- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

Kevin Watson believes he has been called by God to become an ordained pastor. As a second-year student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest, he has waded through numerous philosophical ideas.

While earning his master of divinity degree, he has pondered everything from predestination to sanctification — complex doctrines for any 22-year-old, especially when each idea comes with various interpretations.

“I have learned that different people see God in very different ways, very passionately, based on people’s experiences,” he says. “At the end of the day, Christians come back to the general truth of the faith, that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and we received salvation through his death and resurrection.”

Most pupils enter seminary with a bachelor’s degree in a range of topics. Completing a divinity program can take one to four years, depending on the course work. Upon graduation, ordination into a specific denomination takes place.

Studying to become a pastor or priest always has been challenging because one day the students will guide people’s spiritual lives. With recent controversies in the Christian churches, such as claims of priests abusing children and the ordination of homosexuals, the new generation of clergy has much confronting it.

Introducing Christ to a modern world may never have been so complicated, says the Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist school comprising students from 25 denominations. He says Christian leaders have the daunting task of communicating the Gospel effectively in the current marketplace of ideas.

“The challenge today is to speak of spiritual matters in a material world, where there is a whole lot more to do and think about on Sunday morning,” he says. “It’s a world that’s overwhelmed with sensation already. A lot of what’s out there is presenting itself as the true source of happiness.”

Despite competing messages, the notion that Christ sacrificed himself for the benefit of humankind interested Ian Trammell, 26, in the priesthood. He first thought about ordination at age 8, while attending Mass with his family. He is now a third-year student at the Catholic University of America in Northeast and plans to receive his pontifical degree in May 2005, which will be followed by ordination.

Because the lifestyle requires a vow of celibacy, he wavered for years on whether he wanted to enter the seminary, especially because he had a serious girlfriend with whom he considered marriage.

“I was concerned about the idea of chastity,” he says. “I always wanted kids. I wanted a wife and everything. It was a difficult decision… My spiritual director said, if God gives me the gift of a vocation to the priesthood, it is a small thing to give my celibate life back to him as a sacrifice.”

Although the public may have become wary of Catholic priests because of the string of sexual abuse scandals, Mr. Trammell sees his role as that of a servant, intercessor and dispenser of mercy. He knows his actions influence the way people perceive God.

“The priest is married to the bride of Christ,” he says. “Depending on how deep that love is affects how he will love the church … You have to keep focused. You have to run the race with perseverance. It’s not an easy life at all.”

Influenced by Martin Luther’s argument for the “priesthood of all believers,” some students pursue theological knowledge for reasons other than ordination, says the Rev. Barry Corey, vice president for education and academic dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass.

In addition to congregational ministry, he says students hope to apply what they learned in divinity school to professional ministries outside the established church, doctoral work or self-enrichment.

Whatever the motives, he says, the majority of a student’s education is spent studying the Bible. The institution requires all pupils to enroll in a full year of Greek and Hebrew.

“We think understanding and knowing the original documents is essential,” he says. “We feel the Bible is the inspired word of God that has not been altered over the generations and centuries. We don’t see it as an ancient piece of literature that is irrelevant for today.”

Tyler Reagin, 27, a third-year student at Gordon-Conwell, is learning to translate 1 and 2 Kings from Hebrew. He is working toward his master of divinity degree and wants to be a college pastor after graduation in May.

“For a congregation, it means a lot that you’re spending time studying the Hebrew,” he says. “It’s more demanding than I ever expected.”

The most difficult part of seminary is not the book work, however, but learning to relate the theological concepts to the real world, says Jeff Braun, a third-year student at Yale University Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.

Mr. Braun, 35, spent 10 years working in the business world before entering the seminary. Upon graduating with a master of divinity degree in May, he would like to pastor a church. Through professional consulting, he also would like to introduce the business world to what it can learn from the church and vice versa.

“It’s not about turning Nike into a church, but understanding how each can inform the other,” he says. “The fruits of theological thinking are not limited to church. They extend powerfully and equally to public- and private-sector activities, such as government, business, law and the arts.”

The basic purpose of studying theology is to understand how it intersects with contemporary life, says the Rev. John Stewart, professor of ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.

“Theology is a love for life,” he says. “There’s a constant dialogue between what’s going on in the society — music, movies, art, literature and politics — and what the tradition has to say.”

After living through the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Hui Chen, 37, decided to put her career as a lawyer on hold to address the spiritual needs of people. As a second-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary, she is working toward her master of divinity degree. Upon graduating in May 2005, she is leaning toward becoming a pastor in what traditionally has been a male-dominated field.

“I’m confident enough to know I have something to contribute to the church,” she says. “I’m having the best time of my life. I’m so appreciative that what I get to do all day long is read and think about fascinating things about life and faith. It’s the most intellectually satisfying and stimulating experience I’ve ever had. It feels like such a luxury.”

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