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Austin Seminary Student Blog

What does a year in the life of a Seminary student look like?

During the 2016-17 academic year, you’re invited to join us here to discover and follow a “year in the life” of a seminary student.

During the year, Nettie and Caroline will share on this page their anticipations, joys and challenges of being a seminarian. This journey is designed to be interactive—we invite you to ask questions as well as support these students with prayers and words of encouragement. Send your questions, prayers, encouragement to: cmathias@austinseminary.edu

Caroline's Story

Welcome to my Junior Year at Seminary

Caroline Barnett is a first year MDiv student with dreams of ministry in the Presbyterian Church. She originally hails from Prairie Village, Kansas. 

May 15, 2017

I can’t believe I’m typing these words, but the year is almost over. Classes are done, study sessions are happening, and papers need to be written. But despite the to-do list that inevitably accompanies the end of the semester, I’m wondering what’s next.

For those graduating, that is a big question. It is the end of an experience and a beginning to something new. And I have been grateful the chance to celebrate the job announcements of friends I have made over the last year.

For those finishing up their second year, about to enter their third, many are preparing to start internships or clinical pastoral education. These are opportunities that allow students to take what they’ve learned in class and see how it interacts with on the ground ministry.

As for me, and my fellow Presbyterian first years, I will spend the majority of my summer in the classroom learning Greek. Unlike the Hebrew course that is offered during the school year, Greek is taught in a summer intensive. Every morning Monday through Friday will be spent will new vocab words, verb conjugations, and, no doubt, flashcards.

Greek camp ends in mid-July which means, I’ll get a little bit of a summer vacation to relax after my first year in seminary. My plan is catch up with friends, spend time with my family, and read a novel or two for fun. And before I know it, we’ll all be back in the classroom for the start of another year.

April 6, 2017

Though it happened three weeks ago, I am still missing spring break. Nestled in the middle of March, spring break is a tantalizing memory as I stare down the last month of the semester. All of my friends and peers chose to spend the week in different ways. Some visited family, a couple went on a seminary-sponsored trip to Cuba, and others chose to use the week to do absolutely and wonderfully nothing.

For myself (and a couple other students), I found myself in my hometown of Kansas City, not just to visit my family, but to attend the NEXT Church conference. It is a conference meant “to strengthen a vibrant and thriving PC(USA),” and like any conference it was complete with keynotes, workshops, worship, and new people to meet.

The majority of the other conferees are pastors or ordained leaders in the church, which means they had once been in seminary. I talked with new people, many of whom wanted to know how my experience in seminary has been (especially the APTS alumni!). Though this first year of seminary is often difficult to synthesize into a couple of semi-coherent sentences, I managed. And in return, I listened to their stories of seminary and where it led them.

I’m grateful for these exchanges because my words about the future often feel muddled. I have some ideas about what could be next for me, but I am not too concerned sorting them out at the present moment. But in these exchanges with people who have gone to seminary, graduated, and are now out in the world, I get a chance to pick their brains and see the many possibilities that a seminary education can offer.

March 27, 2017

Go forth into the world in peace!

I had the words memorized and I was standing in the front of the Chapel ready for my cue. I looked out in the pews, pause, and say the benediction. And then I wait for feedback.

This wasn’t any sort of experimental worship service, but rather a practicum for my “Church as a Worshiping Community” class. In addition to lectures, papers, and tests, I must practice different parts of Christian rituals for my professor (the final exam is a funeral).

It can feel incredibly awkward to proclaim the love and grace of Christ to a room that only filled with people who are giving you a grade on your performance. And it feels even more so as I’m never quite sure what to do with my hands.

But the professor, who has seen many students practice these words, is kind. She recommends keeping my arms outstretched and compliments me on my articulation. I have a couple weeks before the next practice (next up: the Eucharist) and I have no doubt that these things become more natural over time.

And now the grace of Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you. Amen.

March 1, 2017

Just two weeks ago, Austin Seminary hosted a discovery weekend—an event for prospective students to come see the campus and learn about the programs APTS has to offer. While talking to people discerning their call to seminary, and if Austin was the right choice for them, I reminisced on my own visit to campus one year ago.

One year ago, I left the cold and snowy East Coast for a warm and sunny weekend in the city of Austin. Here, I spent a couple of days in introductory lectures with professors, at student panels asking questions about life on campus, and at dinners and lunches getting to know the fellow prospective students.

The weekend inevitably ended with an abundance of information and emotions, all which needed to be sorted out on the plane ride home. Was this the right place for me? Did I see myself becoming a part of this community? Could I, a person who loves the winter, really choose to move to Texas?

