Do you find yourself picking up books about Christianity at used bookstores? Do you own more than one Bible, or perhaps have one that’s so worn it’s starting to fall apart? Are you the person taking notes during the sermon, or the one secretly Googling “queer readings of Ruth” on your phone in the back pew? If any of these illustrations describe you, you may be a church nerd.
Okay, seriously though, we’re so glad to hear that you’re curious about the Bible and theology! Curiosity is invaluable, and can lead you on incredible and unexpected adventures.
So how do I become more familiar with the Bible and theology?
As with most subjects, the best way to learn theology is to start asking questions. What interests you about Christianity, the Bible, and the Church? Are you fascinated by history, or by digging deep into interpretations of texts, or by ancient languages, or by theories about the nature of God? Do you want to know why God allows suffering, or why the Church split into Eastern and Western branches, or how a pastor can become good at caring for parishioners?
Let your passions and your interests lead you, and it’s almost guaranteed that there’s a branch of study that attempts to address your questions. Check out this huge list of sub-disciplines, for example! We can’t promise that you’ll find answers to all of your questions, but when you dive into theology you will find a community of people who are wrestling with the same issues.
After you’ve started gathering some of your questions, the next step is to start reading and listening.
You may begin by looking for books on your favorite subject online, or at your local library or bookstore. It may be helpful, at first, to look for books that can give an overview of a subject, and (protip!) these books often have a bibliography or list of related works at the back that can provide further resources.
For instance, if you’re looking for a general introduction to the many different parts of theology, you may want to check out Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding, or Justo González’s A History of Christian Thought in One Volume. If you’re looking for some information on biblical study, you might try Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament or Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or like the language in some of these books is too much, we’d suggest checking out David Lose’s Making Sense of the Cross, Making Sense of Scripture, and Making Sense of the Christian Faith, which are written as a dialogue between the reader and the author. There are also summaries provided by the Very Short Introductions series, including intros to Theology, The Old Testament, The New Testament, The Apostle Paul, Hermeneutics, and Christian Ethics, which can be very helpful.
If you’re not a huge book person, but still want to take in some good info, you can find great lectures on theology through iTunes U! Prestigious schools including Fuller Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School all have courses and lectures up that you can listen to for free, either on your iPod/iPhone/iPad or on your computer through iTunes.
But theology isn’t just something you find in books and in lectures—theology is lived and experienced and shared! You’ll want to make sure that you’re listening to the voices of people who are acting out theology in the here-and-now; people who are using theology to make sense of the work that they do every day. Be aware of the identities of your sources, and don’t only draw information from people who look and think like you. Make sure you’re reading theology written by women, and people of color, and indigenous authors, and differently abled authors! A few good places to start include James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, and Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation.
And once you’re reading and listening and taking things in, you’ll find yourself coming up with some of your own ideas about how theology influences you.
How do I know if I should go to seminary?
The decision to go to seminary is an incredibly personal one. Some people go to seminary to pursue an academic degree, which allows them to study the Bible and theology, usually on the way towards getting a PhD or a teaching position. Others go to seminary to become ordained as a clergy person or other church leader in their tradition.
Whether you walk into a seminary for visit days, or whether you’re there for your first week of classes, you’re going to be asked to tell the story of how you got there. Some people express a sense of a deep calling—a feeling that they were meant to go into ministry in some capacity. Of the group of people who express this feeling of being called, about half admit to being pretty resistant to the idea at first. Many people talk about feeling like Moses, who made excuses when God called him to go speak out against Pharaoh.
Other people don’t feel this same sense of calling, but go to seminary in search of something—in search of answers; in search of community; in search of God. Nobody will be able to promise you that you’ll find what you’re looking for, but often the act of searching is a reward in and of itself.
If you’re thinking about going to seminary, it’s worth it to take a lot of time for discernment. Seminary folks talk a lot about discernment, and essentially it means that you’re taking the time you need to think and pray about the decision, and to seek out wise counsel from people you trust. Ask yourself why you’re interested in attending seminary—are you hoping to become a church leader, a teacher, or a theologian? Do you feel a sense of calling toward ministry of some kind? Are you searching for something that you think may be found in a community that studies together?
Nobody can tell you whether you’re ready for seminary or not. Much like issues of sexuality and gender, you’re the only expert on your own inner workings. But, while you’re in a discernment process, it may help to read stories of other people who pursued some kind of ministry, whether they’re biblical characters like Moses, Samuel, Esther, Jonah, and Paul, or whether they’re more modern folks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., or Nadia Bolz-Weber.
What do I do if my denomination doesn’t accept LGBTQ people, but I want to go into ministry?
Well, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that you’ll face a much more difficult path to ministry than most other folks. The good news is that you’re almost certainly not the first person to travel it!
Many denominations today have LGBTQ advocacy groups, whether official or under-the-radar, who can help queer folks pursing ministry. For instance, for those in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America there is a group called Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, which has helped LGBTQ people advocate for ministry positions since before the denomination became affirming.
If your denomination or church doesn’t have an association specifically dedicated to LGBTQ ordination, check with the denominational LGBTQ support group. People here can often point you to individuals who have gone through an ordination process, and who might be willing to share their experiences, or mentor you. For more information on finding your denomination’s LGBTQ group, check out the entry on finding a welcoming community.
Here again, it might be helpful to read the stories of ordained queer folks who have gone before you. R. W. Holmen’s book Queer Clergy has stories from those in the United Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and United Church of Christ traditions, which may encourage you. Gregory Millikin has also published a book about being gay and pursuing ordination in the Episcopal Church, and Karen Oliveto has written one about coming out in pursuit of Methodist ordination, while Connie Tuttle has written about pursuing a call to ministry outside the formal bounds of a denomination. And, for more encouragement and a bit of fun, check out Queer Clergy Trading Cards!