Sample Seminary Essay

In the fall of my senior year of college (2011), as I entered the ELCA candidacy process to become a rostered leader in the church, I was intimidated by all the steps I needed to take and I didn’t really know where to start. One of the biggest parts of beginning candidacy  is writing the entrance essay. This 4-6 page, 2500 word essay is to “provide an honest assessment of your current self understanding” including discussion of life-shaping events, family of origin, personal faith journey, and current life situation.

I’m posting my essay here in the hope that others beginning this candidacy journey may find it useful. Obviously my essay is reflective of my own life, but it may be helpful to others just to see someone else’s essay. I found this essay to be helpful as I was beginning the process, just to have a sample.

Since this is my first blog post on this version of my website, this also serves as an introduction to who I am. Again, this was written in the fall of my senior year of college. I’m currently a Master of Divinity student at Wartburg Theological Seminary.

My ELCA Candidacy Entrance Essay

Hello, I’m Daniel, and I believe that I am called to serve as an ordained pastor in the Lutheran church. Ok, great. So what does that mean? What does it mean for me to be called? I haven’t seen any burning bushes recently, I haven’t gotten a supernatural cell phone call, and last time I checked, there wasn’t a billboard with my name on it outside my window. What does it mean to be called? I know that I believe in a living, active God who calls all people to a meaningful life of vocation, but what is my unique call? How and why am I called to pastoral ministry?

Since I was blessed with parents committed to raising me as a Christian, I’ve grown up in the church. I don’t have any dramatic conversion stories with flashes of light in the sky. Rather, God has been shaping my faith throughout my entire life. Likewise, there isn’t a single moment where I suddenly discerned a calling to ministry. As I was getting ready to work on this essay, I was glancing at some old documents on my computer, and I realized that being a pastor has been a possibility in my life since at least sophomore year of high school, when I mentioned it in my application to a leadership development camp. Through my home church, camp, and college groups, I’ve had many fantastic opportunities for discernment throughout my faith journey.

I grew up on a horse farm just outside of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where I was homeschooled along with my sister until my junior year of high school. Being homeschooled has had a substantial impact on my life and faith. Since I wasn’t involved in public school activities, my parents did an excellent job of getting me involved in church activities, and many of my friendships were established through my church family. I remember being in the children’s choir, in Christmas programs, Sunday school, and pretty much every possible church activity.

Another advantage of being homeschooled was the opportunity to take religious classes. I remember that at the time, I hated some of my theology textbooks, but looking back, it is clear that they were quite helpful academically to my faith development. When I started at Luther College, many of my peers were thrown into faith crises when they were first forced, in Intro to the Bible classes, to consider what they actually believed, and to reconcile that with challenging historical evidence.

Thanks to my previous theological education, I was already familiar with some challenges to blind faith. Certainly my faith has many questions, but, thanks to excellent exposure in my youth, I was not blindsided in college into abandoning the foundations of my beliefs at the first hint of academic challenges to religious doctrines.

I have been involved in church leadership roles for much of my life. I served as the youth representative on church council during high school for a couple of years, which introduced me to practical challenges of church life such as the annual budget process.

In junior high school, while I was going through confirmation, my church started doing a program called Alpha, a video-based study intended as a basic introduction to the Christian faith. Although it was meant for adults, I and a couple other youth went through the course, and I led a number of subsequent youth small groups through Alpha. Alpha was probably the time when my faith became my own, when my relationship with God became consciously real to me. While I would define myself as a Christian before that, as a child I hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what that meant for my life. Going through Alpha, and especially serving as a small group leader facilitating discussion about others’ faith, was a tremendously formative experience for me. I didn’t have any particular great conversion moment, but I did start taking God much more seriously in my life. Alpha was also the first time I’d served in a teaching role, which in turn was probably when I first began considering that I might be called to pastoral ministry.

Around the same couple-year period that I was going through Alpha, I was beginning my introduction to public school by taking one class a day at the local high school. Going to public high school was eye-opening. I encountered so many people who seemed to be going through life without a sense of purpose, value, or hope. And yet, I did not feel the same sense of hopelessness. At first, it was totally incomprehensible to me that people could not care about church, about who God is, or about what God is up to in their lives.

