In Praise of Seminary Students

In a previous post, I wrote about my experience teaching Old Testament at Northern Seminary for twenty-eight years. In that post, I spoke highly of the faculty and staff of Northern Seminary. I was blessed to work with such a committed group of people whose lives are fully dedicated to the task of preparing men and women for leadership in the church.

In that post I did not mention my students. That was not an omission, but it was deliberate. I decided to take time to write a separate post about my students and their quest for a good theological education.

My greatest joy as a seminary professor was teaching men and women who came to seminary to prepare themselves to serve the Lord in the various ministries of the church. These students made great sacrifices to obtain their theological education. They spent money and time in this venture because they recognized the importance of a good theological education.

Many people today believe that pastors do not need a theological education. However, my many years in the ministry and in theological education have taught me that today, more than ever before, people need to educate themselves to face the many challenges a secular society is placing before pastors and the church.

My students at Northern were eager to gain a good education. They came to my classes with an open mind and a searching heart because they wanted to learn, they wanted to become better teachers and better preachers. I learned more from them than they learned from me. Their questions, their papers, and our class dialogue became occasions for me to learn about their visions, their goals in life, and their desires to be effective in their ministry.

As a seminary professor, I made myself available to my students because it was my desire that they develop a love for the Old Testament. One of the objectives in all of my courses was to help students develop an appreciation of the Old Testament as an integral part of the Christian Scriptures.

When a new student arrives in seminary, our responsibility as professors is to see our students as persons who have been called by God and given a task to perform in the Kingdom of God. They come with their gifts and potentiality: they are ministers, teachers, scholars, and theologians in the making. We affirm them as such and work with them as partners in this great journey that we call theological education. And in order for us to help Northern Seminary to achieve its vision, which is “to prepare leaders who will faithfully serve Jesus Christ with evangelical passion and mission skills in biblically grounded and culturally relevant ministries,” we walk with our students, again and again, not as detached observers, but as partner in their education and in their theological formation.

It is true that some students have a tendency to depend on the professor for all their learning. These students believe that the professor has all the wisdom and all the answers they need to prepare them for the rigors of the ministry. But this is a false assumption. Teachers experience the growth of students incrementally, when students read the textbooks and write their papers. Students, on the other hand, experience the commulative education of the professor because the professor’s education involves many years of reading, writing, and teaching.

As an individual and as a professor I have been a great admirer of Francis Bacon. In his essay on education, Bacon emphasized the importance of reading and writing. He said that study prepares an individual for life and leadership. He said that in life, great achievement and important decisions “come best, from those that are learned.”

All my former students know that I was a demanding professor. In all my classes students had to read books and articles from theological journals. They also had to write papers. These papers had to follow a proper format and that format was Turabian, a guide for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations.

The rigours of my course had its origins in my reading Francis Bacon. His essay on education, an essay that people should read, addresses some of the problems we find in our education system today. Bacon wrote:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not.

Two requirements in all my courses were reading and writing. Of reading, Bacon said: “Reading maketh a full man . . . if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not.” And this is the problem: unless students read good books, they will need “much cunning” in order to seem to know what they do not know.

Of writing, Bacon said: “writing [maketh] an exact man . . . if a man write little, he had need have a great memory.” Pastors and church leaders will write much in their ministry. It is for this reason that a theological education is incomplete if seminary students finish their education without learning how to write a good paper, a paper that follows proper format.

One of my favorite writers is Martin Buber. Buber said that “Education worthy of the name is essentially the education of character.” Francis Bacon said that “Studies permeate and shape manners.”

The task of a seminary professor is to prepare students for the rigors of the ministry. A seminary education is not an exercise in giving answers to all the problems ministers will encounter in their churches. Rather, theological education and the role of a seminary professor is to help students to become competent ministers of Jesus Christ and to provide them with the tools they will need to deal with specific challenges they will face throughout the many years of ministry.

If seminary students are to succeed in their places of ministry, then they will need to spend hours strengthening their souls and minds through prayer, reading, and writing in order to deal with issues and problems in their churches and in our society and in order to adapt to the many challenges they will encounter in their ministry.

I hope that the demands of my courses motivated my students to read more and write more. If I asked much from my students, it was because I felt a strong responsibility to help them become better ministers, better teachers, and better theologians. If their classroom experience served to have a lasting impact in their lives and in their ministry, then I have achieved my goal as a seminary professor.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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