What Does a Seminary Professor do? (Part 4): Committees and Meetings

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It is easy to think of a seminary professor as an ivory tower intellectual with nothing to do but contemplate existence and give the occasional lecture. We do get brief moments of pensive repose, but it is a reality that seminaries and universities require faculty to commit to institutional “service.” Little did I know as an aspiring professor just how many meetings and committees there are. Currently, I serve on several permanent committees such as the library committee and the diversity committee. Then there are departmental meetings that happen monthly or more often. And bi-annual all-faculty workshops. On top of that, there are ad hoc situations like a faculty or staff search committee, or a curriculum revision committee. And a small group of faculty serves on faculty senate or the personnel committee.

Some faculty feel called to make major contributions through institutional service, so their time can easily get filled with the meetings or the work of the group. As for myself, it depends on the year and the opportunities or needs before me. Probably I spend 3-5 hours per week in meetings or in committee work. There are some “light” weeks where I don’t do much at all. There have been occasions where my whole week is almost completely filled up with meetings.

Wait—there’s more! I have just been describing internal committees and meetings. There are also many opportunities to serve in the wider guild. One might serve on an accreditation board, a regional or national society board, chair of a program steering committee, etc. This work is usually unpaid, but it tends not to be a weekly investment, but more something that happens in bursts – i.e., close to the time of a conference or major meeting.

Truth be told, there are usually two things that professors complain about: grading and meetings. But it is not always a drag. It can be exciting to serve on a search committee and make a major impact on hiring. Or to be a formative part of re-shaping curriculum. And sometimes you establish friendships with committee members, and sometimes you get to travel to interesting new places. We see “service” as a sensible obligation: time and energy that simply needs to be put in to keep everything running smoothly. (How much we celebrate, though, when a meeting is canceled!)

 

What Does a Seminary Professor Do? (Part 3): Care for Students (Gupta)

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When people think of the life of a professor, lecture prep, grading, and research (and meetings!) come to mind as the most time-consuming activities. Yes, these all take considerable time. But, by and large, we are able to schedule and predict this in terms of time management. What outsiders and students often don’t realize is how much time is poured into “care for students.” This is a very broad category, but includes everything from answering student questions via email, and advising on degree programs and course selection, to vocational discernment, and working closely with struggling students. Seminary professors are often attentive to when students are in a health or bereavement crisis – our role may be small (a sympathetic email or note), but lots of these occasions happen in a term.

I meet one on one or in small groups with lots of students over the term and often this is spontaneous as a concern arises or someone pops into my office. The meeting may take a minute or an hour. A difficult situation may be resolved in an email, or may take months to resolve.

My own perspective is that the ideal seminary professor exhibits gifts in pastoral care. We need to model the heart of a caretaker, because our attitude and interaction with students leave an effect on them. It is not enough to be a theology egghead. It is not enough to be great at Greek or Hebrew, or church history, or theology. It is not enough to have great ideas and a sharp critical eye.

Care for students, then, cannot be seen as a burden on seminary faculty. It is a central part of a seminary’s community ethos and it should be treated as a privilege. Of course it can be frustrating and tedious (e.g., dealing with plagiarism), but there is much to appreciate when this care can turn into lifelong friendships with students who stay in contact and go on to have generous and benevolent ministries.

SIDENOTE: Many seminaries pay attention to this “pastoral care” personality dimension of faculty candidates because it helps massively with student satisfaction and student retention. Just anecdotally and from personal observation, I think that this factor has become prominent in new faculty hiring across most seminaries, more than ever before. Of course, it makes good sense, and I am pleased with this development.

What Does A Seminary Professor Do? (Part 2): Research

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Most people know that in higher education, faculty are expected to do research and publish. Now, for seminary professors, what you do, why, and how much depends on the person and the institutional culture/regulations. Some seminaries have little to no expectation that faculty are actively publishing. In fact, some seminaries might discourage it because they would rather have the faculty member invest that time in teaching preparation and working with students. On the other end of the spectrum, I know institutions that place a good deal of pressure on faculty to publish often and at a certain academic level (e.g., elite publications). Most seminaries fall closer to the middle of this spectrum – faculty are required to do some publishing and to sit before advancement and tenure committees and demonstrate reasonable effort and success in remaining active in the guild.