In 9th grade, as I was preparing to be confirmed, I wrote about the difference that being a Christian made in my life. I wrote that when I looked at those around me who lacked a sense of hope, a sense of purpose, I saw myself without Christ. Since then, I have known that part of my calling, no matter what I’m doing, is to try to share the sense of purpose, of hope that I have through faith in Christ.

At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I made probably the toughest decision I have ever made in my life. I decided to enroll as a fulltime student at Fond du Lac High School. Now, I realize that may not sound like a huge decision, but being homeschooled was part of my identity, part of who I was. I’d never gone to school for an entire day, I’d never had to deal with a teacher who might not understand everything that was going on in my life, and frankly, it was kind of scary to think about. But at home, I’d reached the limits of what my parents could teach me in mathematics (trying to teach yourself pre-calculus is hard!), I wanted to take an advanced chemistry class, and I was really interested in taking a class in computer programming.

So, in the fall of junior year, I officially became a public high school student. If I thought going to a class a day, or to confirmation with public school kids was an eye-opener, high school was a whole new revelation. So many people were lacking motivation to learn, were there just because they had to be, and, once again, even seemed to be lacking any sense of purpose in life. Personally, I loved high school, largely because I had made the choice to be there, to want to learn.

And, of course, once I started getting involved in school and meeting people, I found other great friends, people who were motivated to learn, who cared. Looking back from the perspective of my college experience, going to public school was the right choice for me and I’m grateful to have had that opportunity. I’m not opposed to the American public education system, or anything like that, but I am also extraordinarily grateful that I was homeschooled for most of my early life.

Throughout middle and high school, I stayed actively involved in youth group at church. With my youth group, I went on seven different mission trips, to locations such as Belize, inner-city Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago, the Red Lake Reservation, and the Appalachia region of Kentucky. Mission trips have given me two things that have been formative for my call. Through mission trips, I have been exposed to poverty and physical need on a level I would not have otherwise experienced. I remember the experience, on my first mission trip in middle school, of being in inner-city Minneapolis, the Metrodome in view, in a neighborhood close to where some of my relatives lived, and realizing that there were people living without homes, people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

These mission trip experiences have exposed me to different forms of poverty, and I have been challenged to ask how such need can still exist in our modern society. I believe the church is a huge part of God’s solution to poverty, and while I certainly don’t have all the answers, I believe I am called to be part of the social justice solution through the church.

Beyond exposure to poverty, mission trips have also shaped my passion for walking with people in their faith journeys. The best part of mission trips for me is not usually the physical service; it is the opportunity to listen to people’s stories. I’ve come to realize that some of the most valuable ministry takes place in the van on the way to and from the destinations.  I love the processing and faith discussions that occur between group members on mission trips.

Beyond my home congregation’s youth group, another organization I’ve been involved with is Badger Teens Encounter Christ (TEC). TEC is an ecumenical ministry hosting biannual weekend retreats for high school students, focused on the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. The first time students come on a retreat, they are weekenders, and they come to hear talks, have small group discussion, experience living Stations of the Cross, and worship together. After the first time, students can come back and serve on team for future retreats.

Since my weekender experience, I’ve served on team twelve times, including as a student co-director, and I have given talks (basically sermons) to the weekenders on several occasions. Friends I’ve met at TEC have been encouraging, both in prayer and discussion, as I’ve been discerning a call to ordained ministry. Through TEC, I’ve seen the real impact that God can have when Jesus breaks into people’s lives and helps them see that they matter and are loved.

Since coming to college, I have continued to be actively involved in ministry through Luther’s College Ministries department. I have a work-study position maintaining the College Ministries website, and another work-study job serving on the leadership committee for Luther’s Church Youth Fest high school retreat event.

One of my passions is planning and leading effective worship services. During high school, I had been part of our youth praise band, including a year as the student leader, giving me my first experience planning worship services. In college, I have served for seven semesters on the Vision Team leadership committee for FOCUS, a student-led contemporary worship service.

