Dear Academia, Let’s Just Be Friends

Tony Sig

(Apologies for the pathetic tone of this post. I’m putting it up to be cathartic and because I imagine there are a good handful of people in my position that can relate. Nevertheless, it’s got rhetorical questions and the like, and we all hate blog posts filled with rhetorical questions)

‘Tis the season for grad school applications, and there’s nothing like filling these out to make one consider the path of one’s future. I myself am in discernment limbo; my diocese has given over a year of false starts and the official discernment process has yet to begin. That puts me in the awkward position of needing to apply to seminaries without any clear direction or support from the diocese or put off school for another year in hopes that things will start moving soon. But I don’t want to just hang around for a year.

Yet this isn’t even the only issue. The question that keeps coming before me is, “Do I see myself pursuing the traditional academic path?” MDiv or MATh, to PhD, to adjunct, to tenure track… Someone like me gets asked fairly often whether ordination is even “necessary” for what I want to do. Well, is it? And what do I want to do? (More importantly, I suppose, is what does God want me to do) Do I want to be a traditional academic teacher, or a parish priest who teaches on the side? A teaching-priest? Much of this will presumably get hashed out with discernment, but pragmatic questions are important enough to think through even now.

The fact of the matter is I can’t cut it in the current institutional situation. There are too many young, childless, straight-A students out there that will automatically qualify over me when it comes to getting into schools for degrees and for careers. Everyone knows tenure is shrinking, moreover I can see just how abusive the adjunct situation is. It practically has to be like this to deal with the emerging system. I don’t really want to subject myself to a decade or more of adjunct work, at least not where it’s my primary vocation and means of living. I’ve heard too many stories of people with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans and not one bit of potential work to show for it. Helping out institutions and teaching on the side seems all together more healthy and desirable.

And that’s the way I’m leaning. Under a healthier education system, I feel confident that I could contribute and find work, but for now at least, I think I just wanna be friends.


  1. I resonate with this. And I haven’t even BEGUN discernment.

    I expect that I’ll graduate next winter and then apply for seminary whether or not I know what I want to do (whatever permutation of priest and/or professor).

    What I know is that I believe that education should be available based on aptitude and willingness, not ability to pay or the promise of income. So I think I’ve resigned myself to going, no matter what, out of principle.

    Then just praying for some sort of revolution or reformation of the systems that make it the way it is. Resign myself that if I am unable to pay, that I can keep my lifestyle under the poverty line and get deferments or that, God forbid I default and the law still doesn’t allow bankruptcies to include student debts (which, let’s be honest, are one of the very few *good* things purchased via debt and, therefore, the debts a good society should be most willing to forgive!), I will then learn to live off the grid a bit. Do you know how hard it is to find employment or a place to rent when you’ve defaulted on a student loan?

    Alas, I remain too idealistic to make a “wise” decision according to the present worldly wisdom.


  2. Good thoughts,

    I was in a similar situation about 10 years ago and dropped both the academy and professional ministry and working in Business for about 5-6 years after seminary because I just was not clear. I am a church planter/pastor now. I have to say I am so glad I went the way I did. I am more and more convinced every day that I serve the Church that the academy is a blood-sucking leach siphoning off the real life of the church by subtly turning the “knowledge of God” into “knowledge about God” and confusing what real discipleship is. I have to admit I was for a long time confused between the values of the biblical discipleship and the values of the academy, which I will say are exclusive. They do not serve the same master. I have to also admit that I learned and was confused by the values of the Academy at on of the most prominent Evangelical Theological seminaries.

    To be sure I loved my academic study (I did an MA in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages). I still would not trade it because it is still a vital part of my ministry skill set. But I still contend that while we need real thoughtful Christian scholarship, we need to not be duped into the western Enlightenment’s Academic values that ultimately are at odds with the ethos of the kingdom.


  3. Exactly my thinking. I would like to continue with English Literature, but the expense and lack of opportunity has made that pursuit a luxury. Instead, I’ll be starting on an AS in Computer Science in the Spring, to bolster my career in Web Development.

    But even that degree will still only be a supplement to my portfolio and references, which is what employers care about most. And a lot of the classes I’ll be taking are extraneous to the skills and knowledge I actually use. So higher education is still falling short, and I’m not sure if it’s worth the cost and time to continue onto a BA.


  4. If your discernment process ends up being anything like mine (I’ve done 2, one in TEC and one in theAM) then I wouldn’t count on much by way of additional clarity coming out of it.

    I waffle on these exact same things (parish vs. teachings, both, etc) and I think I land where you do. Currently my goal is to work parish ministry and teach on the side (or participate in the academy on the side or something). My school (currently) is being paid for but I doubt that will continue to doctoral work – so who knows if I go past an MA.

    The instability of moving a family around for an MA/MDiv and then PhD is what I flat out rejected – so we put roots down and I’m doing my best to make it work from where we’re at. Move to Detroit, we’ll find cheap land and buildings and we’ll build a commune/seminary that we can teach at – problem solved.


