Syllabus Strategies for a Successful Semester

The first week of seminary is a fantastic gift.  By the beginning of each class, if not before, they provide a syllabus, which contains all the assignments you’ll need to complete this semester and their due dates.

The class syllabus is a time management bonanza. If you take a few moments to plan well, it can make the semester much easier for you.

Here’s what you need to do:

Calendar Everything

  1. Get your calendar. You should have only one calendar, because you have only one life. (Be sure you coordinate well with your spouse and kids.)
  2. Note all the dates of your papers and exams.
  3. To the best of your ability, block out study and writing time in the week before each exam, and two weeks before each paper is due.
  4. Schedule recovery time. Be sure to schedule some down time right after mid-terms, and after big assignments are due. Plan to relax a bit. If you schedule a day trip, a date, or some fun activity just after the crunch, it will give you something to look forward to after the big project.
  5. Make a note of when the worst crunch times are, like midterms and finals. If you’re married, discuss it with your spouse. If your job allows for any scheduling leeway, let your boss know early. If you’re a valuable employee, she just might work with you.

Following these suggestions will save you time and frustration all semester long.

Start Reading Now

Seminary involves a LOT of reading. At the beginning of the semester, you typically have more open time. Seize it! Use it to read ahead now, and then when the first wave of papers is due, you won’t be so rushed.

There may be some classes you can read ahead in more easily.

Look over your assigned reading, and decide which reading will be more challenging and which is more accessible. You may want to wade through the difficult stuff early, or breeze through the easy stuff first. Either way, get a jump on it.

One friend of mine who is in seminary now reads ahead an entire semester.  He gets the syllabi for the coming semester, and does all his reading before the semester starts. Then during the current semester, he reads for the following semester.

Even if you can only get an extra six hours or so of reading in during the first few weeks, that will give you six hours you can use later when it’s crunch time.

Craft a Writing Plan for Every Major Paper

Writing papers on the scale that seminary requires can be daunting if you haven’t done it before. Ten to fifteen page papers are common; so are twenty-five to thirty page papers. Most undergraduate work doesn’t require writing of this length.

It will help to create a writing plan for each major paper. Here’s how.

First, Break It Down.

To create a writing plan, begin by breaking down the project into manageable tasks. Make a list of everything you’ll need to do:

  • Assess topic choices
  • Choose a topic
  • Get topic approved by your professor
  • Find sources
  • Research your sources and take notes on them
  • Formulate a thesis
  • Create an outline
  • Write first draft
  • Revise, and write final draft
  • Format the paper
  • Proofread
  • Make final corrections and submit

The level of detail you choose is partly a function of how you think about the project, and how big the assignment is.

Second, Estimate the Time

Second, estimate how much actual clock time will be needed for each task in the breakdown, and write it down. For instance,

  • Assess topic choices (10 minutes)
  • Choose a topic (1 minute)
  • Get topic approved by your professor (5 minutes)
  • Find sources (3 hours)
  • Research your sources and take notes on them. (6 hours)
  • Formulate a thesis (10 minutes)
  • Create an outline (20 minutes)
  • Write first draft (4-6 hours)
  • Revise, and write final draft. (3 hours)
  • (30 minutes)

Your time estimates will vary depending on the size of each project and the pace at which you work. Pay attention to your time estimates; they will often be way off. Make note of how long each step actually takes, so you’ll be able to make more precise plans for future projects.

Third, Reserve the Time Now

Finally–this is important–block off time in your calendar for each task, beginning anywhere from one to four weeks before the due date. I’d suggest that you plan to finish at least a couple of days before the due date to give you some leeway if you fall behind schedule.

If possible, start the paper early. In some classes, you have to cover a certain amount of material before you’re prepared to write some papers, but not always.

Make A Study Plan for Each Major Exam

Similar to creating a writing plan for papers, you should block out dedicated study time for major exams.

If you do this now, at the beginning of the semester (and stick to your schedule), then you won’t be pinched to find time to study.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Reserve study blocks beginning about a week before the exam.
  • Plan for multiple, short study times rather than longer blocks. Four 30-minute blocks will probably make for better retention than a single two-hour marathon review.
  • Reserve this time now, and plan around it.

