This long post is Part I of an extended work that I hope to write about how students can survive (and make the best of) in Bible Colleges. I have written this to help educators and students, and this post especially, to help us get started in understanding students and their specific needs in bible colleges.Having taught and interacted with students at SAIACS, a seminary that refers to itself as an institute for higher education, on various teaching and non-teaching levels, it’s pretty evident that students are not the same. In fact, they all enter with different motivations and desires that affect their expectations and efforts vary to the extent that it affects how they learn and what they take away. (For definitions of ‘what is a seminary’ click here, while ‘what is a Bible college’ is here But I use the terms interchangeably).

For teachers, this knowledge is crucial because it helps us address students according to their needs. But also for students, it is important to know what our motivations are; why are we here in a seminary?

I have divided students into five main categories. While my focus is on those students who come for the MA (Masters of Arts) level (like an MDiv/BD level), primarily as their ‘first’ theological degree. However, there are also subsidiary implications for those who come for their MTh (Masters in Theology, like an MPhil), who are coming after three or more years of theological training.

THE ‘SPIRITUAL’ STUDENT: The first, and most common type of student who comes into a Bible College/Seminary (even SAIACS), is the student who comes to get a deeper relationship with God and learn more about him. This kind of student is very common and usually is not even aware (initially, at the time of admission) of the ‘academic’ pursuits in the classroom.

Characteristic: Such a student will talk about how s/he hopes that academics will ‘equip’ them for their ministry, but also, talk about how good it was to devote time for the Lord… to devote time to focus on Bible study.

The conflict: Because these students have ‘spiritual’ goals that are not always compatible with educational institutions more ‘material’ goals of improving critical thinking skills etc. Such students are also deeply disappointed when they see non-Christian attributes in current students. They end up complaining against the lack of spirituality in the faculty/students and life at campus and blame their loss of vision/’fire’ on the lack of enthusiasm in the Christian institution.

The disappointment: As a result, most students who come for this goal tend to be disappointed on how their goals are not met, and how academics has nothing to do with ‘real’ (spiritual) life. They leave the campus, bitter and unfulfilled. Sometimes worse than when they started.

The hope: The only way this group can be ‘blessed’ by the teaching experience is if they realise that God is active not just in quiet times, but also in the classroom.. that God teaches not just from the pulpit, but also through lectures… and God is not just in churches, but also in libraries. Once this dichotomising (between academics and spiritual life) is addressed, students are then able to see that a richer academic life can help enrich their walk with the Lord.

‘DEGREE’ STUDENT: The other group of students, almost the opposite spectrum of the above, and also almost equally common, are those who want to upgrade themselves through the degree. This is more common in the MTh level, but MA students are not exempt from this category. Many students want the degree to then legitimize/enable their vocational pursuits.

Characteristic: These students often talk about degree accreditation, they care about the scope of the degree, it’s value outside the world. They are also interested in marksheets/grades, transcripts etc. Positively, these students are focused on the idea that studies in a Seminary are not the be-all and end-all of life… they know clearly that life lies out of the campus and their sight/focus is there. A college to them is just a ladder that gives them an authenticity (even preparation) to effectively minister to God’s kingdom.

The conflict: While a student may actually be ‘spiritual’ within, his/her dealings with the college/seminary tend to be on an entirely material plane. They therefore get into a lot of conflict over the expectations of the college; and their own expectations (often unfulfilled) on the college.

The disappointment: Disappointed with the way the institution does not fill its expectations, either through the quality of teachings, grades etc.

The hope: The hope for this group, like the ‘spiritual’ student above, is also to avoid dichotomising between the material and spiritual goals of seminary. Even if a degree is a legitimate pursuit, it is also important for them to see God in and through the seminary structure.

THE ‘BACK-PACK’ STUDENT: The backpack student uses a tool oriented (functional) approach to theological education, where he/she enters a seminary with the hope that the college will increase effectiveness. The goal is to learn skills, and fill his/her backpack with knowledge, answers and skills so that the student will be better equipped to face the challenges that lie ahead. It does not help that many colleges also treat theological education like this, advertising back-pack oriented possibilities of their curriculum.

Characteristic: This kind of student tends to focus on the details of assignments and classes, with the hope to get something out of everything. They always look to get something from the chapel sermon, get something from the classes and even get something from the assignments. Positively, they are focussed on their ministry and also look to apply what they are learning. These kinds of students are also always collecting notes and assignments for the future, in the hope that they can use them in their later ministry.

The conflict: However, the conflict these students face is that not all knowledge in the seminary seems commonly useful; not all learning has immediate relevance. So, the student tends to get impatient with process development tasks and seeks only to get straight to output and learning. Another frustration for the student is wanting clear answers (clear notes) from teachers but not getting them. For instance, some seminary classes focus on hermeneutics though they don’t always tell what a passage means. A backpack student finds it difficult to understand and appreciate the process and only wants answers (what the text means) to put in their backpack.

The disappointment: Eventually the student can get disillusioned with theological education because when it does not all feel relevant, they feel it is entirely useless and a waste of time. They lose their excitement and look to get their answers elsewhere.

The hope: One of the things that can help these kinds of students is to help them see the relevance of theory, of process to overall learning. To show that learning takes time, and is not always a straight-direct road… can be not only helpful but relieving. Plus, the student can be encouraged to enjoy the moment, experience life for the day, rather than only look to the future. Overall, with an appreciation of the larger plan of learning as transformation will help the student to find value in learning for learning sake, rather than what they can get out of something.

THE AIMLESS STUDENT: This student joins Bible College (seminary) because he/she has nothing better to do. Even the secular world is filled with students doing higher studies because they do not have an idea for their future.

Characteristic: This kind of student is looking for, hoping for, some direction while in the bible college. Yet because there is no clear direction, at least immediately, they find the college difficult, irrelevant and not a place they enjoy being in.

The conflict: The particular conflicts these students face are the difficulties of staying motivated through tough assignments and tasks. Usually, the students withdraw from campus life and try to create their own path to ‘enlightenment’.

The disappointment: Ultimately, many of these students are branded as under-achievers, or failures, and fail to enjoy the college or the life around it.

The hope: The hope for these students first of all lies in knowing that it is ok not to know your future, even though God does know it. Many students therefore benefit with the leap of faith that they are in the Bible college because God directed/purposed their coming there (even if they didn’t want to come)… and look, therefore, to see why God allowed them (brought them) to come here.

THE JAILED STUDENT: This student is the one who is forced to attend Bible college because his family/parents have sent him/her there. This is more common than we’ve seen, as many parents see bible college as reform school, hoping that children will improve in character and vision.

Characteristic: Many students who are ‘jailed’ to the college are struggling with personal issues (some with strong addictions) and are hoping to get some personal/emotional help from the college.

The conflict: The problem is that most colleges are not reform schools and are not geared to focus entirely on emotional development. Hence, many colleges tend to be unsympathetic to and/or impatient with students struggling with addictions or in need of special emotional support.

The disappointment: Usually, these students tend to drop out or fade away to the background, trying to pass and finish their ‘term’. Even if they learn something, it never seems to be what they really need.

The hope: It is difficult to help a student who is forced to attend a bible college, but the hope for these students, like the ‘aimless student’ above, is to see God’s leading and plan in bringing them here. More particularly, these students benefit immensely from peer relationships/friendships/counsel and can actually grow immensely in the process.

Of course there are many more kind of students, but this list is a bit of a start-up to help educators, and perhaps even students, to see where/how they fit in to the Christian education scheme of things.

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