Calvin Seminary Q&A
Published by Gary M. Burge
I joined Calvin Seminary in the summer of 2017 after teaching at Wheaton College for about 25 years. My own educational trek took me through college, seminary, and then post-graduate study that ended with a Ph.D. in New Testament. Then I became a college and (now) a seminary professor. During my 35-year career, I have had countless students walk the same seminary road as I did. Many are still personal friends and I’ve witnessed how excellent seminary experiences shaped the course of their lives.
During my first year at Calvin Seminary, I sat down with Jul Medenblik, President of Calvin Seminary, and Ronald Feenstra, Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology, for a conversation about how Calvin Seminary views vocational discernment and support for inquiring students. Here are highlights of that conversation:
Do you have to have perfect clarity and perfect confidence before you decide to enter seminary?
President Medenblik: I think clarity can grow as you’re here. I came to Calvin Seminary as a second-career student; I had already been a practicing attorney. Looking back, I probably did have a call in some ways as a teenager but actually didn’t find that confirmation until later through various church communities and through wise words from my wife. However, the contours of that angularity of that call can be explored more fully at seminary.
So seminary can be an exploratory experience as well?
Dean Feenstra: I would say absolutely. Yesterday, I had lunch with some students who are graduating from the distance learning program this spring, and one of the students observed that the journey through seminary was one step at a time. Sometimes we think we’ve got things planned out, we think it’s all under our control, but it turns out that’s just an illusion. It’s not under our control and so we really go one step at a time in faith and trust God to lead us where the next step goes. I think seminary can be a journey just like that because it’s really a journey of faith just like the rest of our Christian walk.
Medenblik: I can relate to that from my own experience. I was exploring in my first year at seminary, but I was surprised to learn that I was surrounded by a lot of other men and women who had the very same journey, and I met men and women on the faculty who understood how to help with that journey.
Feenstra: That’s exactly right. I think that we have both formal and informal ways through which some of that guidance happens. An example of more formal conversations is in vocational formation groups. These groups – made up of 6 to 8 current students and a group leader – will explore things like calling. But then there are also the more informal opportunities: talking to people at a town hall event, over lunch in the student center, or during donut fellowship after chapel. Faculty are very open to discussing issues that students wonder about not just about the nuts and bolts of seminary but also about the broader issues of, “Where might God be calling me?”.
Do I have to qualify to come to seminary? What if I haven’t been to college in 15 years—or never got a college degree? Jul, you said that you had a law background. Certainly, that disqualified you.
Medenblik: Well I usually like to say “from law to grace” to help explain my vocational journey. When I was deciding on a major during my undergraduate studies, I was told you can do anything. So I was a philosophy major; history and English minors. After that, I went to law school. But we’ve run across prospective students who have engineering as a background, or worked on farms, or even have worked in a church setting before they come to seminary, saying “I want more education.” So it’s wide open. We can even encourage those who don’t have a bachelor’s degree to enroll, as our ATS accreditation allows for exceptions to that requirement in some instances. For incoming students, we would prefer some background in terms of history, philosophy, and English, but it doesn’t have to be a bachelor’s degree; and we review exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
Feenstra: Yesterday, I was talking to a new student. She is new in our MDiv program. Before seminary she had already written articles and is an active blogger. Though she took a few college courses at a community college, she never got a bachelors degree. She’s loving being at seminary.
What if I’m nervous about the academic demands at seminary?
Feenstra: We have several resources that can help. For one thing, faculty members are always ready and can be available to help. They want to help because they want to see the students in their courses succeed. Our faculty members have office hours and I’ve heard it noted many places that these designated times are the most under- used resource on a campus. In addition to our faculty, we have a number of other resources. For instance, we have a rhetoric center, where students can go to with their papers to be read and then responded to before they submit them, which can help improve writing skills.