Through Vision Team, I’ve been able to continue serving in leadership and even pastoral roles, as we meet each week to plan worship for our congregation of students. Since we have guest speakers each week, it can be challenging to create a cohesive, intentional time of worship while balancing the concerns, likes, and dislikes of a transient student community with diverse backgrounds and expectations. There is a constant tension between leading the congregation in worship and putting on a performance, which I think everyone in worship leadership wrestles with.

For me, worship is a time to focus both on praising God as well as on teaching and sharing the good news of Jesus with the congregation. I love being a part of leading worship!

My experiences with Crossways Camping Ministries have also given me excellent opportunities to grow my own faith and explore ministry as a career. Through going to Crossways camps as a camper for 10 years, I had some great experiences and faith conversations outside of a traditional church setting. Before my senior year of high school, I participated in Crossways’ Y.E.T. (youth enrichment training) leadership program, which helped me develop some of my ministry and leadership skills.

In college, I’ve gotten some great memories and practical ministry experience through working for two summers at Waypost Camp, part of Crossways. Beyond the obvious growth I experienced from living in a Christian community and working in an environment consistently focused on God, working at camp also helped expose me to the wider church, beyond my home congregation. I love the opportunities I’ve had through camp to experience how other churches do worship, and to learn from a variety of pastors by observing how they lead Bible study and interact with different people.

By the end of my junior year of college, a number of other people, including my home pastor, my camp director, and my campus pastors had encouraged me to consider seminary, and attending seminary was beginning to look like a realistic possibility. On campus, I’ve participated in a pre-ministry discernment group, and I’ve gone to vocation visit days at several seminaries. However, I was still struggling a lot with whether or not I was really being called to ordained ministry.

As I was starting to consider what my vocation after college would be, I struggled to discern which of my two majors, computer science or religion, I was called to pursue, a question I’ve wrestled with since starting college. During junior year, I was starting to wonder if I was only considering ministry because I was somehow afraid of doing a different job.

So, last summer, after junior year, I interned as an application developer, programming in the IT department at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. After working as a cashier at Fleet Farm in high school, and working in outdoor ministry for two summers, working in a computer-programming job was a necessary step in my discernment journey. While the job and the company were great, and I successfully proved to myself that yes, I can be successful as a programmer, I also realized that there was something missing, that working as a programmer – as important as it is – is not my call at this point. I need to be doing something with my life that is more explicitly focused on serving God.

I think that I have now gotten to the point in my life where trying to fit myself into a vocation other than ordained ministry would merely be me running from God’s call.

I have spent a lot of time discerning in the last year or two (which I’m sure will continue for the rest of my life!), and I believe that now is the time God is calling me to be a pastor. I will graduate from college in May 2012 with a bachelor’s degree from Luther College, which has given me excellent preparation for the academic challenges of seminary. I have been dating my fiancé Christin Ferch for almost five years now, and we became engaged this fall. She has majored in Religion and Sociology, and plans to work in youth ministry. I’ve also been blessed to have many discernment conversations with her, and she has been a fantastic partner in my own discernment process.

We will be getting married in July, and we are both excited and open to going wherever God is calling us to be. As students graduating from a private college, money is a concern. Looking at our combined student loans, while they are manageable, to meet the cost of seminary education I will need scholarship support from whatever school I attend. Both of us are financially responsible, and I am confident that if God is calling me to ministry now, as I believe God is, then God will make a way for that to happen.

Serving as an ordained pastor is both exciting and terrifying for me. It is terrifying in the sense that I know I cannot do it on my own. I am a decent public speaker, but there are many who are better. People have told me that I’m easy to talk to, but sometimes I don’t know what to say to people. Sometimes, I struggle with theological issues that I would expect pastors to have figured out. I don’t have all the answers.

And yet, I don’t believe that I’m called to do anything on my own. My confirmation verse is from Romans 8:38-39, which talks about God always being with us, loving us no matter what. I don’t know exactly how God can or will use me. I am under no illusions that God only uses perfect people in the church. Every time I think about it, it blows my mind that God would leave the Gospel message or the church in the hands of fallible humans.

But that is exactly what God has done… except with the incredible promise that God will be and still is here with us. I’m excited about planning and leading worship, about walking with people through the crises of life, about helping to show people the hope that is found in our living Savior. I don’t know the details of where God is calling me, but I do know that God has a plan, and I am excited to take the next step on this journey of faith!

