Called and Confused: How to Discern Your Call in Seminary

in Admissions, Staff
September 22nd, 2011

Called and Confused

So you feel called to seminary. You’ve talked it over with family, discussed it with your friends, prayed about it, meditated on it, and you’re as sure as you can be that this is the right decision.

But what do you do when you get there? Seminary is where you train for a calling, but sometimes that calling is vague.

Maybe you spent so much energy deciding whether seminary was the right decision, or finding the funding, or moving all of your possessions, or transitioning out of your job, that seminary seemed like a destination in and of itself.  But then you arrive and you realize the work of discerning your call has only just begun, and that work can be intimidating, even bewildering.

You may be confused, but you’re not alone.

If you don’t know your calling, don’t rob yourself of the diversity of learning that can help you discover it.

A stream of individuals just like you passes through my office every year. I have no doubt that these people can change the world, but they often struggle to find a direction, a purpose, or a passion to live out professionally. Like you, they simply aren’t sure what they want to do.

No one can solve this problem for you, but don’t stumble blindly through your seminary experience waiting for the answer to materialize. The value of a seminary education comes from its ability to challenge you, from the fact that it requires you to grow into yourself.

It’s not easy work, but it’s rewarding work, and there are strategies you can use in your discernment process. The three points below are advice that I offer incoming and prospective students who come into my office, and I want to share them with you.

1. Be brave with your courses/electives

Even if you find yourself drawn to a certain area, Theology, for instance, resist the urge to take courses only in that subject. You may be passionate about Theology, but why not throw in a course on non-profits, Biblical languages, Liturgy, or Mission? You might never have considered these subjects, but they could enliven in you a desire to do Theology within a mission field context, or deepen your understanding of theological concepts as they pass through different Biblical languages.

Moving out of your comfort zone will give you perspective. As a seminary graduate one of my great regrets was waiting until my last semester to take a course in Mission. It was, for me, the perfect melding of Theology and practice, and I still wonder how I would have reshaped my curriculum if I had taken that earlier on.

Be brave with your selections, but don’t jump into a course blindly. Shop for your courses. Why not attend seven in your first week so you can read syllabi, talk to professors, and talk to your classmates to determine which four are the most exciting for you?  If you don’t know your calling, don’t rob yourself of the diversity of learning that can help you discover it. Taking an adventurous attitude toward your scholarship will challenge you in rewarding ways.

2. Get out into the world

Volunteer in places where you don’t think your ministry will be.

Seeking diverse ministry experience gives you courage to embrace other new experiences and to search out other fears to conquer.

That may seem counter intuitive, but practicing ministry clarifies ministry. Since so much learning happens outside the classroom, give yourself the chance to be brave not just in the classroom, but out in the world as well. Whether you have ideas about what you would like to do, or you’re just beginning to discern your call, experience in diverse ministry settings will give you perspective and help you discover your strengths, needs, and wants.  You may very well decide a certain context isn’t for you, but how will you know unless you try it?

When I began seminary homeless shelters intimidated me. When I finally worked up the courage to visit one I realized what good people were there and what good they were doing in their community. Though I didn’t wind up serving professionally in that ministry context, I find myself drawing frequently from the compassion learned there.  I am not intimidated by shelters anymore and can volunteer there readily even though my professional ministry is elsewhere.  Seeking diverse ministry experience gives you courage to embrace other new experiences and to search out other fears to conquer.

3. Listen

No matter how elusive your calling seems – don’t be discouraged. Just take action.

Though you’re constantly being tested and evaluated in your university career, you can still find yourself insulated from what other people think of you. We’re not used to hearing lists of our strengths and weaknesses except in application recommendations or references, and even then we usually don’t get to see them.

Sit down with people you trust and ask them what they think of you. Make a list of five questions or more, things like: What do you think am I good at doing? When do I seem happiest? What can you imagine me doing with my life?
Listen to their responses. See if they resonate. You’ll probably hear a pattern if you listen carefully. If people often suggest the same sort of work and that work makes you happy, explore a calling that lets you do that. You might find it a perfect fit.

None of these options may be easy, but they’re all worth the effort. “Discern” is a verb, and your discernment process requires that you take charge during your seminary experience.  Experiment.  Practice.  Listen.  Repeat if necessary.  But no matter how elusive your calling seems – don’t be discouraged.  Just take action.

Where are you in your discernment process? Have any advice for new seminary students? Leave a comment and share your story!

Anastasia Kidd was once a confused seminarian looking for her own calling, but is now the Director of Admissions for the Boston University School of Theology. For more suggestions on discernment, check out the Admissions section of the School of Theology website.

2 Comments on Called and Confused: How to Discern Your Call in Seminary

  • This is excellent advice, Anastasia. It’s helpful to hear your emphasis on experimentation, taking time, and valuing community. For every one person who is confirmed in his or her calling after arriving in seminary, it’s amazing to me how there is at least one whose calling is utterly transformed in new directions!

  • Thanks, Bryan. I believe in experimentation because that was my story, too. I remember coming to the School of Theology from Nashville and, even after researching seminaries and going through the application process, being entirely unsure of why I was here. My very presence in seminary was an experimentation, and it was taking risks that led me to understand my calling in higher ed administration. That’s part of the reason I appreciate the openness and interdisciplinary-ness of STH’s new curriculum, so students can really get the chance to play.

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