Dear Mentor: Seminary with Kids?

Dear Mentor,

I am a mom of two — a two year old and a newborn — who is interested in pursuing an online master's degree. (Online because the institutions that hold the most appeal to me are nowhere close to where we live.) I would likely pursue a M.Div. in Theology or Church History. My husband and I both work for a college ministry. I love college students and see myself working with them in the future — whether in the classroom or out. My question is: how to best proceed? Full-time or part-time? I am completely unfamiliar with pursuing degrees online and would love to hear any general advice or thoughts from others who have done or are doing this. Thank you!

From guest mentor Chandra Crane

You ask a great question, and I hear your heart for your family, for students, and for learning. It’s a lot of things to love and be drawn toward. You want to know how best to proceed, and if you can survive in all three spheres — family, work, and school. Certainly. Can you thrive in all three roles, in addition to other family, church, and community involvements? Not always, but by the grace of God, sometimes.

Whether you do school full- or part-time, there will be compromises to make. As you well know, there are times when you have to say no, to put somebody first in line over someone else, to leave that thing undone or decide to see that other thing through. I’m learning that these decisions we have to make are part of our finite nature, no matter what roles we have. He is God, and we are not. Sometimes, I wish I could just focus on school full-time and graduate already. I’m grateful for the time and space to process my classes (time which many of my classmates don’t have the luxury of), but I often miss out on the synthesis that comes when multiple courses support and enhance each other. 

If you’re going to do online work, make sure you have the discipline (or set up the external structures) to make it work. Self-motivation is not my strong point, so I chose a local school over other, online programs that might have been more relevant to the work I do. Make sure to look at a variety of schools and programs to find one that best meets your needs and sets you up for success. 

There are also many other issues that you’ve probably thought through, and are already working out: childcare, sustaining a marriage in ministry, general boundaries and limits. I’m sure you realize that adding a new role — seminary — will certainly amplify these issues. Time and sanity wise, it gets crazier, but the community, insights, and growth you gain in seminary (or any graduate study) are all well worth it.

As you think about adding another role to your current ones, consider the image of hats and a hat rack. Adding seminary isn’t as simple as just adding one more “hat” to wear; it means an entire other layer of complexity. How many hours you carry determines the size of the student “hat,” and full-time will definitely be harder in most respects. But even if you do part-time, you will have to switch hats often. You will find yourself wearing the wrong hat at the wrong time, to the wrong place. You will find all of them perched on your head at once. And you will often find yourself desperately needing to take off all of them, hang them up, and obediently sit with the Lord. 

Extend grace to yourself daily, and to your family, coworkers, and seminary folks. Re-adjust your schedule and expectations as needed. Accept help from your community. And finally, be amazed when the hat rack crashes to the ground and you see God’s care for you in all of it. Best wishes! It may take a long while (I’m exhibit A), but you can do it. 

From guest mentor Lisa Liou

I started an MA in Theology in 2009, with two kids (3 years and 5 months), the journey beginning with a paid, year-long academic sabbatical after seven years in college ministry.  People looked puzzled when I started seminary five months post-partum, but it was life-giving for me. I felt simultaneously called to motherhood, ministry, and studies. 

In the early years, I took online courses. I found those early years to be physically demanding, but more flexible. I multitasked unlikely combinations: online Church History lectures while folding laundry, Systematic Theology reading at naptime. I didn’t sleep through the night, but my son happily babbled at me while I recited Hebrew to him. With my eldest in preschool, mornings were work times, as was the afternoon nap slot, and evenings after bedtime. After the sabbatical, I returned to work 20 hours a week and scaled back to one class at a time for the duration of my program.

Five years later, with my graduation in just four weeks, I am in a completely different stage of life with my kids. The dissolution of naps and the integration of kids’ homework into our routines have been tough transitions. The margins for study time shrunk due to PTA meetings and practices. My husband (a PhD student) and I look at old photos and see that the stress has aged us. This is normal, I think.   

Extreme slumps in my studies have occurred whenever my kids became seriously ill. Some nights I have wanted to cry in the late hours under a deadline. To cope, I drink coffee. I also have adopted lower standards for housekeeping and serve fewer home-cooked meals. My in-laws are my lifeline, and the flexibility, though limited, in my husband’s ministry job is helpful.

My theological advice is two-fold:

  1. Where God calls, he equips. If you feel called to pursue this degree he will multiple your time and energy.
  2. Don’t give into any temptation to resent your kids. As a mom, you live an others-oriented life, which involves struggle and joy. This is not ideal for studies, but it gives you daily practice in Jesus’ command to deny yourself. I have kept that knowledge as my own treasure in this process.

My practical advice is that you may want to consider a shorter program depending on your goals. An MA is considered academic and can be a precursor to the PhD, whereas, the MDiv adds practical classes that prepare you for the pastorate. While I see professional advantages to the MDiv, it would have added four more years to my part-time pace. 

From guest mentor Nancy Boote

I can sense that you have a heart for ministry and that this tug to pursue your education further is not being taken lightly. Answering that call is the first step. The Lord is faithful and he does confirm this. I had a mentor friend who always told me, “Never doubt in the dark what God has shown you in the light.” This got me through seminary plus the many prayers of others.

I am a recent seminary graduate of a school that offered a Distance Learning Program. Although I was a second career student, there were young mothers who were in my program and succeeded in completing their degree. The school was flexible with their schedules and you could pace yourself with classes as needed. My particular degree required five years but I know some students took longer.

Two things were important for me in my seminary career: prayer and community. I would highly recommend finding a few people who can become your prayer partners even now during this discernment process and throughout your seminary journey. My mentors became my Aaron and Hur during my school years. They were there to hold up my arms when I wanted to quit and were there to pray me through the good and the hard times. Prayer is key!

Learning also takes place best in community. I chose this particular seminary because community was strongly emphasized. Yes, you can experience community even when you are alone at your computer many miles away from other students. The seminary created communities not only in the classes, in online discussions, but also in the two times we came together on campus during the school year. Although I have been out of school now for three years, I still am in contact with the close friends that I met at seminary. 

In order to succeed as a young mom in school, you will need to multi-task and be creative in finding times to do your homework. You will also need to lower your expectations of yourself and others. As you know, sometimes as a young mom, completing one goal a day is a success (i.e. brushing your teeth, getting dressed before noon, etc.) Realizing that grades aren’t everything is also good. 

Mostly, know that the Lord is with you and will help you. I always had to remind myself that, “apart from the Lord I can do nothing.” When we operate in his strength he will provide. 

May the Lord be with you as you discern this next step in your call.

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