The answer to those questions, as you can guess, was a “yes” (though sometimes I wonder about this weather), and I started to plan for moving across the country. Looking back, it was that weekend which helped me envision what a life could look like at APTS beyond the facts on the website.

And the weekend had another benefit: When I showed up for the first day of orientation, I saw familiar faces. Four other perspective students from discovery weekend had also decided to attend, and current students who I had met that weekend recognized me as well. Already, relationships had started to form. 

February 17, 2017

Campus is buzzing again with the start of the spring semester. Though many of us were on campus for the January term, most of the markers of campus life were missing. Student groups met less often, or not at all, during the in-between. Weekly Manna, campus fellowship time, had not yet started.

Now, just two weeks into the new semester, I’m rediscovering the habits and routines I had last semester (of course adapted to a new course schedule). They are the markers of my life that rarely made the stories I told my friends and family over break.

On Tuesdays after Chapel, stragglers gather around the communion table to eat the leftover bread. Between classes, my classmates and I make our way to the Office of Student and Vocation Affairs for a coffee and chocolate fix. In the afternoons, if it is nice out, I take walk in the neighborhood surrounding campus, occasionally seeing my classmates out walking their dogs or going for a run.

These are the things that make up life here. Well, in addition to the class discussions, readings, and papers. The start of a new semester always feels a bit like a jump into cold water: It shocks you awake and then you have to start swimming. Amidst the ocean that is syllabi, new books, and meetings, the unplanned moments that become tradition welcome me back. 

December 9, 2016 

It’s finally here: the end of the semester. With some finals and a paper due next week, I can almost say I have finished my first semester of Seminary. And though that’s a relatively short sentence to write, there is still much to be done. The week before finals, reading week, has not been filled with classes, but with time dedicated to studying, making flashcards, writing that paper, and did I mention flashcards?

Like most of the junior Seminary students, I am taking the four required introductory courses: Introduction to Old Testament, Hebrew, History of the Church, and an introductory theology course. Each final is set up differently, but many of them focus on testing a student’s ability to tell theoretical church members about the concepts we’ve learned in class. A parishioner asks you why the Apostle’s Creed matters. Create a lesson plan for teaching a confirmation class about Calvin’s role in the reformation.

It’s an additional step beyond memorization, and it’s one that requires a little more thought. Sure, I can make flashcards and charts outlining the various beliefs the Apostle’s Creed states, but until I can say why it matters, my studying is not yet done.

November 28, 2016

Caroline wrote a devotion for Dec. 14 for our 2016 Advent Devotional. To tie-in to her devotional, we asked Caroline how she see Advent playing a role in her future ministry.

We know Advent is a period of waiting, but we are reminded that it is not a passive it-will-happen-when-it-happens waiting. Instead, Advent is a vibrant period of hoping and longing and making yourself ready for the moment Christmas comes.

This feels especially true for my life, not just for the month of December. Since high school, I’ve had a hunch that one day I would end up in seminary on my way to service to the Church. I saw the glimmer of a call, but knew it would still be years before it was achieved.

For a while I thought that I was waiting for a start date, a time in which I could say “This is my beginning of ministry.” Until then, I would just have to wait. But waiting, when it’s not in the Advent sense of active anticipation, is, frankly, a little boring.

So I began to fill my time with things I found fulfilling. I took as many religion classes as I could in college, I found my niche in the chapel and interfaith student groups, and after graduation I explored my identity as a writer at a religious news organization. And in the midst of doing all these things, I focused on the present and how my life was my call in the here and now.

I’ve come to understand Advent and my current phase of life as similar forms of waiting. There is an ultimate goal—Christmas or ordained ministry—but that’s not to say those things don’t happen wherever we are. The hope and joy of Christmas appears in little pockets during Advent, and more and more I’m coming to understand my life as already being littered with moments of ministry. All it takes are the eyes to see the waiting for all that it is.

November 9, 2016

At the beginning of each theology class, my professor always starts by asking for current events over which we should pray. In the most recent weeks, we have prayed for wisdom for our presidential candidates as well as for those they have the power to affect. We have prayed for those seeking shelter from Hurricane Matthew, and for the Native Americans in North Dakota protecting the water.

Though these are big events that affect many, many people, the class ritual only takes a couple of moments. We list, we pray, we begin our discussion about Calvin and Augustine. But the small act of reminding ourselves of those exist beyond our four walls is extremely important in our understanding of theology. 

