORE you’re in crisis. If you don’t get a good response from the first staff member you speak to, make an appointment with a different one. If you truly have bad luck with every single person in the office, talk to your academic advisor or (when applicable) your Title IX officer. Rally those troops. These kinds of problems are not made for you to solve alone.

But take heart, because …

Field education can be the most transformative part of your seminary experience.

I’ve already forgotten a lot of what I studied in seminary, including everything I read by Gregory the Great and most of the timeline of the authorship of the letters of Paul. But I have not forgotten how to plan a worship service, or help someone apply for a bus pass, or sit quietly with a person as they die. All these things are things I learned from field education.

Field ed is all about real people and real problems, which makes it sometimes frustrating, but also infinitely valuable to your formation for ministry. I hope your experience of it is wonderful. If not, drop me a line, and we can commiserate.

Or, really, talk to someone in your field ed office. I swear they know what’s up.

What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary, Part 2: Cash Money Dolla Dolla Bill Y’all

Money: If you are answering God’s call to a vocation in ministry, you are probably not going to have a lot of it. Still, even in graduate school, there is no reason to be more broke than necessary.

If you’re looking for a holistic framework for thinking about money from a Christian perspective, Boston University is offering a cool-sounding free online course in Faith and Finance that starts next week. Here, all you’ll find is a handful of lessons I learned courtesy of experience, my least favorite teacher.

Before I get any further, a disclaimer: No thanks to my own talents, I was super mega lucky with respect to finances in seminary. I had an employed spouse, zero dependents, and robust financial aid. Our household was carrying no consumer debt and a manageable amount of student debt. And I was still worried about money.

If your present straits are more dire, please know that I am not sharing the following advice in the spirit of finger-wagging or suggesting that lattes are the reason you’re poor. So much about our financial circumstances is beyond our control … so here is my small offering of things you CAN control in order to worry just a little bit less.

If money is an issue for you, apply to a whole bunch of schools because financial aid offers can vary by orders of magnitude.

When I entered the ordination process, I sat down with my bishop, and together we made a list of prospective seminary options that were Catherine-tested and bishop-approved. Because my wife and I are (alas) not rich beyond the dreams of avarice, I applied to every single one, then sat back and compared the aid packages they offered me.

One school was struggling financially and not in a position to give me any money at all. Yuck.

Another offered me a 50% tuition discount. Blah.

A third handed me full tuition, fees, and an annual stipend. BINGO.

And that is how I managed to scuttle out of seminary debt-free.

… Just kidding! My stipend was nowhere near enough to keep me fed and housed in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country. My seminary adventure also began with a hella expensive cross-country move. I had the great luck of a spouse who easily found a job when we relocated, but unfortunately she is a teacher and not an investment banker, so I still had to hustle. However …

There are so many (legal) ways to make extra cash in seminary.

Here are a few of the things I did for money while I was in divinity school, or wish I had:

