I’ve been moved to post this because of the excellent piece posted over at pickingapplesofgold.com ‘Top Tips of starting #vicarschool‘ – In part because I enjoyed the piece so much and also in part because I disagree with a small bit… and there’s nothing like a minor disagreement to urge me into writing. So here are my Top Tips on starting (or continuing) in theological college.
I’d like to say these are in order, but one of the big things I’ve learnt at theological college is that priorities are different – so take them in an order which makes sense for you.
1 – Figure out your prayer life – quickly.
One of the biggest things that shifts in school is that you’re now expected to fit in with the prayer life of the community. This is amazing – it’s a real gift to sit in chapel or church with fellow ordinands and to experience corporate worship. But then, things start to niggle you. What was sweet when you first arrived starts to distract from the worship, those people that you loved to pray with at the start of term quickly become the people that stop you ‘getting what you need’ from the worship. The guitar grates, the organ is overpowering, the people who bow in odd places, the people who raise their hands… these things become all important – and distracting.
The hardest lesson to learn is that the corporate worship at theological college isn’t for you – in the person of YOU – it’s for everyone, all over the world. The fact that you have to sit through another 45 mins contemplating a conker and what that means to you on your journey should not distract you from the fact that corporate worship is there to bring us together in prayer and praise – and sometimes we get nothing from it – but that’s okay.
If you enter college and your ONLY path for prayer is the corporate worship you are going to find yourself frustrated very quickly. Figure out what you need to help develop your own relationship with God and build on it – take from other examples of worship and prayer – develop – but have something that helps you. For me it was the rosary – something I’d only prayed with in passing before I came to college but something that I now rely on when things get tough and I need time with God in prayer. For you – who knows – but figure it out and hold it dearly. Your own prayer life is not that of the community.
2 – Good enough – is not good enough.
When I first started I lost count of the people who told me ‘it’s okay, all you need is a 40 to pass and that’s good enough‘. Over the past two years I’ve watched as people have played chicken with the pass mark, ‘how close can I get!’ It’s tempting. To dismiss the academic work as unimportant, as a distraction from the ‘real’ work of formation. That another essay on a dead german theologian (we’ve all been there) will quite possibly kill your vocation.
The reality is very different. True, your pass mark isn’t going to determine where your Title Post may be – but it will certainly come to bare when you’re looking for an incumbency or in a few years time when you decide you’d like to study a specialist area in more detail – all of a sudden that 41% is a hindrance you could do without. But what if you have zero interest in academic matters and have no intention of doing further work – why should you bother to do more than the absolute minimum?
Because God doesn’t call us to be ‘good enough’. We are called by God to be Priests, to be ministers of The Word and of the Church and if we want to exercise that office to the best of our ability then we need to understand where we come from, what previous generations have thought, what other people have said about complex areas of doctrine. People have dedicated their lives to answering these questions and we are arrogant if we think that when somebody asks us if they are going to Hell because they stole something that we can answer them with integrity and humility if all we have to draw on are the bare essentials of a ‘good enough’ education in theological college.
When we were in school we were always told that you would never know when you may need this theory or that theory but some day we would. My experience in life has told me I have needed algebra, I have needed French I have needed a lot of those things – but most importantly I have needed a mix of them that I could not have understood whilst I was a student. Your theological education is the same. To be humble in the face of your office and your parish you should be able to draw on a depth of knowledge and understanding that has centuries of thinking behind it – and not what you can come up with in the five minutes it takes you to make a cup of tea.
*This is of course not to say that the rest of your life in theological college isn’t important – the important element is to have a good mix – your family life, your spiritual life, your prayer life, your academic life – and to dismiss any elements of that as unimportant and to only do the bare minimum is damaging to your formation. For full disclosure my floating average is somewhere between 55-60 – I’m desperately trying to get that up over 60, especially in my third year, but I also have to accept that I want to spend time with my wife and son and that I need time set aside for prayer. [note to reader, I left college with a 2:1, I got that average up and was really happy! 23/9/19]
3 – Find a balance – it changes.
