What’s up (potential) seminarian?!
We’ve scoured the country talking to seminaries far and wide asking them to answer the 10 most asked questions from potential seminarians. In this series of blog posts, we will feature one seminary and give you in-depth answers to these questions.
You can also get the So You Want To Go To Seminary? e-book FREE. Tripp and Tim compiled all the answers to these 10 questions in an easy-to-digest digital nugget for your theological convenience.
School: Phillips Theological Seminary
Representative: Josh Linton, Director of Recruitment
About Phillips: Phillips Theological Seminary is a graduate seminary, affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), dedicated to learning the way of Jesus in order to cultivate vital communities, vital conversations, and the public good. We are a community of teachers and learners seeking to be faithful to God through disciplined, reasoned, and reflective study of scripture, religious tradition, and human experience.
We exist primarily to serve the church’s need for educated leaders, ordained and lay. Located in Tulsa, Oklahoma (though you don’t have to move here to attend here), we offer a unique brand of theological education in this region of the country: the pairing of ecumenical, in-depth theological education with denominational formation involving partners in several denominations. And we offer this unique brand of theological education in a region where the dominant expression of Christianity tends to resist many of the values we hold and doesn’t always recognize the types of religious faith many of our faculty, staff, and students practice as valid. Not many “progressive” seminaries exist within a religious and cultural context so dominated and saturated by Christian fundamentalism like the one in which our students are learning to discover and articulate alternative theological perspectives.
Josh’s Answers to the HBC Top 10 Questions:
Should I think of enrolling in seminary only if I feel “called?”
Obviously folks who feel “called” by God to serve in ministry think of seminary as a natural place to look to find help in scratching the persistent itching a “call” causes in their life. A religious “call,” though, isn’t the only itch needing some relief through the empowering and educational transformations a person undergoes when attending seminary. Lots of people for lots of different reasons think of enrolling in seminary despite having never felt “called” in any religious or spiritual sense, and yet they often wrangle with a demanding insistency, which shockingly relents at the thought of exploring a seminary degree. Unsurprisingly then, some people attend seminary to enrich their own understanding of God or Jesus or the Bible, to learn better how to play well with others when it comes to religious discussions, to expand their own capacity for holding these conversations in tension for the sake of being a better neighbor and citizen. Other seminarians carry a passion for justice distinct from any religious conviction at all but recognize the importance of gaining a critical grasp of theological and religious discourses in order to more thoughtfully engage justice causes.
Let me put it more bluntly. No. You do not have to feel “called” to welcome the idea of attending seminary. Do you have an interest for examining and critiquing the political, theological, religious, and moral discourses that shape society? Do you imagine yourself at some point wanting to write informed opinions and coherent critiques that sway the public? Do you want to develop as a leader, a speaker, or a teacher? Does your professional ambitions demand a high-level of skill for working in diverse settings, bridging wide ranges of thought, or relating to others with sensitivity and respect? Could you improve your professional situation by increasing your ability to research, think critically, and effectively communicate your thoughts verbally and in writing? If any of these questions guide you in deciding what to do for graduate education, then I’m confident you won’t go wrong adding a seminary like Phillips to your list of options.
I don’t think the matter hinges on whether or not the explanation I’m giving states the truth. I think it does. Seminaries have produced many of the culture-shaping visionaries, fighters for justice, community organizers, managers, human relations experts, and downright extraordinary leaders we see shaking up the world today. Instead, the matter hinges on whether or not seminaries will begin to more boldly own this reality and if their prospective students will believe it enough to give it a chance. The story of a seminary’s influence reaches much wider than the story that reduces it to a factory for pumping out pastors, those “called.” Perhaps a more expansive understanding of what it means to be “called” needs some consideration before this story can reach its full impact on people wondering about the future of theological education. Do you feel compelled to research and publish within the humanities and other related disciplines? Are you drawn constantly into various types of social activism? Is your dream job leading companies into deeper inclusivity of their diverse workforces? Are you passionate about analyzing and critiquing state and federal policies to ensure they fit within a moral framework of what works best for everyone in society? Then I suppose you too struggle to relieve a similar itch, which other people have identified as a “call.” And regardless what you might want to name it, it’s an itch you might want to call on a seminary to help scratch.
How do future employability or future graduate school options affect the way you craft your programs? Can seminary prepare me to pursue another graduate degree or for a job without a stole?
Because the definitions of “church” and “ministry” are rapidly changing, so must the structure of theological education curriculum. The religious realities in our culture require more innovation and integration. For these reasons, we have reconfigured the base of our programs and have launched 4 portal courses that serve as doorways into the rest of a student’s theological experience. Because this cross-disciplinary approach utilizes ensemble teaching, conversation naturally stretches beyond former disciplinary boundaries and allows for a broader context of learning. We have been on the cutting edge of this kind of curriculum overhaul and expect it be on the front end of what will most likely become a new trend in theological education.