Also consider these study ideas:

  • Swap class notes with someone and read over your friend’s notes. This will help refresh your memory of lectures and pick up things you might have missed.
  • If you’ve underlined and/or highlighted your class reading well, it should be relatively easy to review what you’ve read.
  • Get a friend to quiz you on points you’ll be tested on. Iron sharpens iron, and it’s a good excuse to get coffee.

This is a draft chapter from The Complete Seminary Survival Guide, forthcoming Fall 2017, by Mark Warnock and Tyler Wright.

How to Pick a Seminary

Choosing a seminary is no small decision, because it will be a significant investment of your life. It will take years, it will cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it will be challenging. Take careful time and thought in making your choice.

The first thing to remember is that seminary is not an end in itself. It is a means to prepare you for ministry. So right at the beginning, ask yourself: what kind of ministry will I be doing? Even if you’re not entirely certain, your plans for future ministry will influence which seminary might be the best choice for you.

Here are several factors to consider as you’re choosing a seminary, some much more important (doctrine) than others (special programs).

Denomination. What denomination do you expect to serve in? If you’re committed to serve a particular brand of church, start with their seminaries. Southern Baptist students will probably gravitate to one of the six SBC seminaries. PCA students, to Covenant in St. Louis or RTS in Jackson or Orlando. If you aren’t tied to a particular denomination, or will be working in parachurch movements, you will have more options.

Doctrine. Seminaries vary in their doctrine, so know your seminary’s confessional position before you go. Seminary provides a credential for your resume that will label you as being one of “their kind” of students. It is of course possible to be a liberal student at a conservative school, or vice versa, but if you want to establish conservative credentials, for instance, going to a liberal school might work against you.

Faculty. The quality of instruction at a seminary is directly linked to the quality of the faculty. Some seminaries are loaded with well-known, published scholars. Others have credentialed but unknown professors. Is there someone you absolutely want to study with? Keep in mind, however, that reputation is not an entirely reliable guide. A professor whose academic work is highly respected may be crummy in the classroom. Some of the most able teachers might be people you’ve never heard of.

Culture. Every seminary has its own culture and emphasis. What are the schools you’re considering known for? Academic theology? Apologetics? Mission and evangelism? Social engagement?

Location. One downside of residential seminaries is that often you must move to a new city, and leave the region that you intend to serve in upon graduation. This separation can last for years, disconnecting you from the local culture, ministry network, or family relationships where you live now. Consider local options before you move across the country.

Cost. How much does it cost? This is a critically important consideration, because ministry jobs do not pay very well, and student loans can be a serious financial millstone around your neck. Many prospective seminary students already have significant debt from their undergraduate work.

We called several seminaries and asked them to approximate the expense of earning degree with them. This information turned out to be difficult to find. Websites were unhelpful, and some admissions departments were evasive. Our investigation found that the average tuition for a Master of Divinity from a reputable, accredited, evangelical seminary in 2017 is around $50,000. Some are higher.

The cost of seminary has soared along with all other higher education. Even after adjusting for inflation, that figure is around 40% higher than the same program a generation ago. Keep in mind, too, that this figure is for tuition only—it does not include books, fees or other expenses.

Some denominational seminaries offer large discounts to students from that denomination, as much as 50% or more, which is a significant advantage. A few seminaries with large endowments even offer tuition-free seminary.

Before you rush to apply, however, consider other factors, like the doctrine and culture of the school. In terms of your final ministry goal, a free M.Div from a seminary outside your confession might be an obstacle to hiring rather than a boon. Some of these free programs come from declining denominations desperate for a new generation of leaders. Also, some free “seminary” programs are not accredited. They may not meet the same academic standards, and may not be recognized as a legitimate credential. Investigate carefully before enrolling.

Special programs. Some seminaries may offer special concentrations not available in other places: urban ministry, cross-cultural missions, women’s ministry, leadership, etc.

Availability of jobs. A seminary in a small town may not provide the kind of employment opportunities you need to support yourself as easily as other locations. Ask if your seminary has any special relationships with local employers.

Online seminary or distance options. Nearly every seminary has online or distance options now. Some seminaries have regional satellite locations where you can attend class without moving, or offer modular courses where you only go to campus for one or two week intensives. Online classes can be a good choice, if you have the kind of discipline necessary to study where you are. Some students do better when they are in the physical environment of seminary.