To name the pain and suffering of the world in class forces me to remember that a discussion of sin and evil is not just an interesting mental exercise, but a real challenge for all of us to grapple with. And, on a happier note, seeing pictures of my cousin’s new baby whom I will meet at Thanksgiving helps me understand the goodness of creation that much better.

While it is my natural inclination to immerse myself in books, the world cannot be put on pause. Both on a societal level as well as a personal level, the world keeps turning. And to open ourselves to the reality of the world in which we live is to say that our theological education does not stop on the last page of a book or after the exams are turned in. 

An important reminder as I take my seat in the classroom. 

October 19, 2016

This week, as the students of Austin Seminary are on fall break, I managed to finish reading Pride and Prejudice. Started over the summer, the novel has sat on my night side table opening sporadically for a quick read of one or two pages before going to sleep. Finally, with no more midterms looming overhead, I was able to sit down and finish the story.

I’m grateful to attend a school at which numerous people—peers as well as faculty and staff—have reminded me to use this break to relax, slow down, and think about something other than coursework. In the midst of our busy schedules, we are reminded that it’s important to take Sabbath.

It is far too easy to become servants to our schedules, and chained to our planners—and I am someone who loves my planner—in the ever-present culture of busyness. And being in school, there is always another test to study for, another book to read, and another paper to write.

But this break allows me to loosen the grip of my planner and to-do lists. This week, my schedule includes long hours of reading for pleasure, visiting friends, and finally getting around to unpacking the last of my boxes.  

As I continue to build a schedule that works best for me, I try to be intentional about ensuring I have snippets of a Sabbath among busy days. Though my typical weekday may not include hours of uninterrupted leisure, they are punctuated with study breaks, and conversations that have nothing to do with the next test.

And now that I have finished Pride and Prejudice, I am on the hunt for yet another book that will remind me to stop and relax, if only for a short while. 

Oct. 6, 2016: Classes Building a Frame

There is a stack of notecards I keep in my backpack that is growing steadily. It is all the vocabulary I must know for my Hebrew class, and each week new words get added to the mix. In the evenings I go over them attempting to commit the dots, dashes, and squiggles to memory. 

Among the many nouns and verbs that are unfamiliar to my brain, I’m finding some ring a bell. They are names such as Jacob, Sarah, Abraham, and Ruth. Not only do these names sound similar in English and Hebrew, but they are also touchstones for the stories I’m visiting in my introduction to the Old Testament class. Occasionally, I’ll come across a Hebrew word in the footnotes of the Bible, and realize: Wait, I know that word!

And don’t get me started about how my theology class on Mondays, which covers the broad themes and doctrines of the Christian faith, keeps intersecting with my church history class on Tuesdays. As I scribble down notes on one day, I’m struck with a sense of déjà vu: Didn’t I take these notes on the Council of Nicea yesterday?

All of these classes, which are specific in their goals, weave together to create a broader sense of what theological education looks like. They are building blocks, not unlike the tri-consonantal roots of Hebrew words I just learned about last week. Each class holds my interest in different ways, but understanding them as interlocking pieces of a singular goal builds a strong theological frame on which I hope to keep adding new things.

September 28, 2016

Today was an important day in my adjustment to life in Austin: I drove to the grocery store without using my GPS. My last week has been slowly navigating my small circle of the Austin Seminary campus, only venturing beyond the bubble if I had an address and directions in hand.

Of course when you move to a new city, and start a new school, there are many milestones. Driving to the grocery store, unpacking the apartment, surviving orientation.  

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed orientation and found the information valuable, but the metaphor of drinking out of a fire hose feels appropriate. Each day was filled with information and new faces and advice, all of which are important but hard to remember when you’re still unsure of how to set the clock on your microwave. 

But, I took solace in the concerned faces of returning students who asked “How is it going?” with a look that told me they already knew the answer. So it isn’t just me who is scrambling to sort through everything. We are all in the same boat. My fellow new students and all are all wondering what is in store for us this year. And the returning students have reminded us that we will figure it out. Just like they did.

We are all in the same boat. I’ll keep that in mind next time I go to the grocery store and get lost one more time. 

Caroline and Nettie give responses to a frequent question asked to students, “Why does seminary matter?”

Why Seminary Matters:

Caroline: Seminary is important not because it gives answers, but because it gives me tools that I can share with others. For example, if my ministry is a hospital chaplaincy, seminary will never prepare me for every single patient I will come across. It will never tell me exactly what to say. But it will give me the tools to understand. It will provide me with texts and traditions to draw from, and some sort of practical training. But most importantly, seminary gives me the experience of asking difficult questions about really important topics. And when the people I hope to minister to ask those same difficult questions, I am able to say to them “I’ve been there,” and can help guide them. Seminary isn’t the answer key, but rather the roadmap I get to share with others.

