So You’re Thinking About Seminary . . . our ACTUAL advice to you

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Dear prospective UU seminarians,

We’re back!  We had so much fun writing our last advice post that we now bring you another.  And this one contains [dun dun DUN] our actual, legitimate advice to you as you walk the heady, sometimes scary path toward seminary.

In writing this, we realized that we also wish we’d had a First Year Survival Guide, so that’s in the works.  In the meantime, though, here are the tips we wish we’d received–or in some cases, the best advice that we blessedly DID receive–in our own months of initial discernment.

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1.  Build and care for your support network

Make your friendships a priority, even when you’re busy.  Not every friendship is built to last, but trust us that the relationships that sustain you now will continue to be important as you deal with the coming changes in your life.  The demands of graduate school and the emotional upheaval of the formation process are significant, and you are going to need all the support you can get.

Maintain your ties with the friends and family who are not connected to your church community.  As you enter the formation process, your relationship with your home congregation—and most or all of its members—will change irrevocably.  It’s normal to become very deeply connected with congregational life as you explore a call to ministry, but do not let go of your connections with the larger world.

If you are a parent of small children, the admonition to “keep track of your friends” counts double.  The family with whom you can drop your child off on an hour’s notice?  The ones you can call if there’s a middle-of-the-night emergency?  Those people are on your team in a major way, and they are worth their weight in gold.  (And, pro tip? Be as available to your friends as they are to you–so you may want to start now, while you still have some free time.  Real friends don’t keep score . . . but they also don’t continually take without expecting to give.)

Take care of your primary relationships.  Your partner (and other family members) are in for a wild ride in the formation process—one they didn’t ask for and may not even fully understand or support.  Further, seminary, and the changes you will experience as a result, will affect the dynamics of even the healthiest relationships.

When you’ve had all the New Testament you can take, or you have to pay your tuition bill, or miss another weekend at home, or find a shoulder to cry on, you’re going to want the support of those closest to you.  Feed those relationships now, particularly if you have some work to do around healthy communication patterns.   And remember, going forward, to include those people in your seminary world; discuss texts, ask their opinions, get their feedback.  There is much internal work in this process that gets lost in translation or is hard to share; where possible, let those who support you be part of it.

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Unity Temple in Oak Park

2. Become familiar with how UU works on the ground—in your local congregation

Attend regularly.  Our world, and our churches, are changing–but for most of us, shared public worship remains a centerpiece of what we do together.  Get to know our rituals, our hymns, and our theology, and find encouragement to connect with what moves your own soul.  There are more than 1600 Unitarian Universalist congregations, and if you don’t happen to live near one, our largest congregation of all is available to you at the click of a button.

Get to know your minister.  In addition to being (we hope) a fount of information about UU and a starting place for your deeper theological investigations, your home congregation minister can facilitate your seminary journey in many ways.  S/he can introduce you to potential teaching pastors, help you find leadership opportunities that will develop your ministerial capacities, and write the letters of reference that you need for seminary and beyond.  Our movement’s ministers are also very motivated to help in the discernment process of potential seminarians, so when you’re ready, find a time to talk with yours.

Serve. To effectively prepare to lead our movement, it’s necessary to have a solid understanding of congregational life.  From worship to religious education to food prep, there are lessons to be learned in all we do together.  There is no substitute for practicing faith and fortitude through a season of conflict, helping to lead a change that you care about through a process that happens on “church time,” or committing, generally, to live within the bonds of covenant–even when you would like nothing more than to leave the table, and the building, and not look back.

Even if you ultimately opt for community ministry, you will be deeply involved in parish life through seminary and preliminary fellowship (and hopefully beyond); give yourself this opportunity to discover whether it is something, for all its flaws and frustrations, that you can love.

Lead. You will never be finished “serving” in congregational life, but sooner or later (and in your case, probably sooner!) you can expect to be asked to step up and lead.  This may mean joining the worship team or a governance task force or stepping into elected leadership.  You will be getting a crash course in congregational polity, honing your own leadership skills, and helping your congregation at the same time.

And prepare to let it go.  Congregational leadership is important work, so give it the best you have.  And then, when the time comes, prepare to step back.  When your ministry begins, your lay leadership must end, and eventually your time with your home congregation will, too.  Leaving is a tough, but necessary, reality of the formation process.  [Yep, it’s really true.  Need a tissue?  We’ll wait.]

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3. Connect with the broader UU movement

Attend General Assembly (“GA”)and your regional/district conferences. An interesting and fast way to take stock of the larger UU landscape is to attend one of the annual gatherings.  They feature workshops for personal faith development, tools for congregational life, powerful worship experiences, and amazing networking opportunities.

