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Admissions Blog

The Evolving Nature of Ministry

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Wayne Meisel HeadshotWayne Meisel , PTS alum recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post about the evolving nature of ministry.

Click here to read.

Considering seminary? Ask yourself these questions

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Right about now, my inbox starts to fill up with inquiries about seminary.

Here’s what I usually tell people who are in the seminary discernment process. It’s true what they say: What you get out of seminary depends mostly on what you put into it. There are superb faculty—and superb students—in every seminary in the country.

By Kenda Creasy Dean

Kendra Creasy DeanDiscernment has more to do with fit. Don’t narrow the field too quickly; there are practical issues, such as GPA and finances, which must be considered midway through the process, but start by casting a wide net. You never know when God might show up and part the waters.

Still discerning the next faithful step? Here are questions and tips to help you see if seminary is in your future. Vaya con Dios!

The Big Question:

Most ministry doesn’t require a theological degree, so ask yourself why you want to get one. In the end, there is one—and only one—good reason to go to seminary: because God won’t leave you alone until you do.

Preliminary Questions: What to ask before you hunt for schools

  • Is God calling me to a ministry that seminary will help prepare me for?
  • Do I want to be ordained? What are the ordination requirements specific to my tradition? Whose approval do I need to go to seminary or start the ordination process?
  • What faith tradition do I represent? (Hint: Almost no one is theologically non-denominational; we all have a perspective through which we see Scripture, the church, how God acts in the world, etc. The sooner you own up to an “orienting theological tradition”—even if you want to move away from it—the easier seminary will be. You can always change your mind once you get there.)
  • Do I want to be formed with others from the same faith tradition (for instance, by going to a denominational seminary)? Or do I want to be formed alongside people from a variety of traditions?
  • With whom do I need/want credibility? Pastors? Academics? Youth ministers? Mainlines? Evangelicals? People inside or outside the U.S.? All of the above? Different schools tend to have different “audiences.” Which “audiences” do I want to serve?
  • Are there certain schools I should rule out for vocational or theological reasons? For instance: Does this school prepare people like me for ordination? Does my denomination recognize this school as “legit”? Does the school have the academic program I need? Are there additional requirements if I go to a school outside my denomination? Does this school have a good reputation with the people who might want to hire me?


How to Search for a School that “Fits”:

  • Go to the people you most admire in ministry. How did they get to be the kind of ministers they are? Where did they go to seminary?
  • Get your degree in a person, not a program. This is the single best advice anyone gave me about graduate school—and the further you go in graduate school, the more important it becomes. Find someone whose way of being in the world and looking at ministry resonate deeply with your soul—and then go study with them. Become a disciple of a disciple you want to emulate.
  • Visit the campus. You get more information out of one visit than a lifetime on the Internet. If the school has “prospective student weekends,” take advantage; the school will be on its best behavior, and you’ll learn a lot in a condensed period.
  • Imagine yourself living in the school’s community. You have a life to live, and not just a degree to get. If you can’t envision your life in this place, cross the school off your list.
  • Talk to students who are already there. Faculty members won’t hide information from you, but students know more. What is the program like that you want to be in? What do they wish they had known when they were applying? Who are their faculty mentors? What does campus life look like for students like you (married, single, second career, straight out of college, etc.)? What churches in the area might you consider for worship or work? Do most students want to be pastors or something else?


Deal-Breaker Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Is the school’s theological vision compatible, but not identical, with mine? Will it stretch me—and am I willing to be stretched—beyond where I already am?
  • How will I be prepared for “the Church of 10 Years from Now”?
  • Can I imagine myself among the students I have met here? Do I want to be one of them? Do I want to take a long trip with them? Or do I feel like the odd relative at a family reunion?
  • How much debt will I incur? Will my family be able to breathe financially once I’m in ministry?
  • How much do I like school? What happens to my stomach when I think about being a student again? Do I get excited or am I bracing myself for “more school”? Hint: If the latter . . . run away.
  • How easy is the “academic game” for me? Hint: If you struggle with courses that involve lots of reading and writing, don’t sign up for the dual degree program or other extended courses of study.
  • Do I need a structured program of spiritual growth? Some schools provide lots of support in spiritual as well as academic formation; others leave spiritual formation up to the student. Hint: If you’re looking for a setting where people sit around and talk about their feelings, go to camp, not seminary.
  • Will I have support systems in place while I’m in seminary? Hint: If not, wait to come to seminary until you do. Seminary is designed to challenge you more than support you.
  • If I am married or in a serious relationship: Does my spouse/significant other think this school will be good for us? Will s/he be happy here? Is there a community for him/her to plug into? Can s/he pursue some of his or her own dreams while I’m in seminary?

Because if your spouse isn’t happy, nobody’s happy.

Dr. Dean is a UM ordained elder and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She’s the author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.

Women Share Stories of Hope at the United Nations

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Bell Clapper Explanation

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Bell Clapper Explanation

Bell Clapper Image

A fair amount of lore surrounds the bell clapper at Princeton Theological Seminary.