My Endorsement Essay can be found here.

My Approval Essay can be found here.

Tagged on: Candidacy    Seminary

DanielBlog, Seminary

If anyone is interested, this is my admission essay I wrote for acceptance into seminary for my Masters of Arts and Religion degree. I ended up being accepted. Hope you enjoy it!

I began my walk as a Christian later then my childhood friends growing up. Most of them had dedicated their lives to the Lord when they were between 3-5 years old; something that to this day I am suspicious of. At the time, I remember thinking that such spiritual experiences would be impossible for a very young child – for it takes a serious amount of understanding to fathom the complexity of hearing God’s invitation. For me, the time when I encountered God was much later.

I was 12 years old, and it was early in the morning before the sun had risen in the sky. I was riding with my father in the car on a trip to New Jersey to visit my grandparents. I remember that very suddenly, I became overcome with a strong desire to commit my life to God. I asked my father what is was like when he first became a Christian, and he told me about his conversion experience. My memory of the things that happened next were vague, but I do remember being filled with a mounting awareness of my imperfections, coupled strongly with my desire to draw close to God. I simply called out to God for help, and asked Him to take over.

Looking back, I am amazed at what happened in those few moments. For the first time in my life, I suddenly cared very much about God and our relationship, and could feel the terrible weight of a life trying to be lived without Him. All these thoughts were new to my experience at the time, but in an instant, I completely understood them very clearly. I am amazed at how God can communicate things to people that take so long for us to explain to others, but are passed to us in just a fleeting moment, and we understand completely within some deep part of ourselves. God has a way to speak to us that takes a parable-like form: our mental and rational guards are up, but He takes another route to communicate truth – one that speaks a different language than cold reason and logic alone; one that talks quietly to our inmost being where the message becomes internalized before it can be brought into coherency with our existing beliefs which become in that moment of realization hopelessly outdated.

This first experience with God has been a model of how I have learned spiritual truth that has really stuck with me – truth that has been seeded deep within me and has not been forgotten. These truths most of all are what has kept me spiritually alive when life inevitably became very hard and painful. A person’s theology is full of beliefs, bolstered by a myriad of tangled emotional and rational arguments, but it is not often that these kinds of beliefs sustain me in the midst of hard times.

It wasn’t long before my new life began to invade daily living. I began to question whether or not my activities were in line with my values, or if they jeopardized my relationship with God. I remember it was around this time that my brother and I never fought again, and have been great friends ever since. I also remember another interesting quality I picked up: a very strong thirst for serious study about God and the Christian walk. I might attribute this desire to observing my father who had a similar passion, but it is hard to say if that alone was the fuel that drove me to read book after book late into the night on apologetics, worldviews, philosophy, and Bible interpretation. It was at this time in my life as an early Christian that C.S. Lewis and his particular way of looking at the Christian life really resonated with me, and to this day he has been a strong influence in the way I understand Christianity.

During my remaining tumultuous teenage years, I discovered I had other great passions beside biblical studies, such as art, design, and computers. When the time came to make a decision about what to do with my life scholastically, I decided to follow a path towards a career that suited those loves, and so I set off to get a degree in Industrial and Graphic design. Undergraduate school was such an intense part of my life that I have often compared it to a type of hibernation: I was so completely focused on learning my trade that years went by before I began to once again resurface into the social world and interact with other human beings. It was an awkward transition that took me years to recover from.

Even during this intense time, I never seemed to loose my desire to try desperately to understand my Christian walk and life in general in an intellectual way. I would often be up late into the night – lying in my bed and staring at the ceiling thinking about some aspect of theology that I couldn’t understand. To this day, I have found few people as consumed as I who wrangle with these questions day and night, and would like nothing more than to simply discuss them for hours on end with a kindred spirit. I am sure such people exist, and with greater passion, but I have not met many nor have I kept in steady contact with the few that are.

