The thought that kept recurring as I read Surviving and Thriving in Seminary was this: I wish I had read this book – or one like it – as I prepared to head off to seminary. The practical insights found here might have saved me much frustration and countless mistakes. Perhaps even more importantly, they would have helped me gain more value from my seminary experience.
The authors, Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin Forrest, of this brief book – most readers will finish it in a couple of settings — are both seminary professors and seminary graduates, and the work reflects their experiences as both students and as teachers of students. They understand the great value of seminary for preparing people for ministry, but they also understand that seminary is a three-year (or more) grind that can leave those that run the gauntlet exhausted and embittered. A fair number drop out. This work is designed to address seminary’s challenges, and the book is ideal for those either on the verge of enrolling or for those who are in their first year.
The work is organized into three parts. In Part 1, Preparation, the authors address matters of both head and heart as well as family concerns. While most students will feel that they possess solid Bible knowledge prior to beginning seminary, most will not have studied their faith in an academic setting, and this will create challenges for many being exposed to new viewpoints and finding their own interpretative approaches challenged. In addition, the need to study biblical languages will be challenging for many. The authors urge students to approach these challenges with minds that will be open to learning while also taking care to address their devotional needs while engaged in academic study. Also, preparing family for the time constraints and other challenges of seminary life is important.
Part 2 addresses time management. The authors provide practical guidance for creating manageable course loads that can be juggled with family and work obligations, as well as ministry opportunities. Procrastination is one of the student’s greatest enemies. The importance of taking care of one’s health is also emphasized. While some will find the idea of burning out to be supposedly more spiritual than rusting out, the authors emphasize that neither is desirable for one preparing for ministry.
Part 3 provides guidance about study skills and tools. Students that did not have to do a lot of writing for their undergraduate work – or who worry that their research and writing skills are substandard – will find these chapters especially valuable. The authors lay out guidelines for organizing research projects, while also providing guidance on primary and secondary sources that will need to be accessed as part of seminary level research. Both library materials and online resources are discussed, and the authors also add helpful information regarding a variety of programs now available for organizing research and formatting papers. Finally, they address ways to improve writing skills. The only thing I might have added – I have recommended this to countless students and professionals over the years – would have been to purchase and review Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. While they didn’t recommend that resource, they do provide numerous other tips and resources for improving writing.
The book closes with three appendices, all of which will have value for many readers. The first provides tips for choosing a seminary – keeping in mind theological commitments, geography, and cost considerations. The second addresses finances, urging students to do everything possible to avoid debt. While some debt may be necessary (the authors reference Dave Ramsey and some of his resources, but don’t take a doctrinaire position against all debt), graduating with large amounts of indebtedness will create years of hardship and potentially limit ministry opportunities. The final appendix provides advice to spouses of students.
If you know of someone considering seminary or just starting, this book would be a worthy gift.