What Does a Seminary Professor Do? (Part 1): Teaching

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I am beginning a new blog series: What does a seminary professor do? We will start with the most obvious answers (teach, research, etc.), and then talk about other things that occupy my time professionally. This series will be helpful to those in undergrad or grad degree programs who are considering teaching at a seminary.

I Teach

So, you only work, like, 12 hours a week?

This kind of question comes up when I tell people I teach the equivalent of four 3-credit courses per semester (= 12 classroom hours). In theory, yes, this is the maximum amount of time I would spend in a classroom face to face with students for a local course. But teaching is about much more than “classroom time” and in the end professors work 40-60 hours a week as with many other professions. What makes higher education unique is flexibility – I can do a lot of different things with my time, and how I prepare the educational experience is largely in my hands.

First, I would like to begin with the kinds of courses I teach, and then I want to talk about what teaching is like in the 21st-century seminary.

Nowadays, I teach 1-2 courses in a traditional local format (face-to-face with local students, weekly). I also teach some hybrid distance courses, where students live outside our area, engage online in forums most weeks, and once a semester they come to campus for intensive engagement. Some of my faculty load might go to administrative work (like overseeing an academic committee), I might be awarded a bit of research leave (which will lower my course load by 3 credits), or I might be helping to implement a project through a grant. Some years I have been scheduled to supervise Doctor of Ministry students – I would work with them for several years in a row, seeing them through to completion.

I am responsible for New Testament courses at Portland Seminary, so I teach introduction to New Testament, hermeneutics, Biblical Greek, book study courses, and advanced courses (like Septuagint Greek, or thematic courses). I also oversee the Master’s thesis program here.

Teaching Style and Philosophy

I recall learning that Karl Barth would walk into class, pull out his notes, and read basically “word-for-word” from his lecture notes. A few generations ago, I could see how receiving such exclusive information from a theological giant could be highly rewarding. But now information (books, blogs, podcasts, Wikipedia, Youtube, Itunes University) is so easily accessible. And seminary textbooks are better and there are just more of them. So, it makes little sense to read a lecture as a teaching style.

My own attitude towards seminary and the learning experience is about equipping, establishing, and engaging. Nowadays, seminary students are busy – many of them work fulltime in ministry (or otherwise), they have families, etc. On top of that, seminary degrees continue to shrink in terms of overall credit hours. So I can’t teach the whole NT in depth. I can equip students to establish a plan for life-long learning. Secondly, I try to establish students, to ground them in the basics of the NT world, the history of early Christianity, central themes, crucial methods, and hermeneutical challenges. Finally, I want them to engage deeply in vital matters – engage intellectually with the information, but also engage one another and expand their thinking. And, of course, I want them to engage with God. Seminaries (in my view) exist to shape not only minds, but also form souls and bodies and (by extension) communities of faith. The reality is that I only “get” the student’s time and attention for a few hours a week, so that time has to count.

Equipping is pretty easy – pointing students to the best resources for their life-long learning plan. Establishing is also not rocket science, and if you have a good education as a professor, you can pass on the appropriate foundation of Bible, church history, theology, etc. The hardest part is engagement. The point of engagement is not merely getting the student to think, but to be transformed by the engagement, to come to *aha* moments that will stick. So, you have to decide ahead of time what the most important *aha* moments must be for a course (and its learning objectives). Furthermore, it is good to lead a student to an *aha* moment, but it is even better if you can make space for that student to make their own way to the *aha* moment – the latter requires more internal processing, but my experience is that it “sticks” better if the student has engaged in self-discovery (vs. being “spoonfed” the “big idea”).

For example, I can “teach” students the basics of ancient honor-shame culture, and it is crucial for making sense of the New Testament. But I find it is more impactful to use role-playing or historical fiction to immerse the students enough in the ancient world that they “notice” the important cultural features on their own.

If I spend about 10 hours a week engaged with students “in the classroom,” I spend another 10 hours preparing for class time or assignments. On top of that, I get dozens of emails per week from students with a variety of questions (especially from hybrid students who can’t just “ask in class”). I spend ~5 hours a week just managing, sorting, crafting, and answering student emails. Teaching means a lot of emails.

Is teaching fun? Most seminary professors would say that (1) being with the students and having a chance to be a part of their formative journey is why we do this, and (2) getting to prepare and see those *aha* moments is very gratifying. But most would also say “emailing” and “grading” (and loading/updating course-management websites) are very tedious activities. (If you have trouble sitting in front of a computer for several hours a day, being a professor is not for you.) The “high” of teaching and learning is definitely worth it for me. And sometimes you have a low “emailing” week and little grading. That is nice too.

How do you decide if you want to teach in a seminary versus undergraduate institution (vs. research-driven graduate program)? My opinion is that those drawn to seminary teaching have a passion for working with adult Christian leaders and pastors. Their job is to come alongside those called to ministry and equip them as professionals and set them up to flourish. If that is where your heart is, the seminary is the right place to be.

What Questions Do You Have?