One of the joys that we have at Calvin Seminary is that approximately 40% of our student body comes from outside of North America, so it’s a tremendously international community. Because there are many people for whom English is a second language, we have conversation groups where students who use English as a second language can converse with native speakers. We also have made exceptions where if English is the second language, students can have some extra test time when in-class testing occurs, and again, the rhetoric center is available to help students with writing papers in English. Sarah Chun, our international student advisor, is very helpful to international students, beginning with their visa documentation, and continuing support throughout their seminary enrollment.
What sets Calvin Seminary apart—how do you leaders describe its distinctives?
Feenstra: I think that one of our hallmarks is that Calvin Seminary is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, and especially in the Reformed branch of the Christian tradition. We are deeply Reformed and reflective. Calvin Seminary comes from a part of the Christian tradition that thinks hard and wants to understand our faith.
Faith seeking understanding is what we’re about. But at the same time, we’re not narrow. We’re not narrowly Reformed; we’re not narrow in any way. We train women and men for ministry and affirm women and men in their call. We train people in a wide variety of denominations, not all Reformed. People come to us from many branches of the Christian tradition.
Most faculty members themselves have studied or taught in a variety of places so that they are not simply aware of a narrow tradition but of a broad swath of the Christian faith. We have faculty members who engage in dialogue with Muslims, with Roman Catholics, with any number of other folk in many contexts. A specific example of this is our program whereby faculty members go and teach in a state prison. It’s been one of the ways in which we’ve enlivened our community and faculty by teaching in prison and seeing God at work in a very unlikely place, and finding that we grow as much from teaching in prison as anything that we provide to the students who are in that course in prison. We have had courses in Spanish for the last several years. We have two Spanish language certificates, and we’re in the process of developing an MA that would be taught entirely in Spanish. So we are trying to be rooted but at the same time very open to a wide variety of people and traditions.
Medenblik: I think that one of the words that come to mind is the word “engagement.” You could have a tradition that’s engaged only with itself that turns in on itself, or you have one that really does look around beyond itself, that engages in different ways. I think that people can find a community here at Calvin Seminary where they will discover and experience friendships with people they might not normally have dialogued with before. It’s a place to broaden and deepen one’s engagement across the spectrum of Christian faith. And this all happens under the umbrella of our mission, which includes the work of forming “church leaders who cultivate communities of Jesus Christ.” While we have this rootedness and focus on Reformed thinking, our engagement looks to be broad because Christ’s Kingdom is broad.
Serving now at Calvin Seminary has allowed me to see those same qualities of excellence that I promoted among my former students. Here, too, is a community of men and women who are sorting out their callings and wrestling with theological questions. At Calvin Seminary, we celebrate a wide variety of students who enrich us because of their differences: men and women, Asian and Latino, younger and older, zumiez-types and button-downs. They’re all here making up the kaleidoscope of what it means to be the Church. We are in the Reformed tradition which means we are heirs of those great thinkers (like John Calvin) who gave birth to the Reformation. But those who have never heard of Calvin or who come from different traditions can find their home here, too.
Above all, an excellent seminary – like Calvin Seminary – is a place where you can be formed into the person God wants you to become. You may have had this lingering thought that God might be leading you into full-time service. Your friends may be hinting at this as well. But there are still many ambiguities and uncertainties. This is just as it should be. An excellent seminary like Calvin will invest in you. People will help you discover yourself and sharpen your thinking about how serving God might look in your generation. And we hope you will be inspired to do things you never considered before and be equipped to do them.
When you are wrestling with your own understanding of God’s call to serve Him, few people can understand exactly what you’re going through. But they can understand this in a seminary like Calvin. Such a community is a gift because in it there are so many others – professors and students – who have walked the same road you are walking. The aim of these vocational years in our lives is discovering clarity and confidence: knowing the gifts God has given to us and discovering how those gifts may be used. My hope and prayer for every student who comes to Calvin Seminary is to find the guidance and investments to help you grow in the clarity of call and confidence to follow your unique, Spirit- guided pathway.
By Gary Burge
Visiting Professor of New Testement
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