Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When "D" Stand for Degree

We recently commissioned another group of graduates. There were many in this year’s group that I had come to know personally and I wonder where they will be and what they will be doing in the near future.

Our commencement speaker this year was Dr. Renita Weems, formerly of Vanderbilt University and now vice president for academic affairs at American Baptist College. Her address was based on the final moments of Elijah’s ministry in 2 Kings 2 when Elisha took on the mantle of the prophet. At one point in her message she talked about how sometimes students want to “wear her mantle” but don’t want to do the work. She then said:

"I often tell students how I am amazed that they think they can turn in papers late, not read the paper when they turn it in, turn it in at the very last minute, and think, however, that when they become a pastor they will have their sermons done on time.”

Her statement got a round of applause from the audience, but especially from those of us in the faculty section.

I admit I was one of those applauding. And I can echo her sentiments having just finished another year and submitted the final grades. I am constantly disappointed if not shocked by how little effort or care some students put into their work. Papers are late, sloppy, and full of errors or not even close to what the syllabus required. And let’s not even talk about plagiarism and/or cheating.

And yet some students do not seem to care. They are hurtling towards their goal of becoming pastors, chaplains, counselors and yet don’t take serious their time in the classroom as a prerequisite to the job they want or claim to be called to. Seminary is just another thing to check off on their way to ministry.

One particular anecdote I will share happened early on in my teaching career. I had a student in Greek that refused (yes, refused, I was confident of the student’s ability) to do the work the way it needed to be done. The student was barely getting by. Once, when I commented to the class about the importance of doing well, this student interrupted “Well, D stands for degree.”

Why is this acceptable? Why do we think it is ok for those who care for peoples’ souls can pass their classes with minimal effort and no sense of personal pride and/or responsibility? Who would want to be treated by a medical doctor who did not take the time to study and understand biology or pharmacology? Would we be satisfied with an MD whose attitude was “D” stands for degree? No, we go to a doctor trusting that someone in the education process made sure that this person was prepared to care for people. Yet, not all pastors-to-be pass through seminary trying to get the most from their education. They are after the piece of paper that gives them the requirements even if they really don’t have the qualifications. Somehow they convince themselves they already have what it takes.

In fairness, not all students have the “D” stands for degree attitude. Many are just too busy or trying to fly through the degree too quickly. The problem, however, is that they seem to be learning very little. They are working 40 hours a week and taking four classes. Some have church responsibilities as well. And then there is family. Such a schedule and list of responsibilities means something is going to fall to the wayside. Quite often it is their schoolwork. And while I understand the pressures of life, what I don’t understand is why they don’t take it serious enough to realize that to complete the degree and to complete it well means that time and space MUST be carved out to learn. The average student will be in their degree program for only three years. They will never have this opportunity again. But some of them are squandering this time. They are not learning the material nor are they developing the habits they need to make them successful in their ministry. Their degrees are expensive pieces of paper that are really worthless to them.

One thing I tell many students is that the habits they develop here will follow them into the pulpit. If you don’t take the time to do the work here, and to do it properly, what makes you think that the switch will magically turn on once you get into a church office? It won’t. The problem now, however, is that we are no longer talking about meeting the professors requirements on a syllabus. We are talking about a congregation of people who expect you to nurture and care for their souls. If you haven’t developed good habits in seminary, it will be even harder to learn them from behind the pulpit. And like a medical doctor who provides the wrong diagnosis, you could be guilty of ministerial malpractice because you did not make sure you were prepared.

So if you are a student and you truly believe that you have been called to seminary, then I ask you to please consider those to whom you will minister. Your time in the classroom is not merely a hurdle to jump. It is a chance for you to learn and be formed so that when you do get in front of a group of people, although you will never have all the answers, you will know that you are truly giving them the best that you’ve got. You will be able to say with pride "I learned all that I could and I never entertained the idea that “D” stands for degree."


  1. Well said. I was amazed at the number of my fellow students who had that attitude. I did not understand it. Besides the material we were fortunate to be exposed to by some very competent and caring professors, (wink wink),the opportunity for personal transformation was, for me, the greatest boon. What is the solution? Or, is there? All I know is that the last several years have been great for me and my preparation for the next step in life. Thank you Dr. John

  2. Dr. Byron,

    What you articulated so thoughtfully, is something with which I have often struggled. How do I get the most out of my education in the midst of ministry, job, and family responsiblities? Don't get me wrong, I'd love to "carve out" more time for Seminary, but how do you do it and pay the bills? What your article points out is the "mentality" that is behind the time you give Seminary. My prayer for my peers as well as myself is to realize that every paper, every translation, and every class is an opportunity to glorify God as well as be equipped for ministry.