First, it’s perhaps worth clarifying what a bell clapper is. Within a bell, there is a striking implement, usually a metal tongue suspended from the bell’s center. This is the clapper. The PTS bell clapper was part of the bell hanging over Alexander Hall, the Seminary’s original building. Since the early nineteenth-century, the bell rang to signal the beginning and end of class periods.

Over the years, the bell aggravated thousands of seminarians. A popular prank developed: students would climb into the belfry and remove the clapper from its nest, thus preventing the bell from making any sound when it was rung. Once the bell clapper was freed, students had to put it somewhere; thus, the clapper was passed from student to student and, on some occasions, from state to state. The practice continued through the Seminary’s two hundred year history – but the bell clapper always found its way back to the Seminary. (Of course, some sources suggest that the administration kept a “store” of clappers to cultivate precisely this impression.) A PTS alum recalls the bell clapper being strapped to a classmate’s waist, under his robe, at the 2005 commencement. When his name was called, he mounted the dais, pulled out the clapper, and – bowing before Dr. Torrance – presented the clapper to him. The entire class erupted into applause.

Current PTS students are less familiar with the clapper and its mythology. Indeed, the bell above Alexander Hall is no longer rung, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the bell clapper remains hung within it. Its rich legacy lives on nonetheless – in the PTS Admissions Blog!

The Ordination Track and PTS

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“The ‘Ordination Track’ and PTS”

Westminster CPM

One of the benefits of going to a Presbyterian seminary, I think, is that the PC(USA) candidacy process is accommodated, if not outright expected.

Earlier this month, I had to miss three days of class to meet with my presbytery. I encountered little resistance. I turned in my work early, and each of my professors sincerely wished me well.

Of course, only about 40 percent of students are Presbyterian. The rest come from the full spectrum of traditions: Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, UCC, Episcopalian, and even Catholic. All of these denominations have their own ordination processes, and while the seminary as a whole may not be as familiar with these processes, they are similarly accommodated. Put differently: everyone here, from the students to the professors to beloved President Torrance himself, has a bigger picture in mind than a single degree program.

My time in Nashville last month initially felt like yet another “hoop” I had to jump through. I was told where to be and when, and the rest of the arrangements were left to me. I lobbied for a Skype encounter – we could just talk online! – but my request was denied. The Presbytery of Middle Tennessee requires in-person consultations. How old-fashioned, I thought. Skype wouldn’t require me to miss class. Skype is how we handle long-distance dialogue in the twenty-first century.

Breakfast with CPM

But Skype isn’t how you build relationships. Skype also probably isn’t the way you articulate a call story, a journey of faith, or a vision of the future. These things require real presence: facial expressions, gestures, and eye twinkles. The laptop camera might miss these things. Above all, had my presbytery’s CPM consented to “meet” via Skype, I doubt I would have walked away from our encounter with such a buoyed sense of purpose. That purpose – that affirmation – is neither owed to nor guaranteed for me. Nonetheless, it felt warm, and strengthening. I returned from Nashville with my panoramic perspective restored. CPM forced me to close my books and confront in-person the reality that awaits me on the other side of this academic experience. Although it may seem obvious enough to an outsider, I have to remind myself: I am preparing to be a pastor, not a student. For me – and for PTS – this isn’t merely accepted and accommodated. It’s celebrated.


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An excerpt from Rev. Victor Aloyo Jr.’s Discerning Your Vocation

Ministry is the active response to God’s call. Christian ministry is more than simply doing good. Rather, it is something that Christ does in and through us and that we do in and through Christ. We act not on our own, but on the authority of God who calls us. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” (John 15:16)

The word “ministry” comes from the same root as the word “minus,” which means “less.” Jesus asked, “For who is greater: the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) All Christians are called to minister both to one another and to those around them by participating in God’s work in the world. Ministry occurs in innumerable forms, some of which require ordination. Genuine ministry involves both giving and receiving; reciprocity is essential. Ministry “to” is patronizing, for it fails to acknowledge our own need, nor does it recognize the mutual nurturing experienced when we are brought to Christ through the people we serve.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “to call.” “Vocation” can be understood in different ways. For instance, it can signify the work you do from a strong, inner conviction over a long period of time. A Christian vocation is a response to God’s call, acting out your conviction. Webster defines it thus:

A call, summons, or impulsion to perform a certain function or enter a certain career, especially a religious one…

Biblical figures receive their summonses in a variety of ways, depending on their unique personalities and contexts: some through dreams and visions, some by contact with significant people, some through tumultuous inner experiences. Some are receptive to the summons, and others very resistant. To understand the flavor of the differences among them, read the commissioning of Moses (Exodus 3:1–4:17), of Gideon (Judges 6:11–24), of Samuel (I Samuel 3:1–21), of Deborah (Judges 4:4–10), and of Ruth (Ruth 1:16–18). All of them and many more became convinced that speaking and living God’s Word was the most important journey they could take, though some doubted their ability.

