Surviving and Thriving in Seminary: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook, by H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest. Lexham Press, 2017. $17.99. 208 pp.
On the back cover of this book, the authors write, “Seminary can be rich and rewarding, but also disorienting.” With this in view, Zacharias and Forrest — both former students and current professors — penned Surviving and Thriving in Seminary. Intended to be a “no-nonsense guide to success in seminary,” this compact book sets forth accessible practical wisdom for the current or prospective seminary student. The authors identify three types of skills that are needed for the seminarian to succeed: spiritual, relational, and academic — and they work to incorporate insights from all three of these categories into this useful volume. In so doing, the authors write not from the standpoint of an ivory tower, but rather, “from the trenches.”
The book breaks down into three parts. Part 1 deals with preparing for seminary, and addresses three areas where preparation is needed: mind, heart, and family. Part II turns to the topic of how to manage one’s time and energy, and focuses on four areas related to this: taking responsibility, managing time, taking care of one’s body, and juggling ministry with studies. Part III offers real-world instruction about study skills and tools, concentrating on research skills, reading and writing skills, and the right tools. In addition, the book includes three appendices: choosing a seminary, paying for seminary, and a word to spouses.
There is much to appreciate about this clearly-written and down-to-earth guide, and there are nuggets of gold dispensed throughout. For example, my experience both as a student and as an instructor has shown me that, quite often, when one is exposed to new and challenging ideas the initial impulse is to recoil and adopt a defensive posture. And so, I was encouraged to see, in chapter 1, Preparing Your Mind, the authors write, “seek to understand positions that are unfamiliar to you,” and then give suggestions for ways to do so.
Another thing that is heartening about this book is the authors’ commitment to the value of studying the biblical languages. We live in an era where so many tools are available that provide shortcuts in this area. And yet, there are numerous benefits to be had from learning to study the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. While doing so is not “a mystical portal to secret learning,” learning the original languages can nonetheless equip one “to understand at a far higher level the intricacies of interpretation and translation.” This, ultimately, will assist one in growing as a communicator of Scripture.
While, on the whole, there is more to praise than pan about this book, there were a few statements that gave me pause. For example, on pg. 26, the authors write, “we often think about spirituality as something that is felt, but seminary rarely cultivates feelings . . . Instead of feelings, seminary seeks to give substance.” I think I understand what the authors mean. But — especially when studying God’s Word, might it be a both-and rather than an either-or? On the next page, they write, “stand against filling your time with study, telling yourself it is the same as devotion.” Again, while it is true that one can study in a way that is void of devotion, this is not necessarily the case: study and devotion can (and should) be complementary.
Overall, aside from a few nit-picks, this book truly is a wonderful resource. I found Parts II and III to be especially invaluable. Every seminarian could benefit from ingesting the information presented in chapter 9, which covers the basic reading and writing skills needed to thrive in seminary. The material here is essential, and it is presented in an easy-to-digest way (unlike within many guides on these same topics). I could go on highlighting things I like about this book — and will end here by simply commending it highly for those currently attending or planning to attend seminary.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.