When you start college the life becomes all encompassing. There is something to do all of the time – study in the library, go to worship, go to lectures, attend a tutorial, sit and pray. Often this means that your family get left behind. Be open with your family about your excitement and wanting to be part of the college life, but be open in return to your family and make sure that you are balancing things well. Only you, as a family, can figure out this balance. Advice from outside will always be from the perspective of another family and what works in one place may not work in another place.
Be open to your family and ask them to be open with you. Love them with all your heart and be there for them – even if that means spending an hour less on an essay than you’d like, or stopping reading something interesting, or skirting an optional prayer group.
4 – Counselling.
During theological college a lot of things will shift for you. What you thought was important before suddenly becomes unimportant, those things you dismissed six months ago are now shown in a different light. This can have a huge impact on your mental health and you should be alive to that. Most colleges offer counselling in one form or another as a separate discipline to spiritual direction – take up that offer and use it – your family will thank you for it – and so will your bar bill.
5 – Spirital Direction.
If you don’t have a spiritual director – get one. Your college can help you get hooked up and if that fails there are other organisations who can help. Spiritual guidance through formation is important – and it is vital that you get input from outside the college bubble.
6 – Books.
Buy all of the books. I’m kidding. Books can be horrendously expensive but the joy of shelves filled with books is one of the greatest pleasures on earth! I am a bit of a book person and I love the physicality of them. I have a growing theological library that I index on LibraryThing. If I bought all of these books new I would have gone bankrupt last year – but you can buy most of the books you need second hand from places like AbeBooks for pennies. The vast majority of my library has cost no more than £1 and in may cases 75p.
There are book grants available from people like Sons of the Clergy or the Dearmer Society etc and you should make use of them. College libraries are for the most part excellent – but sometimes having a copy of the main book the course is being taught from is far more helpful than a copy from the library – especially if like me you like to write in the margins.
When it comes to essays I get most of the books I need from the library, then if one of them particularly grabs me I’ll go and buy a copy so I can pull it apart at my own pace without keeping it from someone else.
Try to buy your books from an ethical place. Try to avoid Amazon. Consider Waterstones, Blackwell’s, AbeBooks etc – all of these guys match Amazon on academic texts (especially Blackwell’s who are an academic specialist) and often they are cheaper. Keep your eye open for Church House specials – as they’ll often be significantly cheaper than Amazon.
7 – Love.
At some point over your time in college you are going to absolutely loath somebody. It could even be yourself. It’s going to happen, you can’t help it. In the rarified atmosphere of a theological college that loathing can spread and grow and deepen to the rest of the community. When you find that happening you need to do something that my spiritual director calls ‘aggressive loving’.
Aggressive loving means praying for that person every single time you pray. You pray for their love in return for yours and you pray that they are happy in God’s love. It’s amazing how quickly loathing can turn to love when you pray for somebody. It works. I do it a lot.
8 – There is more to this life than theological college.
Get out. Go. Do not for a moment forget that your life now exists in a bubble in a world that is very different from that going on around you. You’ll find your language changing, your outlook shifting – everything – and then when you re-enter the real world it can come as quite a shock. It’s like going to Hogwarts as a muggle but then finding when you leave you’re only allowed back into the muggle world.
So get out. Go out with friends who are not connected with the church or with the college. Read different newspapers and websites. Spend at least half a day outside of your college each week. Go away in the holidays – even if it’s just a caravan two miles down the road. Don’t lose touch with the rest of the world.
9 – You are surrounded by clever people.
Before you came to college you probably had a life doing something different. You may have gone to university, or had a job, or raised a family or any number of things. Remember that everybody else did as well. It’s easy to fall into the trap that leaves you thinking you are surrounded by people who are only measured by how good the last piece of worship they organised was. Get to know what people’s skills and abilities are and talk to them about it – share yours – you’ll be amazed at how many cool, clever people you are surrounded by.
The friendships you generate in college will support the rest of your life in ministry. Don’t allow yourself to only see people in one dimension.
10 – Leave the conkers where they are.
Conkers don’t need to be in worship. They are beautiful under the tree where they fell. Please don’t give me one as I walk into church.