Nettie's Story

Welcome to my Senior Year At Seminary

Nettie Reynolds is a senior MDiv student. She plans to fulfill a lifelong calling and be a hospital chaplain.

“Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true. ” (Thomas Merton)

February 17, 2017

See the Divine Shining -  My Last Semester of Grad School –

As I write this blog, I’ve just started my last class in Seminary and will graduate in May. I cannot believe how quickly the time has gone by. And this semester, as I embark on new opportunities I’m reminded still to slow down and take time to see the “divine shining through” in everything no matter what the obstacles. Curiously enough, the day of our graduation is also my Grandfather’s birthday and he is one of the main reasons I was inspired to come to seminary. 

I think of the divine as a light of pure love. The great poet/singer Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in,” and I know that no matter what is happening in the world, there is also the light of the Divine that is always calling us to be contemplative and calm.

It’s curious that the last class I’m taking is title, “Murder, Mayhem and Other Betrayals” because one might think this is not a seminarian class, but the class is really about stories and how they are passed down, interpreted and find relevance in the present-day. In these stories, we see how the Divine never abandons us.

The Divine is always relevant.

I hope during the semester I continue to move slowly, live simply and see the light of the divine in all that I’m doing and in how it guides me toward the future. I hope too, that you will turn off all the competing media (television, radio, the Web) and just for a bit of time, each day, sit by a window where the sun shines brightly and remember the light of the Divine shines on all of us.

Love, comfort, care, joy, sorrows, healing, pain, are all part of the Divine, and no matter what we are doing the Divine accompanies us on our journey. I’ll be reading 100 pages for my class work this weekend by the sunniest window I can find. I hope you too spend some time with the Divine and let it shine brightly on your face and in your heart.  

November 28, 2016

Nettie wrote a devotion for Dec. 9 for our 2016 Advent Devotional. We asked her a follow-up question on how she believe Advent plays a role in chaplaincy.

Advent comes from Latin and means "coming", so we are looking forward to the coming of Christ. Oftentimes, we are all so busy looking forward we don't live in the present and worse we don't enjoy waiting on anything to come so we rush through our lives. 

As a chaplain I often see people struggle with waiting. In a hospital when one is very ill, one can feel as if they are in limbo, their life as they knew it before is no longer and their life as they hoped it would be in the future, is also very different.  

In our society, there is often a negative connotation around the term "waiting" and a constant focus on instant gratification. As a chaplain I have learned through the patients to see the beauty in waiting, the beauty in the liminal moment that is our very lives, and that one can learn to be enriched in that waiting period.  The  good news is that Advent is coming and through Advent and knowing what promise lies therein for the final Advent, we do not have to feel alone in our waiting for the coming. 

So for this season, I ask you to wait in the liminal with me and hold your belief in the Mystery and the promise of Advent. 

November 9, 2016

Nettie was recently asked, “In what ways have the saints who go before us helped make Austin Seminary possible? Or helped make you and your fellow student’s education possible?”  

All the saints that have gone before us we owe a great deal to as current students. Not only have they been providential through giving, but also through setting the real life examples of good works for us to follow. We would not be able to do what we do without the saints both in the corporal world and the other realm because they call to us and support as we hear our call of a higher calling to our own ministries. As Buechner says, "“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And so too, do the saints support that on our behalf. To find the place at the Seminary so we can go on to find our place in the world where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.

Andy Gerhart's All Saints Day Reflection

All Saints Day is observed in many ways at Austin Seminary. Andy Gerhart, a junior MDiv student from Austin, Texas shared this story in Kairos – our student run monthly-newsletter. We asked Andy to share the story as a ‘guest blogger’.

A number of years ago, after some bad years when we lost a good number of our small family, my sister began a tradition of storytelling around Día De Los Muertos. Everyone cooked a meal that was the favorite of someone they wanted to honor, and brought a token of remembrance that we set up on a small altar. We came together, began eating, and then at some point just went around telling random stories of the lives and deaths of our lost loved ones.

Tonight we did it for the first time in two years.  Last year our mom died unexpectedly in April, and we just couldn't bring ourselves to do it. This year my sister planned it again, but as it approached we all kept second-guessing whether we should actually do it, nearly cancelling a couple times. We alternated between feelings of dread and feelings of dread. Was it really all that healthy to revisit our grief again, and to confront our friends with it?