  • Work at a church. If you have the skills to be a part-time youth minister, musician, or office assistant, there is a church out there that wants you on their staff. Most regional denominational bodies have job posting pages on their web sites (for example, here is mine). The spring before I started seminary, I drafted a cover letter for the hypothetical youth ministry position I hoped to find and checked this page every single day. My eventual boss was surprised to receive my application minutes after the job was posted, and somehow chose to interpret this as evidence that I was detail-oriented and responsible, rather than evidence that I was a compulsive freak. Thanks, boss!
  • Babysit/nanny. Some schools (like my alma mater) make this easy by offering databases where people who need child care can connect with people who want to provide it. I charged $20 an hour, and I got so many requests that I had to turn a lot of prospective employers away.
  • Teach a test prep class. I taught one SAT prep course for Kaplan and it frankly made me pretty miserable, but I hear better reports from people who have worked with other test-prep companies. The money’s not great but not terrible, and teaching is fun even if the sole purpose of your class is to reinforce the achievement gap.
  • Participate in psychology studies. Are you at or near a research university? No? How about a big hospital? If you Google “[name of school] psychology study,” you’ll find out how to join the study pool. (Some business and management schools offer paid studies, too.) My divinity school was right next door to the university’s psych research facility, so I made a habit of moseying over there a couple of times a week. Sometimes I spent fifteen minutes looking at colored dots on a computer screen before a student assistant handed me $10 in cash. Sometimes I got MRIs of my brain, which paid well because most people are too claustrophobic to lie in an MRI machine for three hours. I made Excel spreadsheets of my memories and rated how strongly I felt about them. I memorized long strings of nonsense words. I played little gambling games. It was honestly sort of fun.
  • Write freelance articles. Be wary of publications that just want to give you “exposure.” If you write well enough to get into graduate school, you write well enough to get paid for your work.
  • Get into the tutoring pool at an independent (private) school. If you are fluent in a commonly taught foreign language, are exceptionally patient at explaining math problems, or are fabulously organized and enjoy helping teenagers organize all their files in Google Drive, consider becoming a tutor. If you have prior teaching or tutoring experience, so much the better. Use the National Association of Independent Schools directory to look up independent schools in your area, then search for “[name of school] learning center” or “[name of school] tutoring.” Send your resume and a brief letter explaining your qualifications to each school’s learning center director and see what happens. Some experienced tutors in wealthy areas command over $100 per hour. I’m just saying.
  • Become an outdoor facilitator. I love being outside and once spent a summer directing a ropes course. Instead of teaching that crappy SAT class, I wish I had signed up to lead outdoor adventures with my local Girl Scout council, which is literally always recruiting adventure facilitators. If this kind of gig appeals to you, check local Girl Scout and Boy Scout employment postings, look for openings through the Association for Challenge Course Technology, or search out the ropes courses and rock climbing gyms in your area and see if they’re hiring.
  • Cash in an AmeriCorps education award. If you are sitting on one of these (shout-out to my fellow AmeriCorps alums), do not let it expire! Even if your term of AmeriCorps service was six years ago and you have no idea how to get your hands on that sweet sweet award cash, take heart. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you can remember your Social Security number.
  • Apply for one gazillion tiny regional scholarships. Because …

Patching together a bunch of tiny scholarships can make a real difference.

$500 might not seem like much against the staggering weight of tuition, but it can mean the difference between giving the financial aid office money at the end of the term and getting some back. At the end of my last semester of divinity school, when I got an ominous email saying “pay your last bill or we won’t let you graduate,” I checked my tuition account balance and was pleased to find out that I had come out exactly $42 ahead. I’m not making that up for all you Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans. It is, somehow, true.

A few quick searches will turn up a bunch of scholarship options, such as:

And that’s not even counting the many, many denominational scholarships out there. Give up a couple of hours and fill out all the applications. The worst anyone can tell you is no.

Changing your course of study can mess with your financial aid.

THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

If you enter seminary as a Master of Theological Studies student, then suddenly discover a previously latent ministerial vocation burning deep in your soul, go ahead and switch to a Master of Divinity. It might be a great idea.

But! Talk to a financial aid officer first!

If you are the recipient of a special named scholarship designated for a student who is pursuing an MTS in Pastafarian Studies, and then you drop that MTS like a hot rock, you may find that you drop your entire financial aid package with it. I’m not saying this is a compelling reason not to change programs if you truly feel that a different degree will better prepare you for your eventual vocation. But I AM saying, don’t let the money part take you by surprise.

You do not have to buy all those books.

Libraries have reserve texts for a reason. Instead of buying my own overpriced editions of page-turners like The Rhetoric of Sobriety: Wine in Early Islam, I just spent a few extra hours each week in the library, kicked back with the school-owned copies, and saved myself both the expense of buying books I was never going to read again and the hassle of offloading them at the end of the year.

After seminary, if you serve a church with any money at all, you will have a designated line item for buying books to strengthen you in your ministry. That is the time to start building your personal library with texts you actually want to read. Not in grad school, when you are broke.

… And that’s all I know about money in seminary. Come on back for Part 3, in which I will share some strong opinions about field education.

What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary, Part 1: General Advice

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.