Not only do these new approaches expand a student’s learning experience, they prepare them for a host of other roles in society, particularly roles that require leadership and change management. Phillips Seminary doesn’t simply graduate students who know how to expertly interpret sacred texts or preach powerful homilies and later move into further graduate education. We do. But we also graduate people who can lead and practice care for others in such a way their skills can translate into many professional fields that require large quantities of leadership capital within the management levels of their organizations.
Certainly, one has a more difficult time making this case than someone with an MBA or an M.Ed; however, it’s not a stretch to think a person with an MDiv is as, if not more, qualified and skilled to undertake many of the management and executive roles companies are looking to fill with capable and exceptional leaders. The difficulty comes in overcoming the perceptions of the degree as useful exclusively to a person donning a stole. I think it’s conceivable to take a Master of Divinity into the job market and make the claim that at a functional and practical level it’s also a degree in leadership, organizational management, human relations, communications, and a host of other broad-reaching disciplines, which make a good leader and, ahem, pastor.
What degrees can I pursue at your institution? (Mdiv, MTS, MAT, Dmin, etc.) Do you have any joint degrees that you offer?
We offer 4 Master’s degrees (Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Ministry and Culture, Master in Theological Studies, and a Master of Arts in Social Justice.)
As well, we offer a Doctor of Ministry degree.
All of our programs can be completed largely online. (1/3 of the required credit hours for each degree must be done in residence.) We understand the difficult task of trying to balance work, family, personal life, etc. so we have intentionally designed our offerings to make courses readily available. We offer a variety of class formats to accommodate various schedules. For example we offer day classes, evening classes, week-long classes and weekend classes.
We are particularly excited about our new degree in Social Justice. It is intended to equip people who work in extensions of human service beyond the local church. Many who are investigating and enrolling in the program are coming from the nonprofit world and have an interest in concentrating their careers in areas where there is direct contact with populations who often suffer great injustices and find themselves on the margins of our culture. Our seminary intends to create leaders and faith communities who are passionate about changing the world and this degree is specifically designed to equip people to do that.
If I’m thinking about ordination, what strategy should I take to ensure that I end up in the right denomination for me?
Honestly, this question places a bigger emphasis on the role of a seminary in discerning a denominational preference or fit than there ought to be. At Phillips we help some. We provide students with Denominational Formation Directors where they’re paired with a professor who can help walk them through the process of their particular denomination’s requirements. Although, much of the discernment about where a student best fits denominationally is already done. Of course, people have changed their minds before and switched from one denomination to another. Perhaps the best way Phillips Seminary assists with these decisions is providing a context of learning where students are exposed and introduced to other denominational processes and practices as well as to students and denominational officials from denominations other than their own. At Phillips we typically have over 15 denominations represented in the student body. We also provide Denominational Formation Directors for 7 denominations.
Do you offer residential programs? Satellite campuses? Online programs? Hybrid programs?
Covered in question #3
What are the advantages of your geographical location and physical campus when compared to other seminaries?
Many people are surprised to find a progressive Christian seminary in the heart of the Midwest and the buckle of the Bible belt. The seminary campus is nestled in a broader community that doesn’t always appreciate a more open and critical approach to understanding issues of faith and religious practice. Where better to be a beacon of hope, a presence of understanding, and an advocate for justice?! We are a seminary that doesn’t just teach a just and progressive way of thinking theologically, we are also deeply committed to embodying that theology and utilizing it to interface with the entire city of Tulsa and beyond. We strive to be a pro-active presence in spaces that harbor systems and beliefs that have traditionally been destructive and oppressive.
What can I expect from the learning experience in my program in the first year? How can I best come prepared? What kind of workload should I expect?
Prepare to be disturbed. And that is a good thing. The experience begins with profound cognitive dissonance—a term used to describe the experience when newly-received information does not coincide with what someone currently subscribes to as right and true, and the individual is forced to reevaluate new possibilities and new truths. It is in the midst of cognitive dissonance that authentic learning takes place. But such a transformational shift begins in a space of discomfort, and sometimes even disillusionment. Expect dogmatism to give way to critical thinking and embedded theologies to be uprooted by a hermeneutic of suspicion. Our programs are high-quality and thus academically intense.
What sort of theological and practical skills can I expect to learn as I attend your school? What tradition do you represent?
I think our President, Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend, provides an incredible response to this sort of question in his greeting on our website. He writes:
Some Bible interpreters claim they are not interpreting at all but are simply presenting the definitive, unadulterated words of God.
