I have finished the race.
After spending 8 years in seminary between Gordon-Conwell and Fuller Theological Seminary, last Friday I successfully defended my dissertation in Pasadena. Coming back in the room after the committee deliberated, and then being called “Dr. Corey” for the first time, was an emotional experience for me.
It was a great feeling to know that my long journey is over. It was a terminal degree, so my chapter in life as a formal student is officially completed.
Some have told me that I need to just sit with this a while and enjoy the feeling of completion, but I’m a process guy, so that’s hard for me to do. Instead of being able to just “be here,” I’ve been spending some time reflecting on the journey itself, and wondering what I might do differently if I could live those years over again.
As I close this chapter in life, I close it with some concluding thoughts in the form of 5 things I wish I had done a little bit differently:
5. I would have sought out more diversity in who I studied under.
Thankfully, I was able to spend time under some fantastic minds during my years in seminary. My last year at Gordon-Conwell was spent largely studying under a Chinese Mennonite, and my years at Fuller had strong female leadership in the program. I also came under the wing of a Costa Rican missiologist who has been highly influential in my thought development. However, I still wished that I hadn’t studied under so many white men.
A lot of this is a reflection of a white male dominated environment, but looking back I certainly could have taken more initiative, and done so a lot sooner, to seek opportunities to learn under minorities.
4. I would have focused more on the process, and less on the finish line.
So much of life tends to be lost when we focus on the destination instead of the journey. Looking back I realize there were many times that I was so focused on the end result, that I cheated myself out of joy that only occurs in the process.
Learning to be fully present– not living in the past or hyper focused on the future– has been a life long struggle for me. I’m slowly starting to get a grasp on it, but my years in seminary would have been enhanced had I learned to do this sooner.
3. I would have spent less time sharing my ideas, and more time considering the ideas of others.
Good professors promote hearty classroom discussions, but it seems many of those discussions are just people putting forth views and opinions that they brought with them into the room. I of course, fell prey to this at times along with everyone else– wanting to make the case that my idea or opinion was the correct one.
In hindsight however, I wished that I had carried around a note to myself that said, “Shut the hell up and listen. You might learn something from them.”
Certainly I listened and learned from a lot of people, but I recognize I could have done a lot more of it.
2. I would have spent more time building long-term natural supports in my life.
There are three types of seminary graduates: (a) Those who come out carbon copies of how they went in, (b) Those who come out of seminary an arrogant version of their old self, and (c) Those who have their worlds rocked and come out completely different people.
I’m in the last category. The person my church sent to seminary in 2008 is dead. He doesn’t exist anymore. That happens to a lot of us.
And for those of us who come out completely different, life after seminary can be lonely as we find ourselves rejected by the very people who told us to go to seminary in the first place. Like the runt of the litter who gets kicked off the mother’s breast, we too are banished and left to figure out how to survive on our own.
And that part sucks. It sucks bad.
If I could do it all over again, I would have worked harder to build relationships that could have been a support during the lonely post-seminary phase of life.
1. I would have taken my personal spiritual life/self-care a lot more seriously.
When I went off to seminary, people jokingly called it “cemetery.” Once I became aware that I was among those who would never be the same because of seminary, I realized it wasn’t a joke at all– a lot of death happens between those walls. Those losses are so painful that many seminarians in Category C develop a deep affection for using the F word, as if we’re constantly feeling like we just smashed our thumb with a hammer.
Between the painful deconstruction of old paradigms, the realization that being a biblical or theological scholar invites someone into less certainty instead of more confidence, and with the many Christian friends you lose for learning how to use the brain God gave you, seminary can ultimately kill your spiritual life. It can leave you feeling accomplished, but totally defeated.
Seminary invited me into a bizarre paradox where I’m more committed to following Jesus than ever before, but still performing CPR on my spiritual life, all at the same time. I don’t know how those two coexist, but I assure you, they do. (See Mark 9:24)
If I could do it all over again, I would have been a lot more proactive in providing myself with the spiritual and emotional survival tools that I now realize I’m desperately searching for.
I’m glad that at the end of 2008 I decided I’d soon be heading off to seminary– I can’t imagine living my whole life as my old self. And, I’m glad that I didn’t quit, but instead went far beyond anywhere I believed I could go. I mean, I once struggled to complete an associates degree– so I never imagined I’d ever be a doctor of anything.
So today, I close the door on a major life chapter and begin a new one that is still yet to be defined.
As I begin my post-seminary life, I am deeply thankful and appreciative for all I have experienced, and all those wonderful people I have come to know because of it.
But I’m also wrestling with the tension that my years in seminary involved major, painful losses, that compounded to the point where I’m beginning my post-seminary life with a mind full of knowledge, but a heart in search of a spiritual defibrillator.
And honestly? As I say good-bye to this chapter in my life, I think it’s okay to sit in that tension a while.
I have the same regrets about my Fuller experience, 38 years ago. However I also have similar regrets about my life over the last 34 developing computer software for a living. These are valuable lessons, no matter where and at what stage of life you are.
I particularly agree with #’s 3 and 4. Thx for sharing your reflections.
Most people are eager to recount what they did right. So it’s refreshing to read a summary of what Dr. Corey could have done better.
Oh man. Self care for sure. I felt too busy for my self care (exercise), and the lack has definitely taken a toll — emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I’ve also noticed a lot of my peers using “self care” to cover their “un-caring comforts” — drinking binges, eating binges, netflix binges. I wish I’d had more conversations about that; feels like a setup for failure in ministry (and, you know, life).
