Thoughts from the first year…

Starting seminary is hard work.  At the end of my first semester at McCormick, I think I can safely say that continuing is even harder.  Fantastically harder.

Let me explain…

I’m not really new to higher education, or church even …. but this level of theological exploration was not exactly something I could have prepared myself for.

Back in August, I figured I pretty much had this whole seminary thing under control.  I had talked to former students, read other seminarians’ blogs, and recited the expected prayers …. I’ve been through the college and grad-school game before, so how different could it be?  Sure, I would be tested and tried … but God led me here, right?  I got this.

Sitting in the pew of churches back in August, and even September — I found myself picking out messages of encouragement from the sermons and using them to affirm my calling to be in seminary.  I was definitely on the right track.

Or so I thought….

…and then assignments were due.  Now, I was expecting to write papers and do research … I really was.  But I wasn’t expecting the emotional tie I would have with these papers, lectures, and tests.  No longer was I waiting until the last possible minute to form complicated answers to simple questions [which is no small feat for a self-proclaimed hard-core procrastinator].  No longer were the papers I was writing strictly for a letter grade —- and no longer was the studying being done because a professor was forcing me to learn something that wasn’t relevant.

Not only were the assignments completely relevant to my eventual career and life — they were about me.  They were me.  They were about God.  They were about faith and belief.  These assignments suddenly had the potential to rock me, roll me, and transform me whether I was ready or not.

Bible and history lectures were absorbed by my hungry spirit.  Baptism and communion papers were written through my poured-out heart.  Hebrew language tests were taken with hope of understanding antiquity.  Events were attended with an open-mind [and even a bit of timidness] only to fall completely in love with the people standing for a cause and scrambling to figure out my contributing part.

Something happened.  Something broke.  Something transformed.

…it was my spirit.

My spirit has been broken down and transformed into something else.  Something other.  Something beyond myself.  These days, when I sit in the church pew, I’m not picking out messages concerning my own affirmation and personal call.  Rather, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat yearning to hear God’s message for God’s people.  I’m seeking challenge and living with mystery.

This seminary business has been quite a doozy so far.  I hope it continues…

Stephanie Levan is a first year student at McCormick who can be found baking pumpkin goods, taking Spanish lessons at midnight, or searching for her perpetually misplaced apartment key.  She also loves watching Hebrew Aleph-Bet videos on YouTube and enjoys long elevator rides with her friends.  She blogs at Stepanana’s Stumbles ( and you can always catch her on twitter: @stepanana.

Reflections from the third year…

When I started seminary, I was terrified. There was nothing comforting about moving to Chicago from Atlanta, leaving my friends and family behind, and moving my dogs and I into a tiny apartment with a new zip code, complete with snow. A lot of tears were shed getting here, and a lot more have been shed getting to the end. But it’s all been worth it.

When you get here, it gets hard.

Really hard.

You do pour out who you are and what you believe, but in doing that, in mulling over your own beliefs and the beliefs of your classmates, you become affirmed and strengthened in your own beliefs. Some might change, but you have reason for changing them and you have reason (that you are now aware of) for having them in the first place. While my first semester was life-shaking and also life-affirming, I can safely say that I’m just as terrified now as I was then.

Confusing? It should be.

Seminary isn’t about becoming Super-pastor, it’s not about knowing it all, it’s not even about making sure you can recite the Bible back and forth; it’s about knowing your growing edges, your gifts, and becoming realistic about them and how you can use them, stretch them and help them to develop in whatever your setting may be. It’s realizing that you know nothing at all aside from your faith.

And that’s okay.

Working in the Department of Admissions is a lot of fun. And it’s exciting to see new students, glassy-eyed, as they search out their call. Some come into seminary, confident that they have it all figured out. I pray for those people a little more than others. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound fair. But those are the ones who are in for the most shock, and the most amazing transformations. That isn’t to say that everyone isn’t in for some major life transformations while you’re in seminary, they just look different.

For everyone.

Just like we are all created good, in God’s image; we are all different. We all experience the world in different ways with our cultures, our past experiences and our various shades of rose-colored classes.

So, as I finish my last year of seminary, I look back on the Iron Chef competitions, the Halloween parties, the Advent Celebrations, the Session and Deacons meetings, the apple orchard outings, the time in prayer, the football games in the park, the time playing in the snow, the times crying through Hebrew as Ted Hiebert convinced me I actually did understand verbs, the papers written at 4am when my mind would not shut off, and the satisfaction of passing Greek… and I would do it all over again. (Well, okay, only if I had to… passing Greek and Hebrew once is enough for one lifetime.)

Now, it’s almost time to leave my seminary bubble. I will miss it. I will miss my neighbors and their silly children, I will miss study breaks, I will miss Christine Vogel’s office with candies, Jimmy’s, but I will go out being prepared and terrified for the real world that I have been prepared for with love and compassion. There have been hurt feelings along the way, hugs and laughter, and it was all worth it. Every stinkin’ moment of it.

Shelley Donaldson is a senior at McCormick. She’s currently juggling CPE, classes, and working. When not reading or hanging out at Rush University Hospital, she’s watching re-runs of Fringe, learning to re-make her favorite southern foods, trying to figure out her new smart phone, and make the perfect cup of chicory coffee. You can read her blog: or on twitter: @scdonaldson

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