Preparing Your Mind, Heart & Family for Seminary
By H. Daniel Zacharias & Benjamin K. Forrest
In this no-nonsense guide we hope to give you some pointers on how to adjust to the new world of academic, biblical, and theological study you will find in seminary. We want not only to help you understand the reality of what you’re getting yourself into, but also to equip you with the skills to succeed—by helping you prepare your mind, heart, and family for seminary.
Preparing your mind
We have good news and bad news.
First the good news: In seminary, you will learn and understand the Bible in an even deeper way because of the theological training you receive.
The bad news is that you might not be as prepared as you think you are. Sure, you may know the Bible well, but this does not necessarily mean you’re prepared to read and study at an academic level.
You should be prepared for some discomfort, as comes with all growth. Like every field of study, biblical and theological study involves the mastering of new terms and concepts—some of which may challenge you on a personal level.
Seminary will ask you to take a step back and look critically at what you believe. This is not because your professors want to destroy your beliefs, but because they want you to expand your thoughts on certain issues.
Whether you know it or not, what you’ve learned before arriving in seminary has gone through a funnel. Your pastor or the preacher whose podcasts you listen to, read books and commentaries to prepare their sermons. They have passed on only a portion to you—the stuff they really wanted you to hear.
In seminary, you are training to be the funnel. You are now the one being asked to sort through arguments on all sorts of topics and to think through which argument best aligns with Scripture.
Knowing this, we encourage you to make the decision to charge right in with an open mind that is prepared to learn.
One of the particularly uncomfortable parts of your studies will likely be learning Greek and Hebrew.
But instead of giving into uneasiness or fear, keep in mind these two things:
The need for ministers who know biblical languages
The blessings of biblical languages
Many seminary students go on to be pastors or ministry leaders. As a minister of God’s Word you are called to proclaim that word faithfully and clearly. Thus, you will need to be equipped to engage the Bible in the language in which it was written.
In other words, you will need language skills to successfully carry out the calling that God has placed on your life.
What’s more, once you begin to understand the biblical languages, you will be equipped to understand at a far higher level the intricacies of interpretation and translation. Engaging with the text in its primary language will allow you to see things that you have not seen before in stories that you know by heart already.
Here are four practical steps you can take to help you better prepare for language study:
- Get refreshed on English grammar. (A lot of time in your introductory Greek and Hebrew courses will be spent referencing and comparing English grammar, so this foundation is key.)
- Get an overview of how languages (particularly biblical languages) work in a general sense.
- Get your textbooks early and read the introductory chapters (at least).
- Learn the alphabet and begin pronouncing words. Getting your feet wet prior to the course is a good idea.
In addition to taking these steps of preparation, remember that you are probably in a classroom of students who are in the same boat as you.
Don’t be discouraged. It’s okay to be a beginner.
Your time at seminary will require hard work, a lot of time consistently carried out in small chunks, much patience, and a decision to embrace discomfort. But if you keep the end in mind and recognize from the start that you can do this, then you will enjoy the journey in spite of the work.
Preparing your heart
Many students enter into a dry time in their seminary careers because they think their spiritual formation ought to revolve around their feelings; yet in seminary, they find that the typical approach by professors is to encourage their minds.
Instead of focusing on feelings, seminary seeks to give substance.
Before your time in seminary, you may have set aside a certain amount of time a day to keep your spiritual life vibrant, growing, and healthy. However, in seminary, a typical day may consist of reading about the Reformation for two hours, reading about the Synoptic Problem for another two hours, and then spending another hour preparing an assignment for class. Here you have spent five hours on “spiritual” activities; as a result, your mind needs a break.
So when given the opportunity to add devotional time, it’s easy to make the justification, “I just spent five hours on spiritual things. Why spend another hour in Bible study, meditation, and prayer?” Don’t fall into this temptation. Study is not the same as devotion.
Dig a deep well
Consider yourself in the well-digging business. You are digging a well of spiritual depth. If you abandon the well-digging process too early, at some point in your career and ministry you will run out of water and will be left with a thirsty flock.
Too often, seminary students are content to remain on the surface academically or in their spiritual investment. You must dig deeply in all aspects of your seminary education, especially in your spiritual life and formation.
If you do this, you will find cold, refreshing, life-giving water—not only for yourself, but for those you will water throughout your ministry.
Prioritize your time with God
Throughout your seminary education and beyond, your relationship with God must be your number one priority. When you prioritize him, the rest of your priorities will properly align.
