Because life is a series of edits

Putting the “Part-Time” in “Part-Time Student”

In Seminary on November 7, 2008 at 10:02 pm

My seminary education has perhaps reached the tipping point where the cost required in terms of money, time, and energy is beginning to outweigh the degree’s value theologically, professionally, and personally. God willing, I’m due to finish in May (at least with one degree), but I’m afraid I’m going to be disappointed by what I finish with when it’s all said and done.

The problem is this: after four years of study (two full-time, two part-time), all I’m going to end up with is an MA in Theological Studies, which is normally only a two-year program. Most of the classes I took at the MDiv level covered the requirements for the MATS, but the degree is not going to reflect all that work. Several MDiv courses are MDiv only (preaching classes, for instance), so I’ve paid for hours that don’t count for MATS requirements (though I’m sure they’ve been of benefit, cost not withstanding). 

I recognize that I did this to myself by first switching to part-time last year in order to teach full-time, then making the switch from the MDiv program to the MATS earlier this year because of schedule complications and language struggles. At the time (and even still), my choices seemed limited because of circumstances (children needing to eat, failing Hebrew twice, etc.), so I went in a different direction from my initial one, letting go of the MDiv in the process and assuming the MATS would still stimulate.

Unfortunately, the MATS courses I’m taking now are much less challenging than their MDiv counterparts; though the workloads are similar in terms of amount of reading and papers, the content is much less technical and engaging (barely a step above a decent Sunday School class) and I’m bored. Weekend classes (like the one I’m taking this weekend on the Ancient Near East) tend to be too big and designed for folks interested in general explanations I’ve already studied rather than the more esoteric aspects of the Scripture that I haven’t. All this too quickly enables my preference to blend into the crowd and multi-task on something else (this post, for example), and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.

Here’s an illustration of what I’m talking about: I have 40 papers (I’m not kidding – a two-page reflection for each of the 39 Old Testament books of the Bible, as well as one five-page paper) due between now and the end of November. I haven’t started on any of them, mostly because I’m not too motivated to write reflections I know no one is really going to read with any kind of technical eye (not to mention the fact that I often write blog posts longer than these assignments and they’re not going to take me all that long to do).

Granted, the purpose of the assignment may be to get students to interact with the Scripture at a personal level, but knowing the evaluation of said assignment will be little more than a completion grade given by some T.A. who has to read a hundred other sets of reflections is not really motivating to me. It’s what I call a “plop value” assignment; if it’s got good “plop” when you drop it on a desk, you get an A.

So much of what I studied the first two years was at a much deeper level than I am studying now, and the let-down of needing to study with little more effort than I put in at college (which was minimal) is palpable. I miss my full-time days of seminary and the single-focus of that time; in some ways it was harder because of all the extenuating circumstances (tiny apartment on campus, tons of technical reading, Greek and Hebrew out the wazoo), but it was easier, too, as the phrase “I’m in seminary” meant I was solely working full-time on Covenant’s most comprehensive degree.

I suppose one could argue for the blessing of a lighter load in the midst of everything else (full-time job, wife, four children, etc.), but it doesn’t work that way for me. Instead, I find myself sympathizing with the semi-sad narrative of the baseball player who couldn’t make it in the major leagues and is now playing AA ball somewhere. The good news is he’s still playing baseball; the bad news is he’s not playing it in the bigs. In case you’ve never been to a major or minor league baseball game, the difference is vast: sure, the fields are similar and the rules are the same, but the way things are played on the field is, as the saying goes, a whole different ballgame.

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  1. Then you should quit.

    You’ve stopped doing any of the work for the sake of learning; you’re only doing it for the sake of finishing. That’s no reason to be at seminary, and you’re occupying time, space, and resources that someone who wants to learn could have.

    I doubt that the classes you’re taking are truly “barely a step above a decent Sunday School class” in 99% of the Christian world’s experience. It may be true that the Sunday School classes in any given PCA church in St. Louis are a notch or two above the rest of Christendom, but largely my guess is that any average Christian in the U.S. would gladly trade places with you.

