A letter from Emily and Jonathan Seitz in Taiwan
We are closing on the middle of the semester, and everyone is a little tired. This week a student emailed me ostensibly about an assignment but also to remind me of how busy students are and how they would like a little mercy on their homework this month. After mentioning the assignment, she devoted several sentences to how stressed out everyone is: “At this time, everyone in class is in the midst of serving churches and all sorts of other activities …” She refers to an upcoming gathering of three seminaries that students have to plan. The student goes on to add, “Pastor’s wife’s [i.e., Emily’s] delivery date for the twins is approaching — we know it’s very difficult. Take care of yourself.” The student, one of the more mature ones in the class, even adds a benediction: “May God protect us. May God show tenderness to each of us and to our families.”
The truth is, I feel a fair amount of sympathy for our theology students. Students typically take five to seven classes. They are required to attend chapel three days a week and a Bible study on a fourth day. Many participate in elective activities (an indigenous students’ group; a mission fellowship). Students also develop their own groups for prayer and fasting. They are required to participate in many other activities: worship leadership, mission trips, field trips, multiple retreats, events at other schools, lectures, fund-raising preaching, class activities, campus clean-up days … And then on top of this, there are several milestones that are especially challenging. The seniors are working on their graduation sermons, which must be preached in their mother language (usually Taiwanese) even if they have grown up speaking primarily Mandarin. After they preach, they are asked questions and often are criticized, based on the content, delivery or language level of the sermon. It’s a long process to write the sermon, and students are often nervous about being evaluated by their classmates and the entire faculty. Some students are even writing senior theses, which take most of the year to research and prepare.
A major difference from U.S. seminaries is that students are required to work at churches for all three years of their program. There’s often no choice of placement, and the workload is largely determined by the local congregation’s pastor and elders. There’s no exact definition of responsibilities or hours, and students have to feel out what is expected. Because the society rewards tight community life and deference to those more senior, many students spend 20 or more hours each week on their field ministry. They often commute to the site Friday through Sunday, sometimes staying overnight at the church. They run Bible studies, lead youth, participate in worship, visit the sick and work with church leaders. They value this time a lot, but it doesn’t leave much time for Sabbath or rest. Some of them are also planning major life events — at least two couples getting married in the spring.
For teaching, this level of busyness creates other tensions. How much is too much work? How do we balance students’ eagerness for hands-on work with the reality that they have only these few years of study to prepare them for decades of service? What does it mean to be a pastor in Taiwan, and how can we help students prepare for future ministry?
Most of you reading this know that these are familiar challenges for all of us engaged in ministry. Seminary life is often the nursery in which students begin working out how to balance the demands of ministry and life. Pray for our students as they write sermons, visit the sick, care for family members, complete homework (!), lead in worship and look after each other. And may God also protect you and your families.
Jonathan, Emily and Sam
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 146