An important aspect of spending time with God is spending devotional time in the Bible. It is through the Word of God that we meet with him and hear him.
When studying the Word of God, it’s important to remember that the Bible was not written to us as its first-level recipients. It was written to an ancient people in their circumstances. We must read it in context in order to understand the meaning the author intended, and then we must find the significance of this meaning for our time and place.
Below are five practical tips for becoming a student of the Word:
- Use a Bible reading plan.
- Have a study plan, which takes you deeper into the Word.
- Practically apply your learning. If you’re preaching or leading a Bible study, choose a passage you’re working on for a class. You’ve already done a lot of the preparation, and applying that preparation in two different streams is not anti-spiritual, but practical.
- Redeem “lost” time by getting into the Word. If you have a long commute to school, listen to the Bible via app or audiobook.
- Try reading through a passage and making observations about it until you run out of ideas. This approach combines the discipline of Bible study, meditation, and journaling all in one fluid practice.
Much of this advice boils down to the need to practice studying with your head and your heart.
We also suggest being intentional about practicing spiritual disciplines. For example, gather with like-minded students to pray about your classes and that the lectures will result in your equipping. Find a classmate with whom you can explore discipleship, not as a curriculum, but as a relational practice commissioned by Christ. Find peers that will hold you accountable to your pursuit of holiness.
Preventing a poisoned well
To return to our well-digging analogy, cultivating spiritual disciplines and being deliberate about soul care will help you guard against the poisoning of your well. Even if you have dug a deep well, a little bit of poison can ruin your investment.
You’re beginning your journey as one called to lead. Therefore, recognize your “fall-ability” and commit yourself to the Lord each and every day.
This requires guarding yourself from the poison that either comes from direct assault or seeps in subtly over time. Schedule time to hold up the mirror of the Word of God through steadfast commitment to spiritual disciplines.
Preparing your family
First, let us say that we recognize that family looks different for every seminarian. Some students are single parents, some are divorced. Some have adult children, while others have small children or none.
But regardless of what your family looks like, one thing is certain: Seminary will change you, which is bound to have an effect on your relationships and the people around you.
The better prepared you are for this and the more you communicate these changes, the better prepared all involved will be for this season of study.
Above all else, cultivate your relationship with God as the first priority, and cultivate your relationship with your family as your second priority.
Here are 10 practical tips for staying connected to family throughout your time at seminary:
- For those still considering seminary, ask your spouse if he/she has any concerns related to your plans for enrollment and talk through any that come up.
- Fully explain to your spouse why you think God is calling you to further your education. This will help you process the decision for yourself, and also help your spouse to get on board.
- While in seminary, be sure to keep a regular date night or continue doing other things you regularly do together as a family.
- Depending on your spouse’s personality, you may want to challenge him/her to read either one book a semester from your courses or one book per course.
- Have your spouse weigh in on a self-analysis. Identify your own weakness—such as, procrastination—and look for opportunities for growth.
- Ask your spouse to proofread your papers. This helps your spouse to see the fruit of your hard work and is valuable for you as much as it is for him/her.
- Include your spouse (and/or your children) in your practicum assignments where you can, particularly those that require you to share the gospel with a neighbor or a stranger. Let them see you articulating your faith, stumbling for the right words, and praying with those who are hurting
- Budget your time. Plan out each week, comparing your school calendar and family calendar.
- Set boundaries for your schoolwork time and focus well during that time (i.e., do not catch up on your fantasy football team during that time).
- Set boundaries by delineating no-homework periods of the day. For example, let your family know that from the time you get home until their bedtime, you will not do homework unless it has been agreed upon beforehand.
Challenge yourself, with the help of the Holy Spirit and accountability partners (including your spouse), to engage in the discipleship of your family throughout your time in school and for the rest of your life and ministry.
Preparing for seminary
Before beginning your journey through seminary, take some time to reflect, look ahead, and plan.
If you put in the effort of preparing you mind, heart, and family, we believe you can truly survive and thrive in seminary.
This article is adapted from H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest, Surviving and Thriving in Seminary: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017.
H. Daniel Zacharias, PhD, is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College. He resides in Wolfville, Nova Scotia with his wife Maria and their four children.
Benjamin K. Forrest, EdD, is Associate Professor of Christian Education and Department Chair at Liberty University School of Divinity. His doctoral research focused on the spiritually formative experiences of seminary spouses. He resides in Lynchburg, Virginia with his wife Lerisa and their three children.