At this point, I would like to clarify what I mean when I say I was “desperate” to understand spiritual truth. I do not mean that my beliefs in God or the stability of my faith were fragile and I was trying to save them. I use this strong word because I can’t think of a better one to describe the intensity of my desire to understand these spiritual things. Although I struggled day and night over some issue, I still went to bed without a worry as to if the basic tenants of Christianity were true or not. To this day, this desire has not cooled, but stayed at a steady level of high intensity. I do not know what drives this. At one point, I thought it was my pride, but life came down hard and wrecked that part of me, yet my desire to know truth continued to haunt me more strongly, even when it was no longer superficially beneficial to me.

Many years after college, I became involved with collage & career age Bible studies and church groups. I was asked to be a group leader in two of them. I gave lectures and led small group Bible studies on a regular basis for years. I also was involved with the affairs of leadership of such groups that did not involve teaching, such as conflict resolution and event planning. It was a wonderful time in my life, the first time that I could be used by God to minister to people and to encourage them to draw closer to God and to help them in their times of need where God gave me insight to help. It was my desire in my ministry to be open about my own failures and struggles in my Christian walk, and to admit I didn’t have all the answers and that I messed up quite often.

However, it was during this time that I became aware of the many problems of Bible interpretation in the conservative circles I was teaching in, and the sects that arise in the church because this. I also noticed a division among people and their approach to interpretation. Some believed what people they respected believed without any personal scrutiny and others (like myself) cared little for what important people believed, but tried to take a more scholarly approach to determine the right interpretation of a Bible passage or theological perspective. What I noticed most of all was everyone’s ignorance (including my own) of important tools that facilitate good interpretation above and beyond good logic and reason – a solid knowledge of the language and culture of the Bible. I would often attend a bible study or teach one that really moved me or the people I taught, only to realize that many of my points and my understanding of biblical culture and my interpretation were entirely wrong. This has been a source of frustration to me. Although it has been a long time since I have been allowed to teach, I restrict my advice to the spiritual truths in my life that are the most deeply rooted and most real to me, and have kept my opinions and perspectives on the less-certain things to myself.

Over the past couple of years, the spiritual life of our family has taken a heavy toll. We were forced to leave a very bad church only to land in another that was in some ways even worse. Since that time, we have moved from church to church, but have never found one that we were comfortable in. This experience has opened my eyes to a very dark side of Christianity that I had never experienced before or even believed could exist. This was a time when all I had to comfort me where the deep spiritual truths that God had given me. Those truths and many more He gave me during this time sustained me. I began to see things very clearly from the shoes of the atheist and the recovering anti-Christian that had been beat up by religious abuse. Most of my time spent over the past couple of years has been listening to people like this and what they have to say about their experiences with Christianity and its many variations. With the help of these hurt men and women, I have gained a painful perspective on the terrible destruction that man-made religious attitudes and behaviors have on the spiritual lives of people and their relationship with God. Their criticisms have helped me rethink many of my beliefs and attitudes. One good piece of advice from C.S. Lewis was to try to see a thing from someone else’s perspective. Whenever you read a book or a topic that you agree with, read one that you don’t. It is in this tension that a greater understanding of things may arise where a narrow perspective would not allow. Because of my bad church experiences, I have been able to follow his advice – to see the other side of religion; to see the valid criticisms and anger of atheists and other non-Christians towards religious societies who easily fall into the trap of corruption and in the process hurt so many people and destroy their relationship with God.

So, where does this leave me now? I believe God has led me on a path back to school again. It is time for my second passion to receive the benefit of higher learning. It is my desire to attend seminary to study the Bible under some of the greatest scholars in the country. This is indeed a great privilege, and it could not come at a better time. I have spent the last 2 years removing the encrustation of a self-righteous religious attitude, one that could be fed by seminary under the right conditions rather than corrected. Instead, I am coming with humility; with the noise of many hurt and angry voices echoing in my ears that will stem the tide of arrogance in me that inevitably accompanies advanced learning of any kind, as Paul mentions in Corinthians. I have seen first and second hand the damage of what religious pride can do, and my intentions are not sided there, but rather to do what I remember doing a long time ago: to be a facilitator to help people draw closer to God. I know as a lived reality that it is within the magic of that relationship where people will receive their deepest spiritual truths, the ones that will be clung to when the hard times of life come.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 30th, 2007 at 3:34 pm and is filed under Personal Background . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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