Online or distance options open up more employment possibilities, too. You might be able to earn more money at a local business or church ministry position than working part-time at UPS or Starbucks in a new town. Online seminary can also move with you from town to town. If you have a job that requires travel, or are doing ministry already in a remote location, online seminary might be a good choice.

Alternatives to seminary. Look for local churches that have residency programs for pastors or church planters. Though these can’t be found just anywhere, seminaries are increasingly partnering with churches to provide credit for church-based ministry training. These programs can cost significantly less than residential seminaries.

Pray. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9. God knows your future far better than you. Ask him. Like a good shepherd, you can expect that he will guide you right. Depend on it.


Mark Warnock is the editor of seminarysurvivalguide.com.

This is a draft chapter from The Complete Seminary Survival Guide, forthcoming Fall of 2017.

Relationships Are More Important Than You Think

The most important benefit of seminary might be the people you meet, not the things you learn.

Imagine yourself in a new student orientation meeting with dozens or hundreds of other fellow students. Sitting around you are the people who will be leading God’s church in your generation. A few are clowns.  Others will wash out and not continue in ministry.  But some of your fellow students will become highly influential leaders in the church and the Kingdom all over the world.

Some will become pastors of large and influential churches. Some will become professors or even presidents of seminaries. Some will pioneer new missions and movements in places all around the world.

Imagine yourself sitting in the first week of classes one semester.  Your professors, who are paid to teach you and give you some of their attention, might be among the top ten scholars in the world in their particular fields of study.

You really need to get to know these people, for two reasons. First of all, they are just amazing and fascinating. People at seminary have to pass two important qualifications to even be there: they have to love God and they have to be academically competent. This means, on the whole, that your fellow students will be both spiritually and intellectually strong.  Who wouldn’t want friends like that?

Second, though this might seem crassly pragmatic, in the world of ministry it is as true as it is in business or in Hollywood: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.  Most ministry positions are filled through relational networks. A strong network of personal connection increases both your own prospects in ministry, and also the value you will bring to any church or organization you serve.

Suggestions:

Meet 100 people. During your first semester, introduce yourself around a lot. Make it a priority.  See someone you don’t know, smile, extend your hand, and introduce yourself.  You will not become fast friends with all of them, but with a few, you might. Meet fellow students, who in a few short years will disperse to places of influence all over the world.  Meet professors, remembering that it is their job to give you some of their attention. Don’t neglect the networking opportunities in your local church, either. Knowing ordinary, non-seminary people can be a resource for your sanity and your family, and can help connect you to reliable people when you need, for instance, insurance or car repairs.

Take initiative. Someone has to be the first to talk; might as well be you.  If you take the passive route, and wait for friends to drift your way, you might find yourself lonely. Be the leader and take the first step. Introduce yourself.  Offer to buy coffee. Drop by on your professors early in the semester during office hours, and ask one or two good questions—they will remember.

Add value. As you meet people, discover ways you can serve or help them. Two of the biggest things you can offer are resources and relationships.  What have you seen or read that could help them?  Who do you know that they need to know?

Leverage social media. As you meet people, connect with them on social media. This gives both of you mutual access to each other.  You can stay aware of what’s happening with them, and they with you. Pay attention, and look for strategic ways and times to be helpful.

Express care. In the days before social media, I noticed that an acquaintance of mine in a philosophy class did not show up for our midterm exam. I got his number from another student and called to see if he was ok.  Turns out he had been in an auto accident and simultaneously discovered he was diabetic. He was blown away at my small expression of care. That moment of care blossomed into a friendship where we spent many hours together talking philosophy and religion.  We took a trip to Ireland together, and I was in his wedding. Even small expressions of care are rare enough that they stand out.

Be generous. One of my professors had to drive to another city for a meeting after our class, but was exhausted from travel and illness.  I volunteered to drive him up and back so he could snooze in the car.  He gratefully accepted my offer, and I got several hours of uninterrupted time with him. He later served on my dissertation committee.

Connect even if you’re an online student. It takes a bit more effort, but even distance or online students can connect with people. Use the bulletin board or chat features of your school’s learning software.  Send an introductory email to fellow students, and offer to swap notes, or host a group video chat to help everyone connect.

