I’ve been asked this question so many times I’ve stopped estimating. Recently a seminary student from St. Louis wrote to me with these three questions, and I said I’d finally answer these questions on the blog:
1. Why the move from seminary to undergrad?
2. What do you like most about undergrad teaching?
3. What type of person would you say would make the best undergrad prof?
I’ll answer the first one today and then have another post on #2 and 3.
Melancholy sometimes wanders into my mind when I think about teaching seminary; I always joke about once teaching in a “Semitery” but I really do miss teaching seminary students. (More of that below.) But, college teaching is what I’m doing now and I love it. Now let me preface this with this: I’m telling why I left seminary for college; the differences are slanted toward college students. I’m also teaching an extension seminary course right now and I have to admit something: I’m liking it much more than even I expected. So, this is about why I shifted.
While teaching at Trinity one day I got a phone call from David Nystrom at North Park. I was surprised by his question because I assumed immediately he called about two references I had written to him for former students who had applied for a faculty opening at North Park. His question was whether or not I was interested in teaching at North Park. I told him I was interested. A few of my colleagues at Trinity said it was a “step down,” and they didn’t mean that in a condescending way but that leaving graduate school (at a well-known evangelical seminary) to teach at liberal arts college was not a normal move. (I’ve never been “normal,” so that didn’t matter to me.)
I was happy at TEDS — but see below — and our Dept was a healthy, thriving Dept with lots of good things going on. I enjoyed my students; I liked having a graduate assistant; we had a good teaching schedule and TEDS had at that time one of the best sabbatical schedules imaginable. Yet, when David asked if I was interested I said yes. Why?
1. Personality: I was (and am) more cut out for college students than seminary students. While teaching at Trinity, I found ways to play “Cub-Sox” games in Greek classes and tell goofy stories about my life, and some seminary students thought I was wasting their time by telling such stories. College students are more fun and seem to appreciate hearing about my life stories — point of fact. Maybe they are humoring me.
2. Ministry: Seminary students were mature adults; they knew why they were in school — to get out and get back to the realities of ministry; they looked to professors for answers and methods and bibliography. I never heard a seminary professor say that he or she “loved” his or her students. Not that the seminary professors I knew didn’t, but it wasn’t like that. College students are still looking for guidance — not just professional but personal. I’ve had twenty college profs tell me they love students. It’s a different kind of ministry — more direct, more pastoral. Sometimes I think I’m partly youth pastor and partly professor.
3. Molding: I sensed that molding seminary students was mostly a matter of theology and method; molding college students is a real-life and personal issue. I have college students in my office crying about missing their siblings; I have students who talk about their parents and roommates and how they are not getting along; I have students tell me about their spiritual formation. The influence of a professor on a 20-yr-old, so I calculate, is about 5x more intense than the influence on a seminary student. We can influence them intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually — and we have stories about each.
4. Faith teaching: My seminary students asked mostly exegetical and interpretive questions — my college students wonder if Christianity is true, why it doesn’t seem to make more of an impact, why their life is so thin and shallow and not joyous and fulfilling. They ask bigger questions in class than I was accustomed to in seminary — did the resurrection happen? Which texts in the NT show that Jesus was God? How can a God of love take out a whole city in Joshua? Not that my seminary students didn’t ask these questions, but that my college students seem to live with these questions more existentially.
5. What I miss the most? I miss teaching Greek and Greek exegesis and talking about exegetical questions. This semester I taught a class on women in the Bible and we did more exegesis than normal and I found it rewarding, but I miss that part of the classroom. I miss the level of conversation — a student who has read the most recent book on Jesus and has some questions. And I miss my colleagues from TEDS and the kinds of interactions we had. I miss talking to students about preparing sermons, though it is nothing but delightful when former students write to me — which happens often enough — to say they can’t quite figure out how to “crack open” a text that is scheduled for this Sunday and so ask for advice.
6. I can’t help but say that some theology was involved. There are too many theologians at TEDS; more importantly, too many are too much the same so that any kind of difference stood out (and I was that difference) and called for comment, if not some concern about what that person might believe next (and I was that person). I’ve been committed since I was a seminary student to mere orthodoxy and most other things are non-essential, even if they are worth fighting for at times. I knew North Park was more of an “essentials only” place and I thought I’d enjoy being in such an environment. I have enjoyed it.
Would I ever teach seminary again? If the Lord guides us.