    You love teaching, and have told me (and others, even here on your blog) how much you feel like you’ve found your calling. You have a great ministry there, and even I have heard testimony of your impact for the Kingdom. So, in what sense are you “not playing in the bigs”? If you look for it and work at it, the classes you’re taking will benefit and strengthen your teaching. And if you had started at the beginning of the semester, you could have posted your reflection papers here for all of us to enjoy– about 2-3 per week.

    Pragmatically, I’m betting that completing your degree(s) will secure you a pay boost at Westminster– which will help to pay for that new boiler you’ll be buying in the next year. So there’s that.

    But by and large, folks go to seminary (or they should) because they have a calling to ministry and need the training to fulfill that calling– not simply for the purpose of finishing a degree. If that isn’t you, then you should save your money and time, and theirs.

  2. Where am I saying I’m not trying to learn? That’s the point of the post: in the classes I’m taking this semester (and no, I’m not overstating things when I say they’re barely a step above Sunday School), I’m having to work TO learn something – anything – mostly through the readings (which are very good), but the class itself is just not turning into much because of its large size (an unfortunate increasing trend here at Covenant).

    In the words of a certain mutually-admired prof, Ed, don’t hear what I’m not saying. And why the encouragement to walk away from something I started (and still feel called to finish, despite the bumps in the road)? Doesn’t seem very pastorally faithful to me.

  3. The availablity of comments seems to suggest a willingness to hear others’ “takes.” So here goes: God accomplished His planned shift in your calling, you (and your students) benefit from the M.Div. level study and marginally from your MATS-level study. Surely the degree is at least somewhat useful as a credential in that new calling, so finish and don’t look back, or even think about it again.

    You seem sufficiently self-directed to seek out things that fill your interests (e.g., writing books) and the Spirt stands ready to lead you further up and futher in. The good news for you is that Christ’s Kingdom is built in AA and even A diamonds until all those diamonds become the bigs because of His permanent glorious presence. All the really good stuff goes down in the minors.

    As for how to break the reflection paper cycle, you have me there. I don’t know what can be done. Because of the age and maturity of the student population, there has to be a certain degree of pateralistic verification that some work is getting done. However, for many, many students this simply devolves into a reflection because you’re told to, plop value, just get it done. Part of this is because of the sheer volume of the reflection required impedes actual reflection. I think the model they should move to is requiring 3-5 reflections over the course of the semester on readings of students’ choosing that are graded without inflation for quality and depth by the professors. These reflection should then be a significant percentage of the ultimate grade. This would allow sustained reflection on the portions of the readings that actually meet the various students’ circumstances where they are, without requiring reflection on particular readings, which because of student experience or lack of authorial skill, are worth very little pedagogically.

    Worth every bit of what you paid for it.

  4. Ed, I don’t know you, but your honesty is both refreshing and harsh. I get mad at what you write and then I also agree at times too.

    Craig, Jason and I have struggled through many of these issues. Kids, ministry, time, money. The only number that keeps increasing seems to be needs. It is hard when you are 30 something and still feel as though you aren’t where you had planned to be at such an age.

    Are you certain that a failure in Hebrew is the best test for a change of calling? Believe me, that has many times been a concern of Jason…as he has put up the hard, hard fight through the languages. Could you have listened to some lies through your failures?

    When it’s all said and done I think Jason will have been working on his M.Div for more than 7 years. Every one of those years were tough, but the grace was always given.

    As far as easy classes go….I hate them. I’d much rather have a D from a challenging, thought provoking class, than an easy A from a boring class.

    What would a few more years in school be? I actually think Jason is going to face some acute saddness when school is finally done. We think it’s going to be the burden finally lifted, but in truth, I think he will greatly miss the most challenging years of his life. Kids, time, ministry and lack of money will always be present. You must be a good sterward of your gifts.

    I appreciate you Craig. Thank you for sharing your struggle.