Forming new friendships isn’t on the curriculum for seminary, but it ought to be. Don’t miss the opportunity to form relationships; it’s more important than you think.

This is a draft of a chapter from the forthcoming book, The Complete Seminary Survival Guide, by Mark Warnock and Tyler Wright.

 

Top Ten Posts at Seminary Survival Guide

To get you started, here is a list of our Top Ten most popular posts of all time.

  1. Which seminary degree should I get?
  2. Master Your Seminary’s Required Reading in Half the Time (or Less)
  3. How to Get a Ph.D While Working a Full-Time Job
  4. The Seminary Book Review
  5. “Mr. Ask a Question in Class to Try to Look Smarter” Guy
  6. Learn to Confess Your Sins
  7. Supply Preaching during Seminary
  8. Make Sure You’re Supposed To Be Here, part one
  9. Can’t say no? Try the “Qualified Yes”
  10. Is “Calling” a Biblical Idea?

Which seminary degree should I get?

We’ve already mentioned that planning your study is your responsibility, and not your seminary’s. The first level of planning is to choose your degree program wisely.

The M. Div. is the standard, time-honored ministry degree.  It includes biblical and theological studies as well as a range of coursework in the practical aspects of ministry: preaching, pastoral care, evangelism, and so on.  In a sense, it’s two degrees in one, and it has the benefit of being comprehensive.  The down side? It takes 3 ½ – 4 years or more to complete.

Most seminaries, however, are now offering a wide range of shorter Masters degrees in biblical studies, theology, Christian Ministry or Christian education.  Often these come with a choice of an emphasis track in student minsitry, urban minsitry, mission, church planting or preaching. Think very strategically about this: Is the value of the M. Div. sufficiently high that you want to spend and extra 1-2 years of your life to get it?

A seminary degree is valuable in two ways: 1. in how it prepares you for ministry, and 2. in providing you with a credential that testifies to your qualification for ministry work.

Ministry Preparation

Compare the shorter degree to the longer one. Put the curriculum lists side by side, and see what you’d be missing. Ask fellow students about the value of the courses on the longer degree. Will you really be better prepared for ministry with the extra classes? Or are they needless hurdles for you to jump through?

A recommendation that I’m seeing a lot and I hope becomes a trend is to pair a two year degree in biblical and theological studies with a multi-year internship with an established and thriving church.  The practical side of ministry is learned hands-on, under the supervision of experienced mentors, instead of in a classroom.  The disadvantage is that it can be hard to find internship opportunities like this, although they are becoming more and more common.

Credentials

For many churches, the fact that you get a degree from seminary is all that matters. They don’t care what the degree is. Other churches may be particular about it. Think ahead to your ministry work. If you can spend two years less and get the same credential without sacrificing real value in ministry preparation, then you might seriously consider a shorter program. You can save a lot of money that way, too.

When I was in seminary, I seriously considered a shorter program, the M.A. in Theology. Ultimately, however, I decided to stick with the M. Div. For me, it was the right choice, mainly because I went into seminary straight out of college. It was not so much the case that I needed all the additional coursework in the M. Div, what I really needed was time to mature both personally and spiritually, and to gain ministry experience.

So often the time management mantra is: save time, save time. You’ll hear that a lot from me, for sure. But sometimes the wisest thing you can do is spend time. My maturity could not be rushed, and was worth spending the time on.

But I did reject the Master of Music degree on curriculum grounds. As a future worship pastor, some found it odd that I was studying for an M. Div. instead of a music degree. I had looked at the Master of Music curriculum and faculty, and quickly determined that for my purposes, it would have been a complete waste of my time. Most of the coursework on the music degree I’d already taken as an undergrad at a very respectable school of music; the rest I was uninterested in. I felt like God wanted me grounded in Him and his Word, and the theology-rich M.Div. was the right answer for me.

Find out what your options are, and talk with your seminary’s admissions counselors.  They have conversations all the time with students making the same choice that you are, and are familiar with the issues that come with choosing one program over another.

As with all major decisions, seek godly counsel from mature friends and mentors.

Most importantly: pray on it. For all my urgings for you to be wise, do remember that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. God knows your future and which path is best for you. Seek Him on it and obey.

Bottom line: don’t just pick a default degree just because it’s tradition or everyone does it. Give it serious, intentional thought and prayer.