Keep track of what’s being talked about.  By following along online and in the UU World, you will get a sneak peek of (and can even take part in)  some of the conversations likely to shape your ministry. On Facebook, there are many groups set up to discuss a variety of topics; you might consider the UU Growth Lab or the Congregations and Beyond group. To learn about other Facebook groups that may be of interest, see this list from UU Planet.

Once you’ve been accepted to seminary, you can also join the UU Seminarians’ Salon, as well as facebook groups to connect you with future classmates at your chosen seminary.  Elsewhere on the net, the online talk show the VUU, run by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, provides UU content in a format we find engaging and relevant.  UUpdates is an aggregator of blog content by and about UUs, and the Interdependent Web is a column, edited by Rev. Heather Christensen, highlighting some of the week’s offerings. Also, consider connecting with seminarians and ministries in the larger (read: beyond UU) religious context.  Twitter is a particularly great resource for this purpose.

Bring your faith with you when you travel.  It’s difficult to see the larger landscape from only one vantage point.   The breadth and depth of UU theology and the particularities of congregational life are more easily understood if you’ve seen them in a variety of contexts—so do some exploring when you travel.  And, bonus: in our experience, the congregations you visit will be excited to meet U(U)—and they are great sources of insider info on things to do and places to eat.o and places tj

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4. Take stock–is your life in balance?

Make mental health a priority. If you know that you struggle with depression, anxiety, procrastination, low self worth, relationship problems, etc (–“Yes” to one or two of the above? Us, too–), begin addressing that before you step into seminary.

You will need to be in a relatively stable place simply to deal with the demands of a rigorous graduate program, and the personal, social, and psychological challenge involved in the formation process adds to the intensity of the experience.   You will be asked to evaluate yourself many times, and you must be able to look yourself in the eye and appreciate what you see.

Consider beginning work now with a therapist and/or a spiritual director, especially if you have never been in therapy before.  In our experience, this is simply an expected part of the formation process–and if the idea of delving into your own psyche makes you deeply uncomfortable, it’s probably helpful to ask yourself why.

If you are preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and are in seminary full-time, you can expect to spend much of your first year answering questions like “describe your childhood” and “give a reasonably full account of your life.”  You will also spend two days undergoing a psychological assessment.  All of this self-reflection can feel exhausting and overwhelming; trust us when we say that beginning your work on the big stuff is an investment of time now that will pay dividends later.

Evaluate your financial situation – Graduate school can be a drain on resources–mental, emotional, physical, and, not least, financial.  It’s a downer, but do not underestimate the impact this may have on you and on your family, both as you make your way through seminary and afterward.

The reality is that preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry is very expensive, with costs including seminary tuition ($56,000 before financial aid for an M.Div. at one of our two denominational schools), credentialing hurdles such as the career assessment, and books, materials, webinar fees, CPE tuition, and the list goes on. The travel involved in the formation process presents further financial challenges, and is an expense often overlooked in initial planning.

The enormity of the cost of ministerial formation is something we’d like to see addressed at a denominational level.  In the meantime, our best advice to you: find a budget you can live with during seminary and after, be frugal where you can, pay close attention to deadlines as you apply for seminary (particularly where financial aid is concerned), prepare to take out loans, and gratefully accept help where it is offered.

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5. Attend to your own spiritual needs.

Cultivate a regular spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can take many forms; the important thing is to find something that both feeds your soul and fits into your life. If you could use some help getting started, we suggest Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander–it includes a variety of creative suggestions.

Connect with others on your spiritual journey

Consider joining your congregation’s small group ministry (or help to form one); some of us have found the Wellspring Spiritual Deepening course particularly helpful.

Consider what feeds you.  

Is it time with your children?  Reading mysteries?  French cooking?  Yoga?  Know what replenishes your energy and renews your spirit, and make time for those things.  Start today–we know you’re busy, but we can also assure you that finding time is NOT going to get easier as you move into formation.  Treat your spiritual life like the priority that it needs to be from the beginning, and you’ll have a good start in the self-care and boundary-setting that accompany a healthy ministry.

Seek broadly, if necessary, for congregational community

Finally, if congregational life is a significant part of what nurtures your spirit, prepare to relate to it in a new way, and soon.  As odd as it sounds, now might be a good time for a bit of church shopping.  Keep your current congregational membership active, but know that as your role in your congregation changes, you may find it necessary to seek a new or additional spiritual home.  Many UU ministers and ministers-in-formation nurture their spirits through a local Zen center, UCC church, or other community or small group ministry outside of the congregations they serve.

We realize this is a lot to take in, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far.  (You should see what we took out–post coming soon on surviving the first year of seminary.)  For now, know that it’s a work in progress for all of us, but that in our experience, some things are more easily attended to in these months before you begin seminary.

Blessings on your journey!  And now, get back to those applications!