  5. i have a different perspective from your other writers so far. i’ll try to be brief…as you know, that isn’t my strength.
    now that my husband has retired for the second time at age 70, we look back on our official “ministry” (pastorate and missions) and would say that there have been many (if not most) of those years when we felt we were not in the the big leagues. honestly, we wanted to be. for the few years that we thought we were, i don’t know that that was God’s assessment. many of the best years were FULL of all kinds of struggle and difficulty but also the best friends, the most growth and possibly the most accomplishment. eternity will only reveal what our best years were. i only know that every aspect of our training and work has been used to accomplish what God has wanted to do in our lives and the lives of those with whom we have worked.
    the advantage for you is that you will be near covenant. in the years ahead it MAY be possible to build on those courses you have taken…maybe not. you do know that all you have learned in the last years …5? there have contributed to the ministry (very front line!) where you are now. and you have no idea what the future holds.
    since God had to supply your financial needs for school anyway cost, in a sense, is really irrelevant. so far He has met all your needs and He promises to continue to do so. from a purely numbers perspective, some of may seem like a waste, but evidently in His economy, He doesn’t see it that way. one of my big regrets is all the stressing i have done re finances. i’m not talking about being careful, i’m talking about stressing like an orphan. that may not be your problem.
    i know i may be speaking to some things that haven’t been said, but often i find that the truth usually lies between what is said and what isn’t said.
    this is supposed to be an encouraging word, so i’ll sum it up. you are on the front lines and in the big leagues in ministry right now. ministry will always be painful and wonderful. but you know that already. m
    ps. nothing profound.

  6. Craig, you said:

    in the classes I’m taking this semester (and no, I’m not overstating things when I say they’re barely a step above Sunday School), I’m having to work TO learn something – anything – mostly through the readings (which are very good), but the class itself is just not turning into much because of its large size (an unfortunate increasing trend here at Covenant).

    Oh– okay then. Bummer– I hate that sort of class. Sorry about the misread there.

    And why the encouragement to walk away from something I started (and still feel called to finish, despite the bumps in the road)?

    Because it sounded a lot like you don’t still feel called to finish it in your post. We don’t always finish everything we start, and we shouldn’t. If the Lord is moving you away from finishing seminary (and I’m not saying He is– but, as I said, it sometimes sounds like YOU’RE saying that), don’t let sins of stubbornness and pride keep you there.

    Kara, you said:

    Ed, I don’t know you, but your honesty is both refreshing and harsh. I get mad at what you write and then I also agree at times too.

    Too harsh? I apologize, to Craig, to you Kara, and other readers if so. I don’t mean to make you mad.

    For what it’s worth, Craig and I are real-life friends (I consider him a close friend), not just online acquaintances, so perhaps I take liberties in my comments to speak more strongly than I ought, resting on that friendship. I love Craig, and I write in love (even when what I write is a hard word); and if I call him to the carpet, it’s because I’ve been in their house and I love the carpet.

    Final word from me on the subject: Craig, don’t fret about the “bigs”. God is using you in mighty ways– I know of five that daily are blest by you.

  7. I appreciate the generous thoughts here, but let me clarify the baseball analogy. In using it, I’m not describing my ministry (past, present, or future) as being AA ball; rather, I’m speaking of the “minor league” study required for the MATS compared to the “bigs” of the MDiv coursework.

    For the record, I actually enjoyed the class I took this weekend (Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Old Testament with Reformed Theological Seminary’s Dr. John Currid). We spent ten hours talking about polemical theology as illustrated by way of the Exodus narrative, so the time was well-spent (or at least I have another 8-10 page assignment to complete in order to prove it was).

    Rest assured (and in case anyone’s worried), I’m a long ways from jumping off a bridge or finding a letter opener to conveniently fall on. I’ve got papers to write.

  8. Ed, I figured. I really do like your straight forward frank talk. But I also yell at you. I’m someone who also tries to be frank and blunt….often getting into trouble in these southern parts where the Lord has called us. I just wanted to say….I love it, and I rail at it. I like it when people speak honestly to me, but I don’t like it either.

    I think I was feeling sensitive because we have been where Craig is, and knowing the call on Jason…I longed for people to be honest, but also see his own fears that were holding him back. Money, tough classes, kids…all of that. Jason started back to school very late, and it has been a temptation for our house many times to pull back because of the struggle. Forgive me Ed, I put myself into the very honest, venerable post of Craig’s.