  5. @ Reed – that’s truly funny, because it’s true…(flinches at sudden movement in peripheral vision)

    @ Tony – Do you hear that? I think it is the desert southwest calling you out of that God forsaken tundra in which you’ve been living.


  6. It sounds like just-friends is probably the best solution for you. It makes me feel a little bit better about my own applications and discernment when I fit under your privileged young, childless, straight A students demographic. I’m applying for an MTS but really only because I wrote the GRE and they include sending scores to 4 institutions in the fee, so I might as well make some use of that and apply to the places I really do want to go. My problem is that I want to take a year to do something else. I need to participate more fully in other aspects of this thing called life so that I have material to theorize about. So if I don’t get into grad school I am free to pursue any of my exciting plan Bs that involve travel and living in other cultures. If I do get into grad school – I will have an even harder decision to make: to go or not to go. In my future I see myself alternating between teaching and working in the Mennonite church cross culturally in some capacity.
    Where are you applying?


    1. Initially here I’m trying primarily for Wycliffe in Toronto because I could start out with a few distance courses before I needed to bring my family up. It definitely also fits with my theological proclivities even if a bit further on the ‘evangelical’ side of things.

      They also have an option to incorporate an MA with thesis into an MDiv. That way shared requirements can work both ways and the two degrees are more quickly come by. If I did this, I would probably put off a PhD for a while.


  7. Tony,

    If it makes you feel better, I had 7 programs lined up to apply for – I was enrolled in summer German and French courses (damn you, NT based PhDs)and brushing up on Algebra I and II in order to have (even) a strong math score on my GRE. I had contacts to advisors at three of those schools, and thought the ball was rolling.

    Then I started discernment, and life is, well… fine. Better than fine, actually, it is bliss. I think that doctoral work is still in the future, but discernment has given me an important sense of detachment from the whole thing. Hang in there, bro. I am attending vespers at the Norbertine Abbey here in Albuquerque tonight; you will be in my prayers today.


  8. I can’t speak to the ministry-academia balance, and in truth I don’t quite understand it, but I can say that academics are kind of whingy. There are plenty of bad things in academia, don’t get me wrong, but out it’s not the gulag or hopeless situation so many make it out to be. At the end of the day I enjoy academic labor. I enjoy reading. I enjoy researching. I enjoy trying to create and produce my own work. And moreover I love teaching. If that’s something you want to do then you figure out if it is worth the sacrifices. Every job is shit, including ministry (at least I’m guessing from watching my mom’s own religious labor, and it is labor still), the trick is to find one that allows you the most freedom to pursue those things that you enjoy even in the midst of the shittiness of the job itself. For me that’s academia. And I’m saying that as an adjunct (though I’m lucky enough to be working for one of the least abusive schools when it comes to adjunct teaching, I get paid well for each class and have a nice office) and with tons of debt (it’s just a part of life now and I had to take it on to do what I wanted to do, if you don’t want to do it in the light of the debt then probably that’s smart and totally ok). So it’s really a matter of, do you want to do it, or do you want to read books on the side of whatever other shitty job you choose. Either way, it’s probably fine. I hate the double guilt we intellectual/academic types have. Guilt for not being an acaddemic if we drop out (why? it’s totally fine!) or guilt for, like me, not being totally anti-academic or hating academia. It helps that I’m learning to valorize my position in itself, which is something Dan Barber taught me. I am an intellectual who makes my money teachinng. I’m not waiting for “the one” tenure track job, I’m just working, and doing so in a good city and enjoying it while I can. But again, this may take a different character in your form of life, and thatt’s fine too! I guess I’m saying academic/intellectuals should cleavve close to the Gospel of the Dude: “nothing is fucked here, man.”


    1. That’s a helpful comment. In a similar vein, I’m getting pretty tired of infinite posts telling me why I should no go to grad school and informing me that although I say I want to, why I do not actually want to. Most of these lists seem more interested in complaining about how shitty grad school is than advising prospective students on how to consider their decision. The argument becomes “you shouldn’t go to grad school because it’s shitty,” instead of “grad school is shitty, but there are ways to do what you love in the shit.” Or if you don’t want to go to grad school, “there are ways to do what you love in other shitty work,” which is basically what you already said.


  9. As a general response I need to say that I’m not envisioning here a total break or anything. Maybe “friends with benefits” would be a better way of putting it.

    Anthony is right, if it’s ‘ministry’ or ‘academia’ it’s really a pick your poison kind of choice. I’m a pastor’s kid, I know the special abuse reserved for pastors.

    But finding an emphasis or location from which to engage both worlds is necessary if both are to be attended to. And this ‘location’ is looking more and more like vocational priesthood as the primary seat of action. I’ll still research and write, keep up on my language skills, try and submit articles and such, butI’m more confident of late that this will be something ‘on the side.’ I’m not trying to split the two, just to recognize the reality of institutional separation.

    Thanks for the encouragement.


  10. You have the intelligence for that sort of project, Tony. I have a passion for teaching, but I think I’m more of a “priest at the local parish, and teaches philosophy or history at the community college/local Catholic high school.”

    Or teach theology at a “Bible college” in order to connect with the young evangelicals that I once was and help mess up their world.


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