Jordinn, Kimberley, Alix, Shane, and Lynda

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let sleeping dragons lie

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“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help.”

One of my seminary classmates posted this Calvin & Hobbes quote yesterday morning.  And it’s true– sometimes even our most faithfully held talismans fail us.  Our magic pebbles lose their magic.  We are left, staring down our fears, armed with nothing more than what is within us.

Frankly, some days it doesn’t feel like that could possibly be enough.  It’s been dark, and cold, and there is much that feels undone and overwhelming.  Whatever I consider, from my growing list of uncompleted tasks (a side effect of Refusing To Do It All, it must be noted, is that some things don’t get done) to the tangled knots inside my head and heart–my body registers an anxious warning: Danger.  Here Be Dragons.  And sometimes, friends, I just don’t have the tools or the energy to take on one more scaly beast.

This is hard.  The work is hard.  The ongoing time crunch is hard.  The change and the losses it brings are hard.  And in the midst of these hard things, life keeps happening.  Which means, in some of our families, that death is what’s happening.  Or illness.  Marital difficulties.  Financial troubles.  The list goes on.

And thinking about this larger process, the truth is that even the supportive parts are challenging.  Almost everyone I know is working with a therapist, a spiritual director, or both—and seriously, put the emphasis on “working.”  For myself, I’ve stopped wearing makeup on spiritual direction days.  That may seem like some sort of deep personal metaphor; it’s actually because from a practical standpoint it’s just pointless–why spend valuable time applying something you’ll be mopping off your face an hour later?

In short, with one semester almost in the bag, our first year class is showing decided signs of wear.  We are growing, but it costs.  We are excited, but we feel grief.  We are strong, but know fear.  And we’re tired.

I’m tired.  This is true physically, but even moreso psychologically and emotionally.  It’s the relentless schedule, in part, but it’s also that there’s a “front” involved in doing this work, and in preparing for it.   This means “make some mistakes, but be very selective when you show your struggles.”  (Or, alternately, “Show them to everyone, via your blog.”  I’ll let you know how that works out.)  In “public,” which is virtually everywhere, remember that your presence–the calm kind–is what counts.  These are critical lessons for the leadership of our movement, but cultivating them isn’t free–we pay in time, in energy, and, if we’re not careful, in personal integrity as well.

And of course there are other, procedural costs: already, we are preparing to leave our home congregations.  In my case, that’s a very formal process; for some others it’s simply an awareness of transition in the coming months.  I think most of my classmates, weary as we are right now, feel excited about this.  For my own reluctant-to-adjust self, the knowledge of looming change feels like the slow drip of water torture.

Realistically, I imagine I’ll be prepared for the move to my intern congregation right around the time that I’m scheduled to leave that community.  For now, I literally want to dig a hole underneath my current church building, curl up inside it and stay there for a very long time.  People could come visit–bringing snacks would be good—and I’d come out for worship.  (In fact, there used to be a joke among my friends in lay leadership that we needed to have cots in the sanctuary in light of the amount of time, day and night, we spent at church.  I wonder if on some level I thought that’s what seminary would mean—I could just live at church!  I’m starting to see how without clear boundaries and constant attention to work-life balance, that could someday be horrifyingly true, but not here.  Never here.)

Instead, inevitably, I put one foot in front of the other and take one more step.  We all do, leaning on one another, following those who’ve gone before . . . and wishing, lately, for a place to rest.

And I realize that I have been waiting for someone to say it’s time to wait without planning, time to reflect without acting, time to stop, survey the landscape, and take a breath.

But no one does.  Not to me.  At least, not out loud.

Meanwhile, this happened at church—the same church where I’d like to live in the wall or the floor, but apparently can’t be bothered to engage with what’s going on during the service.  (This is not our choir, but you get the idea.)

I remember that it was pretty, but I was distracted (what’s coming next?  And what’s coming after that?), so I didn’t really listen.  Frankly, I’m not sure I would have thought about this song again, EVER, had someone not mentioned the next day how the performance touched them—the sound, the words, the spirit.

So I looked it up.  I played the song.  And hearing it, I remembered the moment I heard it in our sanctuary—but this time, I truly listened.

When the song ended, I played it again.  And I’ve been playing it since, because it speaks truth to me now.

That same service included a meditation on the importance of quiet in this season, culminating in Richard Gilbert’s observation that

“In the darkness we rest our bodies and our souls;
We escape that which distracts and confuses.
We come face to face with ourselves.
We come into the deep places of our being.”

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And so, I now wonder, what more official invitation to rest is needed than this interlude of darkness and quiet?  The growing season will come soon enough.

What I need now is some space in which I might simply be.

For a brief time, I will rest my mind and my feet.  For this quiet interval, I will leave those sleeping dragons where they lie.

For a short season, let me be still.