We all interpret. In fact, it is our responsibility to interpret.
How Christians interpret the Bible matters. It matters a great deal. With the Bible in hand, Christians have justified punishment, retribution, prejudice, slavery, and the pursuit of “Christ’s will” at the end of a gun barrel or sword point. Some Christians use the Bible to reject the scientific pursuit of knowledge.
At Phillips Theological Seminary, we:
Educate you to interpret the Bible responsibly–responsible to God, responsible to the Gospel, responsible to the people you serve, and responsible to standards of good scholarship.
Insist that you examine your beliefs, biases, and assumptions about the Bible and God.
Broaden and deepen the community of interpreters with whom you read the Bible.
God has a mission in the world. The Christian movement needs leaders who interpret the Bible in a manner that works with God to mend this broken world. Phillips educates such leaders.
We are seminary affiliated with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and hold deep commitments to ecumenism. Along with an ecumenical commitment comes an insistence for listening and learning from other people who may differ from us. We understand thinking theologically as a way of learning to share space with everyone else is something that can also be embodied and lived. We don’t only encourage students to think theologically. Our faculty leads the way in and encourages students to embody an ecumenical, liberating, and inclusive theology within the very contexts they find themselves.
What are some ways that your seminary is working to reduce overall student debt?
We offer scholarships, and lots of them. All of our students received tuition scholarships of at least 40%. Many students receive tuition assistant up to 80%. On top of the massive scholarships we’re able to provide, we have a highly competitive tuition rate, which as of 2016 sits lower per credit hour than any other Disciples Seminary. We work with students before, during, and after their seminary career to ensure they’re informed about student loans and other ways to pay for their education. Our Student Services department has prioritized assisting students through the difficulties associated with funding a graduate education.
What is the advice you most often give to potential seminarians?
Go where you think you fit. It may not be Phillips but it may be. And if someone were still on the fence, I might write something like the following:
I would never argue seminary is the only and best path for all people called by God to some type of ministry. I would, though, argue it is an excellent path, and for some perhaps the best path, to take for those headed in a direction led by their theological and religious call to serve the world. Seminary, especially those that share similar values to the ones we hold at Phillips, forces students to center perspectives that are often marginalized or pushed aside— those voices that go unheard beneath the noise of society’s normative assumptions. Certainly, a person can listen to other perspectives without going to seminary, but seminaries like Phillips (I say “like Phillips” because not all seminaries value this work) cultivate and form learning, language, and relational habits that are powerfully informed by the sensibility of centering oppressed, marginalized, and neglected voices—those voices which bring necessary and vital contributions to the work of fostering a world that works for everyone. These are the type of habits of listening and learning, of humanizing the “other,” that I owe fully to my seminary experience and education. And they are interpretive and pastoral habits that I find rare among leaders in ministry who have never been exposed to or engaged the type of transformational learning experience a good seminary provides.
Of course, seminary isn’t a magic pill that once swallowed produces the most sensitive, prophetic, and passionate ministers alive. I agree seminary isn’t for everyone and can’t take someone without a call or the stuff of ministry and turn them into a good minister all of the sudden, out of the blue. I do think seminary can take someone like you, someone with the call and with the stuff, and provide the training and resources necessary to arrange that stuff in a way that it’s most effective and brings to the surface the greatest expression of the called minister you already are. Seminary provides someone like yourself, who has the stuff already, with more language, vocabulary, insight, perspectives, and frameworks to access more fully and naturally the best of that stuff you already have within you. And, I think, it is the seminary’s designed and organized intersections of critical thinking, relationships, conversation, encounter with other perspectives and voices, accountability, and support that facilitates the sort of transformational experience I’m describing.
Again, am I trying to sell the idea that without seminary you or someone else cannot effectively engage and live into a calling? No. I am, though, giving my best effort to help break open a space in your imagination for the not-yet-thought-up possibilities a seminary experience can contribute to the vocational narrative you’re already writing for yourself. If you were to ask me several years ago if I thought it possible for me to be pursuing my calling the way I am now I would’ve laughed and said “No way!” It was time at Phillips that opened to me the possibilities of defying my own cynicism and doubt about where I could be and launched me into contexts of ministry and theology I had always assumed were out of reach. Were it not for Phillips giving me the keys to unlock the imagination in which to explore radically alternative theological and ministry possibilities, the student and minister I am now may still be locked out of the incredible adventure I’ve experienced the last few years.
Ultimately the decision of seminary or not is yours to make. And whatever you choose Phillips will honor your choice and help in whatever way we can as you continue to discern your call to ministry. However, I didn’t want you to make that decision without trying to spark within your imagination the possibilities I am able to see for you as one standing on the other side of the decision I’m hoping you will make.