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?

 

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6 thoughts on “What Does a Seminary Professor Do? (Part 1): Teaching

  1. I have an MA in Theology and a MDiv – I finished seminary eight years ago and have been unable to find anywhere to serve in pastoral ministry. I have thought about teaching because others have affirmed my teaching ability in various contexts. The biggest roadblock is that I do not have a PhD or DMin – not that I am opposed to working on either of these degrees. Can someone like me at almost age 50 start in a teaching career or am I too old and not an expert in any particular discipline?

    1. Terry – you are right to be hesitant – most job positions are at the early career level and hiring folks just out of their phds. Your best bet is to do some adjuncting, but even then there is a strong push to have folks with a doctorate. Sorry 😦

  2. A couple of things. Terry, have you looked at rural ministry at all? I know within just one denomination there are at least a half a dozen openings within a 2 hour radius of me. It isn’t glamorous at all, but these men, women, and children all bear God’s glorious image, and have desperate needs that only the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ can satisfy. Small towns are forgotten. With your theological background you would be welcomed!

    Dr. Gupta, I was that student that asked big questions in class, had rambling emails, would stop into the office while my professors were using their cherished research time, and I still send out probably 10 emails a month to my professors of old with exegetical, historical, or current event questions. Part of me wants to apologize for using so much of their time, but every time I do apologize for using their time up, their reply is a mix of the reasons you stated above as to why they teach in seminary.

    My undergrad was at Moody and my MDiv was at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. I deeply admired the pastoral heart of my professors.

    As a seminary graduate, I want to thank you for the time and effort you put into teaching all of your students. Keep up the good work!

  3. I’m appreciating these posts. I’m an undergraduate in philosophy and am very aware of the shrinking humanities programs across the United States and the oversized pool of applicants to such positions. What’s happening in the seminary world in this regard? Are the positions available? Too many applicants? Increase of available positions?

    Another question (perhaps slightly cynical): is there a worry/awareness that candidates for teaching positions in seminaries are more interested in being academics and publishing and being in the limelight (i.e. being Christian celebrities), rather than faithfully teaching and building up Christian leaders for the good of Christ’s Church?

    1. Hi Conor
      #1: Positions are not widely available, and there is steep competition for ones that are. Sorry. This has been a problem esp since 2009.

      #2: Yes, there is concern that some world-be seminary professors don’t really have ministry experience and are more concerned with research and publications than training pastors. But many seminaries have candidates write essays about their vocation and passions, or this kind of issue is drawn out during an interview. But again there are a wide variety of seminaries, and each has its own perspective on its aims and academic niche.

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