 

Paul as Pastor – Essay Collection (Gupta)

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For many years I have been interested in the subject of Paul as model of “pastor.” On this topic, I have appreciated James W. Thompson’s Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision (Baker, 2006) and Derek Tidball’s Ministry by the Book (IVP, 2008). Recently, editors Brian Rosner, Andrew Malone and Trevor Burke put together an essay collection on Paul as Pastor (T&T Clark, 2018). The contributors are mostly (though not exclusively) located in Australia and cover the range of Paul’s letters as well as some reception of Paul (Augustine and Whitefield). Overall, this book supports and cultivates further thought on Paul, not only as “theologian,” but as change agent amongst the communities under his apostleship. In this regard, the book re-frames Paul not only in view of what he wrote and thought, but also in view of what he felt called to do with these believers.

One important question that I did not think was adequately addressed is: what is a pastor? What exactly does it mean for someone to be “pastoral”? For some contributors, the focus was on the “teaching” work of the pastor (e.g., Peter Orr’s essay on Ephesians). For others, the focus is on pastor as “priest” who leads believers towards holiness in life (e.g., Colin Kruse on Romans). Rosner and Burke, in their respective essays, concentrated on the nurturing and caring aspects of pastoral ministry with interest in Paul’s extensive familial and kinship metaphors (e.g., Paul as father, mother, and brother). I did appreciate all these nuances (which are present and emphatic in different ways in different Pauline epistles), but it would have been helpful to have a discussion at the outset of the term “pastor.” I like to point out that this word is really not found in the NT apart from the bare mention in Ephesians 4:11. That makes it necessary to be clear about what it means to study the concept of pastor from the Bible. Some contributors tipped their hat to the notion of “shepherding,” but even still this concept can go in many directions (from teaching, to executive leadership, to “care for souls”, etc.).

This book adds helpful, diverse perspectives on the topic of Paul and pastoral ministry. I hope this promotes further dialogue and investigation.

How Do You Write So Much? Tips for Aspiring Writers (Gupta)

Book, school, paper.

I get folks asking me quite often, how do you write so much? I have written 20+ articles, several chapter essays, four books, and I have a few manuscripts I am working on now. Here are my tips:

Writing has to be a passion. It can’t just be something you do. You have to love it. You have to have a fire in your belly and heart and mind to get these ideas out there. If it is not a passion, it will get sidelined. You have to ask – why am I doing this? Do I love this?

Schedule and protect your writing time. For me, I have a master weekly schedule and I have blocks of time set aside for research and writing. I like to have 2-3 hour blocks to really focus. I know for others, you can only manage one hour blocks between classes or meetings. No matter what, though, you need to protect that time. It’s not “free time.” It’s writing time. If you don’t restrict it, you won’t use it well. One can easily get caught up in a conversation at the water cooler (or Facebook!), but I have disciplined myself enough to “excuse” myself from the conversation to sit down to write.

Overlap research and teaching. One of the main ways that I have been able to be “productive” involves the way I have been able to combine my course material with my research and writing interests. If I want to write on Philippians, I focus my Greek course on interpreting Philippians. If I am teaching a prayer class, I write on prayer. The one supports and fuels the other, and I am able to give fresh thought to my students, and I feel like the interaction with students supports my reflection on the writing project. This may seem obvious, but I assure you it has made it possible for me to do a lot of research.

Set word count goals. Don’t just make time for research, set goals. Set big goals (completion of book, article, etc.), but also weekly goals of how much you want to write. Goal setting will help motivate you to protect and use your writing time.

Permit yourself to write garbage at the drafting stage. This is probably what I have learned the most about myself as a writer. I struggle to commit to writing things down because I am afraid it is not good. But this has now become my mantra: Write something bad, and then make it better until it is good. Of course, the main thing I do at first is outline the chapter or essay. Then I fill in the outline. But the bigger point is about letting yourself spend time free-thinking and drafting.

Reward yourself. Set certain milestones for your writing (finishing the researching stage; getting to the half-way point of word count; finishing the first draft, etc.), and then reward yourself. Maybe it is a good cup of coffee. Or a hike. Or a nap! For me, little rewards are like milestone celebrations – I got through stage 2, 3, 4, 5…

Finally – and somewhat ironically – learn to say “no.” One of my mentors told me he did not learn how to say “no” to book project offers until it was too late, and now he is buried under piles of manuscripts, which is both stressful and also doesn’t leave room for fresh ideas. This has helped me to remember that I want writing to continue to be a joy, and not a burden (of endless deadlines). I am learning how to focus my writing energy more and more on projects I am passionate about, not just getting another “thing” on my CV.

Now, there are certain special projects or people that are hard to say “no” to, but the point is that we must evaluate why we want to be productive. Is it to feel important? To “be somebody”? Yes, getting that article accepted can be a “high,” a nice achievement. But I am thinking more and more about a scholarship legacy. What do I want to be my lasting mark on biblical scholarship? How do I want to change scholarship? How do I want to improve the world? It’s nice to pad the old CV, but you don’t want to look back at your career with regrets. Stick as best as you can to your mission and passion, and leave “space” in your life for fresh ideas to pursue.

What are your productivity tips?