Tips for being a Successful Student

This week, Southwestern Seminary begins its 110th fall semester. More than 45,000 graduates have matriculated through Southwestern’s hallowed halls. These students have either traversed their educational journey well or they have struggled. In my 27 years employed in higher education, with the past 9.5 years at Southwestern Seminary, I have witnessed students who needlessly struggled. The following 10 tips are offered to students who desire to have a successful semester and educational experience.

1. Worship God personally. This may seem like a strange statement to make to seminary students. However, it is all too easy to begin to substitute class assignments for your personal devotion time with God. Every class at Southwestern uses God’s infallible, inerrant Word as a textbook (this is a good thing!). Yet, translating Greek and Hebrew, reading the Old and New Testament, writing a systematic theology paper, or preparing for a sermon or Sunday School class cannot, and must not, substitute for your devotional time. You need to have a time where you let God speak to you and you respond in worship, through prayer, singing and meditation. Jesus modeled it (Matthew 26:36, Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16) and James 4:8 exhorts us to do it. You must always put God first—this is discipleship 101.

2. Don’t let family become collateral damage. You have been called to become equipped to do ministry. However, pursuit of the calling never should come at the expense of one’s family. I instruct my Christian Home class, “If you lose your family, you lose your ministry.” I can give countless evidence for this in Scripture and in life. There will naturally be periods of study that will consume large portions of your time; agree about those times with your spouse. To make time to study may mean that you must sacrifice something personal to ensure your family remains your primary ministry (after all, husbands, aren’t we called to sacrifice in Ephesians 5:25ff?).

Here’s an example rubric I generally followed during my M.Div. studies that may be helpful to you. This rubric gave me 17.5 hours of study time each week while working full-time, taking a full-time course load, and teaching Sunday School.

  • When I got home, I spent time with family until our four kids were placed in bed by 8 p.m.
  • The time between 8-9:30 p.m. was dedicated to my wife. We, of course, ensured we had periodic dates, as well.
  • I studied from 10 p.m. – midnight each weeknight and during the day when I ate my lunch (30 minutes). Occasionally, during exams or research paper editing, the night study period would extend to 2 a.m.
  • On Saturdays, I got up early and studied 6-11 a.m. The remainder of the day was for family and house tasks.

3. Practice time management. Time management is a life skill that means more than just showing up to class on time. It also means more than just avoiding procrastination. Time management is a spiritual discipline. Brian Edgar states, “We tend to take space and time for granted, as basic categories of human existence.”[1] Yet, we know that God created time. Wenthe reminds us, “Time is the context in which God reveals [H]imself … Although God is beyond time, yet Christ entered time. He came in the fullness of time (Gal 4:2) and promises to be with us till the end of time (Matt 28:20) … We live in a short stretch of time that moves from Christ to Christ (Col 1:15-20).”[2] God commands us to steward our time properly for three reasons:

  • The days are evil (Ephesians 5:16).
  • Time is short (Proverbs 27:1, Mark 13:33-37, James 4:13-15, 1 John 2:17).
  • We are held accountable (Matthew 6:19, Romans 14:12, Galatians 6:7-8).

Time management requires that you prioritize and plan your tasks, without sacrificing time with God (see tip 1) or your family (see tip 2), so that you can do all things well (see tip 5). So, after the first week, take all your syllabi, schedules for work and church, and a calendar and place them on a table. On the calendar, map out all your assignment due dates, assigning them to have an earlier due date if they conflict with an already scheduled family, church or work commitment. For writing assignments, make sure you have them due one week ahead of time to permit time for your papers to “marinate”—you can’t find holes in your arguments, missing support for your thesis, and grammar mistakes at the last minute. If you are going to use the Writing Center, schedule additional time to complete your writing assignments.