    I agree with Martha. Craig, you and Megan are where you need to be this moment. You are taking your covental responsibilities to your children seriously, and loving your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your class this weekend. You have a good fight going on in your mind right now, and I think all of us on this post are behind you…we see the gifts you’ve been given, and we support what the Lord is doing. Just don’t be afraid to step out of the way to be creative in order to see where you are to be. We support you Craig. Sorry for the cheese!

  9. no thoughts on what craig should do. but i do have thoughts on 40 papers for a 1 credit weekend course. that is simply ridiculous. i won’t ask you to post online who’s teaching that but i’d definitely sit down and talk to them about that. has this person never taught before? you have to read the entire OT as well as something else i’m sure, and then write 40 papers in the space of 2 weeks, for 1 credit? that’s certainly some kind of record.

  10. Clarification, Travis: the 40 papers are for a three-hour class that meets once a week all semester on Tuesdays. Indeed, in addition to two assigned books, we’re also supposed to read the entire Old Testament and write the reflection papers.

    Thanks for caring, but thankfully, it’s not a record.

  11. okay then, that’s bit of a different story then. i heard “weekend class” and assumed it was the typical 1 credit course. while it’s still a good amount of work this is a much more reasonable scenario (semester long and 3 credits i mean).

  12. I am a bit bummed out by two books with one page papers, one interview with 8 page paper, plus one 10 page overall paper due in a few weeks for our 1 credit class taken last month. *That* seems a bit excessive for a one hour class. Particularly when you compare it to Craig’s other 1 hour class in which he has to read two books and do one paper. That seems more realistic.

    But I’m just complaining because I’m nowhere near being done…

  13. Oh my meloncholy friend . . . . I understood your baseball analogy; and I hear your struggle. And yet, the whole “it doesn’t work that way for me” in your final paragraph is by choice as much as nature. And I must admit that as I read your post, I internalize and may see myself too much.

    Lyn and I were talking the other night following the election results and realized that our oldest will be able to vote in only two election cycles. At that point she will be in college!! 8 years no longer seems like a long time. And what I have been lamenting is the amount of time I have spent studying, taking classes, and working at the expense of really appreciating and enjoying my daughter.

    I suspect that years from now you will be thankful for a lighter academic load which enabled your daughters to have more memories of their time with their dad!! I know I find myself wishing my kids had more.

    This is not meant to lessen your frustration in not being as challenged academically. But that can happen at other times and in other ways throughout your life. To everything there is a season . . . and when it comes to time with our children it seems to be a shorter growing season than I realized.

    I’m sure you will finish strong and complete your Master’s. Plus you will have potentially made more memories with your wife and children than you would have otherwise . . . . Praise and a thankful heart are always a choice–at least for us “free will” Wesleyans. :-)

  14. My first semester a poor precedent was set for me for weekenders: I took a class called “Bioethics” which was a single book and a set of lectures. David Jones was the instructor, and his assignment was this: he passed out a set of about 10 editorials that were related to bioethics, and we were to write a letter to the editor in response. That was it.

    All of the others after that were way too much work!

    Craig, we are all sympathetic, if not empathetic, with your circumstances. Trust in the Lord.

  15. Jason told me that your weekend professor is his Hebrew prof. The professor talked about how much he enjoyed that group.

  16. Craig-

    I’m a lurker from Megan’s blog. I just got my DH through a Ph.D. program while he worked full-time. He also felt that he needed to be more challenged, while I thought he was way too challenged!

    A Master’s of any kind is a huge achievement. I believe in you.

    Margaret

  17. i hated the response papers and there were too many of those in my MLD (Major League Degree) which I completed in 3 years because I am soooo much smarter than you are (please hear the sarcasm). The MLB to AAA ball is a fair comparison, calling the classes or the degree just a step above Sunday School doesn’t seem fair though, to you, your professors, classmates, and friends that have the degree.

  18. Not the classes or the degree, Rob – just this class. No offense meant to Claudia or anyone else with an MATS. I’m confident that if the two of you were sitting next to me, you would agree.

    Glad to have you as a lurker, Margaret. Feel free to drop by anytime.

  19. thanks for the window into your soul. insightful and painful.
    be glad you don’t have any “frontier league” (river city rascals) classes.
    looking forward to the next safari…

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