What do seminary professors research and publish?

Again, it varies quite widely based on the institution. As for me, I try operate at two levels. First, my calling is to equip pastors to understand and teach the New Testament in their ministries. So, I like to write commentaries and textbooks along those lines. Second, I try to stay active in “the guild,” so I work on academic articles and more advanced works to make contributions to NT studies.

How does research fit into your weekly schedule?

The short answer: anywhere you can squeeze it! Yes, there are sabbaticals, but those are very few and very far between for most of us. Yes, there is the summer, but as for me, 1) I need a bit of a brain break, and 2) I try to carve out time to spend with my family on vacation, so I don’t treat the whole summer as a research bonanza. I take the month of May (when I am not teaching) and I try to blitz several research projects. But I tend to stay away from research in July and early August.

During term, I am definitely very busy with course preparation, meetings, grading, administrative tasks, and working with TAs, etc. So, it is hard to find any regularly scheduled time for research. In my “ideal” weekly calendar, I might have  8-12 hours blocked off for “research” time, but that can easily get side-lined with last-minute meetings, or a host of other unpredictable duties. I would say, on a good week, I can squeeze in 12 hours, but most weeks 8-10 hours. And there are the “here and there” moments for research – in a parking lot waiting to pick up the kids, late at night or early in the morning right before a deadline, on a plane, at a hotel, etc. And, there may be blessed weeks where a big meeting gets canceled, or class was not meeting, or I don’t have to do much prep because I had prepped the lecture on another occasion, or there is light or no grading.

To give you just a bit of snapshot of what is often on the “plate” of a seminary faculty member, here is a quick sense of various research bits I was working on this week:

-I had to complete small edits on a book review for a journal

-I made progress towards required revisions for a journal article

-I received an invitation to write for a multi-contributor project. Need to mull it over.

-I met with some students about a collaborative book project – needed to give them some instructions.

-I spend a short bit of time talking to a colleague about a book project we would edit together

-I talked to two editors separately about projects in the works (one on the phone, the other via email)

-I am proofreading chapters from a book. I try to proofread one chapter a week, but not always successful

-I am trying to work through proposed revisions for another project, but it is hard to find time for it. I keep putting it off.

-I am slated to do 3 book reviews; one book is read, and I just started the review draft. Another I have read 75% (no writing done yet), and the third I have just read the introduction. Due dates April, May, June, so I don’t feel too much pressure right now, but it is on my mind.

-I have on my calendar to send a reminder to contributors for another project to complete their essays and send them to me (the editor) by April 1.

-I have a short essay due in July – but I kind of want to get it off my plate and it is not hard to write. So I am slowly chipping away, I will try to write 200-300 words per week (total 2500).

So, I have a lot of writing projects going on. Some people like to be writing lots of different things at once for variety (like me), but others like to focus and do basically just one thing at a time. That’s more of a personality thing.

What if I don’t like doing research?

Well, again, at most seminaries the expectation is not that faculty are constantly producing books. The concern is that faculty are actively making contributions to their guild. Many (like me) do “more” for personal and professional benefit. But if you just don’t like doing research at all, higher ed might not be the right fit for you.

Do you get institutional support?

Most seminaries can’t pay you extra to do research  – research is assumed or stated in your contract. But some places offer course release you can apply for, to lessen your teaching load to work on a special writing project. At other places, you might also get editorial/research help. Some seminaries have generous sabbatical policies. At most places, you get a bit of help, either financially or release or support.

There are some grant-funding bodies out there that can pay you to work on a project of interest to them. These are often highly competitive or very narrow in scope. But always worth checking into.

Does publishing pay?

Not really. Unless you are NT Wright or Tremper Longman, you really can’t expect book royalties to be a major part of your income stream. Of course there is some money involved, but imagine it as $5 an hour of work you put into the book, at best. When you publish with elite European or university presses, you often get nothing (maybe in-house credit if you are lucky). Textbooks may get you some cash, but it is not something to bank on. Think, buy a couch, not buy a car.

How does research affect teaching?

For me, it depends on what one chooses to research. I try to work on projects related to the courses I regularly teach. In that case, it has a great effect. Sometimes I have students read portions of my work in progress. Research gives fresh ideas for lectures. Sometimes get feedback on ideas that will improve my work.

Any Questions?

 

 

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.