Seminary shaped me in countless ways, but one of the greatest gifts it gave me was how it deepened my appreciation for perspectives different from my own. Here are five ways that seminary expanded my outlook and helped me grow.
Coming from an undergrad institution situated in one tradition, a professor of mine suggested I attend an interdenominational seminary. This was invaluable advice. My seminary professors came from various churches which affected how they approached the classroom—and for the better.
The books I read and the professors I sat under caused me to question some of my long-held beliefs, pay attention to them, examine where they came from, and most of all, ensure they were rooted in a faithful interpretation of Scripture.
Learning from those outside my own tradition showed me that others' views are usually just as well-researched and grounded in Scripture as my own. Sometimes even more so. When we only discuss issues in our own silos, it can be easy to discredit other positions. We wonder how someone could come to a different conclusion than us. But broadening my perspective has only given me more respect for people who land in a different place than I do.
There were some issues on which I completely changed my view. Changing my mind has been a humbling experience, especially when it's a view I thought I was very certain about. However, feeling certain is often an indicator that I should examine the beliefs I hold. There's a kind of certainty that stems from a place of insecurity. My fear of being wrong can cause me to cling to beliefs even more rigidly; I resist being challenged.
One of those beliefs of mine was about women in the church. Ah, gender! An issue where the debates never cease. Yet this issue, as many women will say, is not just an issue. It is about our life. From the moment I became a Christian and realized I loved to study the Bible, I had to learn what to do with the difficult texts. My place in the church, the home, and the world was always up for discussion.
My misconceptions about egalitarians (or mutualists, as many refer to themselves) kept me far away from their books. Now after reading them, I recognize the wisdom of reading an argument for myself before I determine what I think. It's hard to know what I believe if I haven't read other perspectives charitably. So I listened to this thorough podcast by Tish and Jonathan Warren, and I read Lucy Peppiatt's Rediscovering Scripture's Vision for Women. I read more books beyond these and agonized over the passages a little longer before I changed my mind, but this is where I started.
Changing my mind has led me to hold my views with greater humility. Anytime I feel the need to argue my case, I can instead pause and listen closely, remembering that I have been wrong in the past and there are most certainly things I'm currently wrong about that I'm not yet aware of. I can't name a single person I agree with on every issue, including my own self just a few years ago!
Before seminary, I wasn't aware of the breadth of the Christian faith. I didn't know how many people I wasn't listening to. We should have convictions and pursue truth—that's why I went to seminary, after all. But when I looked at the kaleidoscope of ways God convicts and leads his people, the search for certainty became very boring!
As my favorite writer, Anne Lamott, says in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, "I remembered something Father Tom had told me—that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns."
Even if you read all the books on a seminary syllabus, it still wouldn't be the same as studying at a seminary. Why? Because seminary is not only an avenue to learn information, it's a place where we are formed. We are formed by the seminary's culture, institution, and discussions. But nothing forms us more than deep relationships with people.
Strong relationships were necessary to help me get through seminary, as they are necessary for all of life. Part of what makes seminary so rich is we all begin in different life stages. There's no set time to start. Some go right after undergrad, some attend part-time while working in ministry, and others switch their career paths entirely.
You don't have to intend to go into ministry in order to attend seminary. Not only do seminarians come in from different backgrounds, but they go off to different places as well. While we may have a plan and a sense of calling, we never quite know where God will lead us.
These relationships have extended beyond my time in school. Whether we're officially in ministry or not, I hope to maintain my seminary friendships throughout my life.
Seminaries, at their best, exist to equip leaders from around the world to serve the church globally. While many exist in the United States, a great need for seminaries is to show hospitality to contexts outside their own.
Many international students are not only learning in their second language but translating the biblical languages into their second language! They are doing the hard work of contextualizing what they learn each day in the classroom for the sake of teaching the Word faithfully when they return home.
Many of their contexts are closer to the context of Scripture than the United States. They're able to shed light on biblical passages where westerners have blind spots. They are also ministering in places with different pastoral issues, different pressing questions, and different tangible needs.
Majority world theologians are often quicker to see God's pattern of drawing near to the poor, marginalized, and outcast than those from Western cultures. Through theologians like Amos Yong, René Padilla, Óscar Romero, and Justo L. González, I saw how central the least of these are to Jesus' mission. Even more, to the entire thrust of Scripture itself—from Genesis to Revelation. God's concern for justice permeates every page.
While going to seminary is primarily about the relationships, it's also about the resources. This is what makes seminary such a privilege. Students have the time and space to explore deep questions and the social and academic resources to find answers.
Writing in-depth research papers shaped me profoundly. Academically, it was the work of wading into complex arguments, synthesizing my thoughts, and opening myself to critique. Personally, writing strengthened my perseverance, honed my creativity, and curbed my perfectionism. The core of a research paper involves engaging with another's work. Experiencing the challenge of writing good work and the vulnerability required to share that work has helped me engage with others more compassionately. How I represent others in my paper matters.
Learning the original biblical languages and combing through commentaries and reference resources showed me the complexity of each book. When I studied Greek and Hebrew, I noticed nuances and through-lines in the text I wouldn't have seen otherwise.
For example, in my Hebrew Exegesis class, we studied the book of Jonah. This class revolutionized the way I thought about Jonah. In the past, I thought Jonah, while someone who made a mistake in running from his calling, was overall someone we should imitate. However, upon closer study, I learned that the entire book is satire. The point is to poke fun at a reluctant prophet who needed the mercy of God just as much, if not more, than the people he was sent to prophesy to.
When Jonah flees to Tarshish, the pagan sailors on the ship ended up being more religious than Jonah—praying, making vows, and offering sacrifices to a God they became aware of five minutes prior. Yet, when Jonah is in the belly of the fish in chapter 2, Jonah quotes a thanksgiving psalm, praying about sacrifices he never makes. There isn't any confession of sin or mention of repentance.
When Jonah finally gets to Nineveh in chapter three, instead of taking the three-day journey to get to the city, he walks for one day and gives a sermon of five Hebrew words—hardly a sentence! Yet, without even a call for repentance, the king issues a decree for everyone to humble themselves and fast in sackcloth and ashes (as a repentant Israelite would've done). Even the animals participate in the fast.
The narrative shows how the pagan sailors, the Ninevites, and even the animals repent before Jonah did. It's the deep study of scriptural form and context I experienced in seminary that made this book come alive.
I learned so much in seminary, and seminary taught me how much I don't know. That's the funny thing about knowledge. Counterintuitively, the more we learn, the more we realize how we've barely scratched the surface.
Theology is also messy. After all, it's the attempt of finite human beings to study an infinite God! As Anne Lamott cheekily says, "The difference between you and God is that God doesn't think He's you." This triune God is more mysterious and expansive than we can begin to articulate or categorize.
Releasing the need to have God figured out opened me up to explore theology and listen to others more than ever. Instead of believing different theologies are in competition with one another, now I can better hold many possibilities at the same time and say, "any of these could be true and they're beautiful." All these different perspectives are like a mosaic—a bunch of broken glass held up to the light to make a masterpiece.
Makayla Payne is a recent Master of Divinity graduate from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She's passionate about writing theology beautifully and making it accessible to the church. She's particularly interested in the issues of gender and trauma. In her free time, Makayla enjoys exploring the Chicago food and coffee scene, painting, and quality time with friends. You can connect with her at makaylapayne.com.