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Surviving and Thriving in Seminary

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Posted by James Halstead, 4 Oct 2018

James Halstead reviews a valuable handbook to life in theological education.

SURVIVING AND THRIVING IN SEMINARY: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook, H. Daniel Zacharias, Benjamin K. Forrest

Cover of Surviving and Thriving in Seminary

This is a really helpful book, intended for those just starting (or about to start) a course of theological training for ministry. It’s written by two American seminary professors, and is a mix of their experience, practical tips and larger questions. The book is presented in three parts.

Part One raises important questions about preparation for theological training. It asks the reader to consider their readiness to face some of the challenges and temptations which ‘seminary’ brings - from feelings of inadequacy or pride, to the importance of engaging with different points of view. The authors don’t identify issues or problems which wouldn’t appear in other literature or seminars (although there is a particularly helpful emphasis on spouses), yet they explore the questions with clarity and honesty. Mind, heart and family are the key themes and, in truth, very much of what is written applies to life beyond college - I found it an encouragement as someone in parish ministry with college some years behind me.

Part Two deals with practical aspects of being in training - taking responsibility for your own studies, managing your time, looking after your body, and so on. The authors offer some of their own particular strategies and habits, and though the particular solutions won’t work for all, it’s helpful to be reminded to think through these issues.

Part Three has a different focus. The subtitle for the book is ‘An Academic and Spiritual Handbook’. Where the first two sections are essentially about sustaining oneself in servant-hearted discipleship through the experience of study, this last part is focussed on the academic, a kind of study skills manual. Very concisely, it ranges over how to identify (and locate) what you need to read for an essay, note-taking, how to write and present an academic paper (including some of the software available to help) and how to use feedback. The authors present everything from the broad principles to particular online library search tools which, with further support available online through free webinars they have created.

As I read the title, I feared it might need a large amount of ‘translation’ to fit the UK context, but that fear never came to life. Once the reader is used to ‘seminary’, ‘professor’, ‘semester’, etc., the book is very directly relevant to the task in hand. The authors write in a very conversational, personal and honest way, sharing their failures as well as their successes. Part One would be helpful for anybody to read, however far through (or past) training, and I would strongly recommend Part Three for summer reading before starting at college or seminary. The insights and preparation it offers are too valuable to discover later on.

James Halstead is vicar of Mottram Parish Church and a lecturer at St Mellitus College NW

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