Well, we stuck to it.  So tonight 24 friends gathered and 14 adults took turns telling stories for hours while 6 or so kids ran amok throughout the backyard. It started inside near the altar, and after a break we headed out to the backyard and continued around a campfire. Stories ranged from childhood friends who had died recently in car accidents to grandmothers who had died just before their 100th birthdays.

There were tears when one told of losing a precious buddy to an autoimmune disease. Afterward the caregiver called him to tell him that his friend had wanted to call for weeks, but simply couldn't bring himself to. Another told of how she and her father were going to visit her grandfather last summer, but the day before they were to leave, her aunt called to tell them her grandfather had died 6 months earlier, which she had actively hid from them.

But mostly we had laughter. One grandmother had grown up in North Dakota with polio, and would sit in the back of her father's pickup shooting groundhogs off the ranches that her father was insuring. Erin told a story about trying to teach my mom how to pee off the side of a sailboat, which ended in them both laughing hysterically for what seemed like hours. And there was the story of an 89-year-old grandfather with two cataracts who would call out to his family at 3:30 in the morning asking for a highball. When no one answered, he would yell out "Does nobody care?" and then one of the aunts would go mix him one. 

Sharing in community is a balm to our terrors of grief and death. It reminds us that we need not be alone with them, and that they are intimately tied to laughter and life. So tonight I was thankful. At this time of year when the worlds collide, I was calmed. You could just about hear the loved ones laughing from the other side.

October 14, 2016

“Be joyful because it is humanly possible.”

― Wendell Berry

This week I’m thinking on all the challenges that lay ahead in my path toward my vocation of being a full-time chaplain and I pray for strength to continue on the path.  I also know that no matter what the challenge, whether it be juggling on-call overnights , single parenting, a paper on religion and the Constitution, that it is still up to me to be joyful.

As Wendell Berry states, “Be joyful because it is humanly possible,” and when I think on this statement it makes me look for joy in quiet spaces, look for joy while I’m washing dishes or sitting in class after 18 hours of being awake, or look for joy that I’ve passed on to my son as he leaves the car  to go to school.

Joy is never far from us no matter how we feel in a particular moment because joy is always present when we exercise our hearts to practice it. Joy is within us and beats alongside our heart ever present and available to move us forward through any challenge.  When I feel overwhelmed with all that is left to do and left undone, I have to look at what is humanly possible in that moment. So  I look to this quote and I know, “Yes, it is humanly possible for me to be joyful,” that I can accomplish this day in this moment no matter what the obstacles.

As a graduate student being joyful is not tied to what grade I get on a paper, how much sleep I get, how many dishes I didn’t have time to wash, rather it can be tied to the deep knowing that joy is always available.  So this week my mantra is, “Be joyful. Be joyful. Be joyful.” What is yours for the week?

September 28, 2016

I'm in my last year at Seminary and as I contemplate my time here and this last year I still find myself going back to my favorite Frederick Buechner quote, "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.". This quote has helped sustain me through late nights of paper writing and days spent holding hands with those in the hospital as a chaplain during my supervised practice ministry program. 

Each academic year brings with it new worries, but it also brings new joy that I've been given the opportunity to be part of such a dynamic and committed group of students and faculty. We do not just read texts, we live those out in the world on a daily basis dedicated to being part of the change and the beauty in the world.  

I know this year will bring challenges academically and in my call to be in this vocation of service, but I am unafraid. I know this year will be formative in continuing to build a quiet heart, a contemplative mind and providing a place to ask the deeper questions of where the soul and the world can unite, both in the beauty and amidst the terrible. This year will help me continue my calling to be of service to people and to help those who are in need. I hope that you'll keep reading these blog posts and that you'll also write and let me know your questions about seminary. 

I came to seminary at 48 years old with two teenagers, a pug and a cat to answer a lifelong call to be chaplain. What calls you to do what you do? Write and let me know.  For now, I leave you with a link to Buechner's site for further reading. 

Why Seminary Matters:

Nettie: Many times people will ask me why I needed to go to seminary or why it was important. Seminary is an extraordinary way to both lose your ties with an often too polarized world and find a deeper sense of community in the body of the students and faculty. Learning how to minister is a skill and seminary builds the skill of ministry into a deeper sense of purpose and direction. It is both challenging and enriching to be in a place where you can study theology, ministry, service and at the same time continually refine what God means to you and what he is calling for you to do. 

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