I had the honor of asking pastor and professor A.J. Swoboda (Adjunct Professor, Portland Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary) four questions concerning the pros and cons of Seminary. My questions are in bold followed by Swoboda’s responses. Enjoy!
What is your response to those who feel that Seminary is in fact the “cemetery” of Christian faith? Do you find there to be merit to such concerns? Is this simply a caricature?
A.J. There is a positive side to seminary as long as it is serving the process of learning and growing and a deep love for God and the Church. But there is also a dark side to seminary life, which can be rampant and completely uncontrolled deconstruction, period. We’ve all seen somebody who went to seminary and lost their faith, and certainly those experiences really are painful to watch. But those don’t happen all the time; they’re pretty rare. When they do happen they’re painful. The hope would be that the seminary is a place where life is given a nurturing posture. In fact, it’s odd that the word seminary actually comes from the word semen which connects to the image of a place of life.
When someone tells you that they feel called to Seminary what words of advice do you offer? Or are there questions you might proceed to ask them?
A.J. I would say that one of the really important factors in one’s desire to be in the seminary is whether they’re doing it because they want power and control and authority or if they want to it out of service. I think it was Karl Barth who said that theology that is not in service of the church is the church’s highest form of idolatry. And so as long as one’s desire to go to seminary is ultimately to serve Christ and the church, then all power to them. But seminary can often be a place where people go to replace church and the hope would be that doesn’t become the case.
Realizing there are different types of Seminaries that respond to different needs, do you feel there still remain certain “non-negotiables” when it comes to the vision or commitment of a Seminary, or how a Seminary is run?
A.J. I really feel that one of the strengths in a seminary experience is, more important than the actual classes, are the breaks and the times that you develop in relationship with people who are very different from yourself. Which is an overwhelming experience when you’re sitting in a classroom as a Pentecostal, sitting in a class next to a Roman Catholic on one side, and an eco-feminist Baptist on the other. But that experience is a really important one. I’ve seen God’s kingdom in a much bigger light. I would say any seminary that offers you the fullness of the body of Christ is a really important strength. Don’t pick a seminary merely because it represents your ideological fetish; enter something that will challenge you.
What advice do you have for that student in Seminary who is feeling that his or her faith is under assault or is being threatened?
A.J. I would say that seminary is not the best place in the world for that to be fixed. Your faith is going to be threatened in seminary and if we’re hoping that the seminary will become a place to fix our faith, then we’re probably going to be wildly disappointed. I would say to the person that is feeling like their faith is under assault or being threatened that they should take a week and go to a Catholic monastery and spend time with a spiritual director and be in the presence of God and be okay with just that.
Thank you for the time! We’re looking forward to reading your upcoming books!
A.J. Swoboda (PhD, University of Birmingham) is pastor of Theophilus (Portland, OR) and the author of numerous books including A Glorious Dark (2015) and The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens your Faith (2016). His doctoral research at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) explored the never-ending relationship between the Holy Spirit and ecology. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Pentecostal Studies.