4. Use social media appropriately. Social media is not evil; technology is inherently neutral. However, how one uses technology can be morally good or evil. There are three inappropriate uses of social media:

  • Don’t let social media become an idol. How much time do you spend on social media? Is it the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you look at before you go to sleep? Do you incessantly check all your social media channels? Is your restroom time extended because you spend it looking at social media?
  • Don’t use social media to disagree with another person or an organization. When did we, as Christians, decide it was fine to complain about someone on public social media? This is not biblical. Scripture is quite clear on how to handle a disagreement with someone. Matthew 18:15ff stipulates that we are to handle disagreements one-on-one, not in the public space. I find that the majority of people who complain about someone or an organization are trying to motivate a self-serving action or are promoting an agenda.
  • Don’t let social media replace human interaction. God made us for face-to-face human relationships, and He chose humans as the vehicle to proclaim the Gospel through the organ of the church. Only 7 percent of human communication is verbal; the remainder is visual. If all your interaction is on social media via “verbal texting,” you cannot form a relationship with the person.

5. Have integrity. You are to pursue classes with excellence. I hear hallway conversations all the time where students state, “I only need to get a C on the paper,” or, “I can skip that assignment.” These statements grieve me, as they speak to a tremendous heart issue and lack of integrity.

  • We are called to do all things with excellence to glorify God and as a testimony to the world (1 Corinthians 15:58, Colossians 3:23-24, 2 Timothy 2:15). You are being equipped for the Divine, not a degree. Will you be able to stand before God and declare you did your best? Does He deserve any less?
  • We are to properly steward what has been given to us. Your tuition is paid in part by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention through the Cooperative Program. Moreover, the buildings in which you live and study were paid for by faithful men and women who supported Southwestern so that the Gospel could be declared to the ends of the earth. You have a responsibility to people in the pews and ministry partners who sacrificially gave to do the best that you can in class.

6. Serve at church. Attending seminary does not excuse you from doing life through church. Find a local church home and be an active member. There was a period when I recommended the expulsion of 13 students from Southwestern over a year’s time. The expelled students all had one thing in common (besides sin): none of them were actively involved in church or part of a small group at church. Serving at church brings accountability, provides discipleship, and allows you to turn the orthodoxy learned in class to orthopraxy. It doesn’t matter if you will only be at a local church home three to six years while you are at seminary—flourish where you are planted.

7. Attend chapel. This is where the esprit de corps of the campus is set. Will you like every speaker or song? No; I don’t either. Just as you do not at church. There are three critical reasons to attend chapel:

  • Where else will you have an opportunity to meet pastors from around the world, meet our SBC leaders, and interact with trustees, guest music artists, missionaries, and a black dog named Chayil?
  • Chapel is referred to as the president’s classroom. Attend and decipher what Dr. Patterson is trying to teach us.
  • Worship together. It is true that Southwestern is not a church, but that does not mean we cannot come together to practice unity of the body and worship God. Don’t do what our people do at church—don’t come together to gripe. Glorify, don’t gripe.

8. Find time to fellowship. Equipping for ministry is not merely about deeply footnoted books and language paradigms. Ministry is ultimately about people. If you allow it, you will make lifelong friends while here. Take time to make cross-cultural friends and learn about doing ministry in a different context. Take advantage of Student Life events and on-campus conferences. Remember the church rule “people not programs” and apply it to seminary.

9. Take care of yourself. Studying is part of your educational journey and it will require countless hours of reading, reflecting, memorizing, writing and praying. However, you will not be optimally effective for ministry if you are stressed out or develop health issues related to not taking care of yourself. You are a clay vessel being shaped by God. Sometimes a vessel on the pottery wheel needs time to set (sleep), to be worked (exercise), or time to add more clay and water (eat well). A misshaped or cracked vessel is useless for its task. Don’t become ineffective or limited in ministry because of your health.

10. Find balance. Your educational journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Theological education is different than other academic degrees because theological training deals with God’s Word. Your education here is about more than increasing in knowledge and skills. Professor Holy Spirit is here helping form you. Your educational journey is a crucible whereby the Holy Spirit will refine you. This takes time, so don’t treat your educational journey as a sprint to graduation day. Jesus spent three years equipping His disciples, and Paul spent three years studying the Scriptures after his encounter with Jesus. Spiritual formation takes time (hopefully none of you will be on the 40-year Moses plan).

[1]Brian Edgar, “Time for God: Christian stewardship and the gift of time,” Evangelical Review of Theology 27(2), 2003, p. 128.
[2]Dean Wenthe, “Redeeming time: Deuteronomy 8:11-18,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 65(2), 2001, pp. 131, 142.