God gave me the privilege of being the pastor of a multilingual, multicultural congregation in the East Brooklyn area of New York City for ten years. There I witnessed a variety of challenges in parish ministry, and was embraced by marvelous relationships. I believe that God still calls people to particular functions for particular moments in history. For all the joys and inspirations of a full-time, professional ministry, there are also plenty of headaches and setbacks. Professional ministers and church workers, however, serve in some of the most dynamic, world-changing, and globally minded settings found anywhere in the world. Can you picture yourself teaching in Zimbabwe? Visiting the elderly in Cleveland? Interviewing bishops in Europe for a church newspaper? Cultivating “shalom zones” in a riot-torn area of Los Angeles or Chicago? Bringing laughter to children in an Alabama orphanage in their very first vacation church school?

As you reflect on the abilities and interests that God has given you and wrestle with issues of the day, and as you consider vocational opportunities, realize that your years at seminary are an opportunity for you to test your call. Testing a call means reviewing your life as a whole before God. Ask yourself questions like, Where have I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What are my strengths and weaknesses? How do my relationships with other people, at work and at home, reveal my personality and character? Toward what destination is my life headed at the moment? How can my gifts and my limitations be best used in the service of Christ and humanity?

After serving ten years in a parish setting, I can tell you that not all these questions are easy to answer. For we are on a great adventure, a journey of exploration. As a former student here at Princeton, and as an alumnus, I can say that seminary is not a place with many definitive answers to specific or even universal questions, and that it is not possible to prepare people to face every situation in life and ministry. This view of seminary is flawed in both its anthropology and its theology. To view humanity as static and civilization as unchanging is unrealistic; we can only expect to be prepared for all situations if things never change and if tomorrow is predictably like yesterday. This flawed anthropology says that we are not influenced by the world around us in new ways every day and that there is nothing new under the sun. It is also flawed theologically; it forgets the lesson that God alone is omniscient.

Theological education is part of the journey. The metaphor of a journey is a beloved one in the Judeo-Christian heritage because it is so representative of the truth about our lives and our relationship with God. To be alive is to be always changing, developing, and growing; to be spiritually alive is to be continually deepening one’s relationship with the Transcendent and with God’s good creation, and at the same time to be shaped by these relationships. Princeton provides an opportunity for serious theological reflection, corporate worship, spiritual reflection, community-building, and partnership development, in order to facilitate the journey.

I urge you to understand yourself as being on a journey with God in which you will discover who you are and where God is leading you. Know that with God’s help you will gain clarity about the nature of the ministry to which you are being called, whether ordained or lay. Allow yourself to lean on God and your community and receive from both the encouragement and insight that you will need to make decisions about your life.

Grace (and garlic bread) at Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle

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Melissa Florer-Bixler

Just before the service I open the bag of bread, and the smell of garlic overpowers me. "Uh-oh," I think. I've accidently bought garlic bread for today's Communion celebration.

Fortunately, Oxford Circle Mennonite is a church that can take garlic bread in stride. Fifteen years ago Oxford Circle was a primarily white, middle class Catholic neighborhood in NE Philadelphia. The community experienced radical change as the previous generation was replaced with Latino and African-American families moving from low-resourced areas to their first owned homes.

Because of this change, Oxford Circle Mennonite congregants display a variety of socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Our first-Sunday-of-the-month anniversary celebrations are always a microcosm of this diversity. An interracial couple announces their second anniversary while a couple from an ethnic Mennonite background announces their fortieth year of marriage. Four of the churches many children excitedly shout their birthdays: Four! Seven! Twelve! Two! The man beside them quietly shares that this is his sixteenth month of sobriety.

It's beautiful and it's also hard. This diversity means we balance the worship desires of young evangelicals who love praise music with the congregants who grew up singing four-part harmony. We negotiate the pastoral reverence of the Black Church and the Anabaptist commitment to the priesthood of all believers. We work hard to retain the distinctives of our Anabaptist heritage while meeting the challenges of incarnational ministry.

At Oxford Circle, I'm often reminded of the church Luke writes about in the book of Acts. These early Christians also worked through the difficulties of ethnicity and religious tradition, sometimes painfully, sometimes having to give up their own cherished ideas about God and faith. There are no easy answers.

Breaking Bread Image

So, really, garlic bread for Communion is a little thing in light of the ways this church has grown, changed, and been challenged and transformed by the God who promised that in Jesus Christ all our differences would be overarched. This Sunday we enact this unity as the church gathers in a circle around the sanctuary and I lead us in Eucharist. "What do you bring to Christ's table?" I ask. The congregation responds, "We bring bread, made by many people's work, from an unjust world where some have plenty and most go hungry." I break the bread and it passes around the circle. The old serve the young, the young serve their parents, doctors serve day laborers and alcoholics serve police officers. Men and women who a generation ago could not swim in the same public pool offer each other an edible expression of our new reality as one in Christ.

Right now the garlic doesn't smell that bad. In fact, it smells a lot like grace: grace for a careless bread-choosing pastoral intern, grace for the ways we have historically looked for easy ways out of being the body of Christ, and grace for the ways we fail as we travel on this new way.

As we close our Communion service I say the prayer on all our hearts: "Hospitable God, who opens the food through bread and wine, may we see the place set for us so that, in turn, we may welcome others to your table. Amen."

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