Congratulations, Dr. Ben! 🙂
I wonder why we don´t typically hear the theological viewpoints of many from non-western settings.
Christianity is moving to the margins in the west, but is growing in other parts of the world. It would be good (and necessary) to hear the voices of theologians from these places.
I am very proud of you and your journey. Wisdom never comes without a price, but I have always found it was worth it in the end.
All my best to you!
Congratulations Ben. It seems like you actually learned something in the various angel factories
Congrats! As to some of the other thoughts…I, too, came out of the seminary experience, (M.Div.), different than I entered. My world was rocked. From the first time I realized that it was OK for Christians to think. I think I was fortunate, tho, in that I spent a lot of time taking advantage of the Spiritual Formation resources at the school. After graduation, I began a long process of following up on those through spiritual disciplines and direction. God’s grace was, and remains, present.
God’s blessings to you, Dr. Corey!
Hindsight being an exact science, there is nothing preventing you from setting a new direction so that, going forward, those “if I had it to do over” items can be corrected. A new life begins… Congratulations, Doc!
Congrats Dr Corey. You do a great work here on the blog. Very grateful for your challenging words in your postings. You’ve been a major influence in getting me to think outside the theological box I was in for so many years. Keep up the good work and stay bold for Jesus. It’s making a difference!
did you ever get the feeling that you’ve either just had an abortion or won the lottery?
Why can’t we have a fourth type of seminary graduate:
d) Those who spend time and care considering the thoughts and beliefs of others and come out wthe same person that went in, but a lot more humble…
Congratulations, Dr. Corey. I admire you for allowing seminary to change you, rather than simply cement you in what you already thought you knew.
“Between the painful deconstruction of old paradigms, the realization that being a biblical or theological scholar invites someone into less certainty instead of more confidence, and with the many Christian friends you lose for learning how to use the brain God gave you, seminary can ultimately kill your spiritual life. It can leave you feeling accomplished, but totally defeated.”
This is the beginning of wisdom, isn’t it? The non-dualistic mind can accept it as the way things are and move forward without certainty, but with hope.
Here’s another item for my personal list — Have a prescription for an anti-depressant ready to fill. Riffing on Dr. C’s point no. 1 above, I spent the last two years of my seminary study in a severe depression (yes, I finally had to fill that prescription) over the loss of my spiritual identity. And although I agree that’s a necessary paradox for preparing for ministry, it’s (a) a tragedy it has to be done in such desolate isolation (you can’t risk your denominational overlords finding out you’re a fraud!!) and (b) you never really fully recover your original enthusiasm for ministry.
As one old scholar (four academic qualifications! – so far) to another, all I shall say is “Well done, Dr. Corey.” 🙂
And yes, post-academia can be a time for BIG reflection.
So, Doctor, I suggest that you go work with Shane Claiborne for a year or two. Or maybe hang around the Quakers with Phillip Gulley, or find a way to work with Brian Mclaren for a couple of years……..this is post-doc time do it in the field!!
Enjoy… and remember the doctorate and $375 will get you a coffee!! It was only $.50 when I got mine.. 🙂
Random question for you: for the doctoral program, how sure were you about your focus before you went in? I feel like I’m being called back to the academy, but I have literally no idea what I would want to focus on, because so many things are so fascinating to me.
On the other hand … since I had to get an M.Div to be ordained, I would add a sixth item to your list — Find a way to diversify the theology you study.
So much of the theology I “studied” for four years now seems in hindsight to be pretty arbitrary, not to mention mostly irrelevant to real-world parish ministry — comments from fellow ministers?
Congrats! Now angry commenters have to refer to you as DOCTOR Heretic.
I spent four years in an M.Div. program and I would reduce your list to a single item — Don’t go to seminary and find some other way to actually learn how to be a pastor.
After five years in parish ministry I can honestly say there was very little of what I learned that really prepared me for the job — or maybe it’s one of those jobs you can only learn by doing for twenty years? Would be interested to hear from other ministers in this regard …
so this raises a question in my mind. Okay, the job of demolishing (false) certainties is more urgent, given that seminary only gets a few years and then ministers go out into the world as “experts” who can do a lot of damage.
but it seems like there should be a “Part II” of seminary, geared to providing useable tools for spiritual leadership. Surely there are profs looking at that and working on it. Why do we hear so little about it?
Always helpful to have the Lord send an Ananias to us. Helps a lot with the blindness everything and everyone around us seems to be fitting us for (Acts 22:12).
Hearty Congratulations, Dr. Corey!
Give yourself a bit of grace after this accomplishment, and just let yourself come to terms with what you’ve learned. Any big change needs some tome to accept. In my experience, I was a caregiver for my disabled parents literally from birth. When my dad passed away, it took me a full year to decide who the post-caregiver me was going to be. It’s not the same thing, but it was a transition, and working through transitions take time and thought.
Congratulations, Dr. Corey.
Congratulations Dr. Corey. Regarding #5, Wheaton College certainly helped put the systematic absence of “diversity” at center stage of faith-based higher education. I’m curious how your own institutions evidence diversity on faculty, and also how liberation theologies of the global south are represented in the curriculum.
It takes a grieving process to come through the end of one identity and to begin another. Let the process take its course.
God is a high mileage God. He’ll take all of it and give you wisdom to know where to go next. Congratulations! It is HUGE accomplishment.
Congrats. As a person three years in, and five + years to go, I can appreciate it. Good job.
Congrats Dr Corey. Now, can you have a look at my dodgy knee?!