-j

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Dear prospective UU seminarians (helpful advice. freshly squeezed.)

So.  Something’s calling your name.  And you wonder if that something might be Spirit, and if the way to appease it might be seminary.

If this describes you, your potential future classmates* have put together a list of steps that we feel might be helpful.  And, if they’re not helpful** . . . well, in that case, we mostly thought that they might be humorous.

advice from Religion Man

We recommend (in no particular order) that you:

1. Gather all of the financial resources you have available; if you can liquidate some assets, even better. Place them in the center of a large circle. Light them on fire. Dance around it, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or other Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing financial plans for your future ministry.

2. If you identify as Christian, find a helpful disguise. Wear it each time you visit a church to receive communion.

3. If you identify as non-Christian, find bread of your choice. Next, bring wine. Place them together on an empty table (bonus points: use the scarf you got at GA last year as an altar cloth). Breathe deeply. Practice rolling your eyes in a way that looks worshipful.

4. Tell the story of your life. Tell it again. Now again. When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.

5. Have a breakdown. Or two. Analyse them with friends, family, and fellow seminarians. Extra credit: involve others in your breakdown as it is actually happening. This is best done in public.

6. Return to Step 4. Write it all down. Produce a 1 page summary, a two page extended summary, a four page reflection, an eight page essay, and a 24 page bio with references.

7. Program the number of your minister, therapist, spiritual director, advisor, and every UU clergyperson and seminarian you have ever met into your cell phone. Build safeguards to ensure that you neither butt-dial nor drunk text any of the above.

8. Purchase a graven image of your choice. Options: Large chalice, small chalice, gold chalice, silver chalice, and, new for 2013, a bling-inspired cross/chalice combination.

9. Wear your chalice everywhere you go. If you lose it once, consider it an invitation to question your call to ministry. If you lose it twice, it is an indication that you need to get a chalice tattoo.

10. Buy 2 new bookcases. And a reading chair and a stand-up desk. Make that 4 bookcases. Or 8. And a smart phone. And a kindle. And a macbook. And an ipad.

11. Join weight watchers in anticipation of the 10-20 or more extra pounds you’ll gain from stress eating and lack of exercise.

12. If partnered, begin preparing him/her for the transition to ministry. Spend Saturday evenings wandering around muttering to yourself. Spend Sundays hiding at an undisclosed location. Find random people to call, e-mail, and/or text you at all hours of the day. Move date nights to Tuesday afternoons.

13. Assist your partner in locating a therapist or spiritual director of their own. Keep the professional’s number posted in a prominent location. Signs you may need to contact that person: your partner suggests you leave ministry; your partner hums “Enter, Rejoice and Come In” for three days straight; your partner indicates that they are discerning their own call to ministry. (This last scenario should be considered an emergency.)

14. Be sure to be responsive to your partner’s needs. This is a stressful and demanding time for them, too. Consider adding “It sounds like you’re feeling” to the beginning of each and every sentence. For serious household disagreements, “That’s not how polity works” should be sufficient to end the argument.

15. Be as vague as possible with your loved ones when talking about the formation process. CPE is best explained to a concerned spouse or partner in the midst of your first 24-hour on-call shift.

16. Sprinkle your speech and writing with acronyms. Be cagey about their referents. When asked to explain one you’re not sure about, simply substitute words that sound good. (The Regional Sub-Committee on Commissioning? The Regional Standing Commission on Credentialing? No one else knows, either.)

17. Attend a gathering of robed clergy. Covet their vestments: the gravitas-granting robes, the hand-painted silk stoles, the chalice medallions large enough to be made out from the back of the sanctuary… Now open a new savings account and add another line to your household budget. (You can replace the Retirement Savings line with the Clerical Accoutrements line — you won’t be saving any more for retirement in the foreseeable future anyway.)

18. Prepare a response to the questions, “You’re in seminary? (be alert for possible alternate phrasing: “You’re in cemetery?”) What denomination? What is THAT?” Keep answers as short as possible. Under no circumstances may your response begin with, “How long have you got?”

19. “Borrow” a hymnal. Mentally pledge to return it. Should you actually follow up on that pledge, remove all post-it notes, dust, and coffee stains. (On second thought, plan to gift a hymnal or two to your home congregation upon your ordination.)

20. Begin writing sermons. With over 600 to deliver in an average-length ministerial career, you’re going to need them.

Best wishes!

j and friends

*Thanks to Alix Klingenberg and Sara LaWall for sharing their wit and wisdom.  If the other contributors to this lovely list would like to be (dis)credited outright, message me.

**your potential classmates, also potential future colleagues, are wonderful and warm-hearted, and many of them have offered legitimately helpful suggestions as well.  That list comes next.  But first, we laugh.   And perhaps that’s the best tip of all: humility and humor are prerequisites.