Seminary Papers and War Memoirs
By Joe Holland | February 6, 2023
Topic: Applied Theology—Leadership—Pastoral Theology
At some point in my work as a pastor, I started reading war memoirs. I’m not sure what it was that led me to that genre of literature—that ministry was like war (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 2:3), that war and ministry are distinctively masculine (1 Cor. 16:13), or that they are just fascinating to read. But I never stopped reading about soldiers’ lives and always have a few of those books lying around.1 Some of them are so good I read them more than once. Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed—his memoirs of his time as a Marine in the Pacific Theater of World War II—is just such a book.
Now, on my second time through, I noticed a particular quote from Sledge that didn’t stand out to me the first time through. Reflecting on his time in Marine boot camp, he wrote, “at the time, we didn’t realize or appreciate the fact that the discipline we were learning in responding to orders under stress often would mean the difference later in combat—between success or failure, even living or dying.”2 At the time of writing that sentence, Sledge had lived through two very distinct experiences. First, he had been through boot camp. For Sledge, like for most soldiers, boot camp is everything the civilian hears about it and more—physical exhaustion, little sleep, drills expected to be conducted with painstaking rigor, barking drill instructors, and a program designed to test recruits mentally as much as physically. But Sledge had also experienced combat, the kind of intense combat that few soldiers have experienced, the marine invasions of both Peleliu and Okinawa. Sledge was serving as a kind of time traveler in that quote about boot camp. At the time, boot camp seemed to be something it wasn’t—at times it seemed like brutal, meaningless, capricious, wasted suffering. It took war for Sledge to see how he was wrong and how boot camp had prepared him in ways he didn’t realize for what he would later face.
Am I commending the reading of war memoirs to you? Yes, I am. But it is also the start of a new semester. Our first intensive for Grimké Seminary is fast approaching. Grimké students, as I write this, are doing the grueling work of reading and research, the grueling work that will be reflected in submitted papers in just a few short weeks. And so, as I read that quote this week, I started to see parallels between Sledge’s seasoned appreciation of boot camp, an appreciation he didn’t have when he endured it, and the appreciation that seminary students could have for the academic rigor they are about to experience.
You see, I’m a time traveler of sorts as well in what I write. Over twenty years past, I remember sitting up late, choking down lukewarm coffee, hoping somehow the caffeine would impart miraculous footnoting skills to the theological paper I was writing. I also teach a well-attended writing seminar at every Grimké Seminary intensives, where students come not because they have a passing interest in thesis statements and The Chicago Manual of Style but because they are in the trenches of paper writing and are bewildered at the whole process; they need help. I’ve also sat in the common area that we professors hold up in during intensives, and I’ve listened to professors grade papers. They say things like, “Is there even a clear argument in this paper?” or “Doesn’t this student know that increasing font size isn’t a legitimate way of reaching the stated page count?” I’ve experienced the boot camp-like atmosphere of seminary paper writing from both the student and professor sides. But I’ve also been in pastoral ministry for most of my life. I’ve experienced the suffering, the weeks that didn’t go right, the funerals, the ghosting, the weariness, and the very real persecution. And a little like Sledge, I can say that the rigors of academic research and writing prepare students for pastoral ministry in ways they will only realize later. I’m thinking of at least six ways.
What You Learn When You Write
First, writing seminary papers teaches pastors precision. You will stand in the pulpit and preach the mystery of Christ. You’ll have to counter false teaching and heresy in public and in private. You’ll have to communicate in written form, and you’ll have to speak as clearly as you can when you’re ready and when you’re not. You will need to practice precision in how you communicate. If you think footnoting is difficult, the pastoral ministry is not for you.
Second, writing seminary papers teaches pastors to work on a deadline. I tell my students that papers are never done; they are just due. I was coaching a church planter yesterday who was struggling with how to determine his sermon was good enough to set down until Sunday because he wanted to spend Saturday with his family and not be constantly tweaking it. Ministry is like that. There are always deadlines, and things are never done; there aren’t even clear metrics for deciding what done actually looks like. When is discipleship done? When is counseling done? When is prayer done? They aren’t. But there are deadlines. Sundays always come. Elder meetings can’t be constantly postponed. In writing papers, you learn the discipline of working on a deadline and the coveted skill of being able to look at your hard work and say, “this is good enough. I can move on to the next thing.”
Third, writing seminary papers teaches pastors to set standards for excellence. I once had a student ask me why we even have to have style guides of any kind. It was a fruitful conversation about how conventions in language give us the ability to do excellent work and how to know it is excellent work. Brothers, you are professionals. You should display professionalism as you pursue the pastoral calling. Grace is not an excuse for being lazy or slovenly in the care of souls or in the leading of corporate worship. Writing seminary papers teaches you to learn and hold high standards for your work, whatever work that might be.
“If you think footnoting is difficult, the pastoral ministry is not for you.”—Joe Holland
Fourth, writing seminary papers teaches pastors to prioritize. In all my reading on war, I read one thing over and over about the difficulties of combat: the challenge of prioritizing under stress. That challenge isn’t unique to war and is certainly a challenge that pastors experience. In any given week, a pastor will have hours of work he’s asked to do that he cannot conceivably complete in a week. When you write a research paper, you aren’t writing it as a researcher—you’re writing it as any combination of student, husband, father, intern, pastor, church planter, employee, etc. Differing roles and responsibilities will constantly intrude on your work. You must learn to prioritize.
Fifth, writing a theological paper places you firmly in a very specific tradition. Christians have been doing theological writing ever since the resurrection of Jesus. When you put down your thoughts about a topic and root them firmly in what the Bible says, you’re taking a very particular stand with a very particular group of people. You are a part of a tradition. In pastoral ministry, you do the same. You aren’t recreating the wheel from week to week or generation to generation. You are joining the very long line of witnesses, the long line of elders who have been appointed to preach Christ until the final judgment. Doing theological writing teaches you the importance of recognizing your place in the Christian tradition.
Sixth, writing a theological paper teaches you humility. Your professors will return your papers with red ink on them (or whatever the digital equivalent is). That paper you wrote that you thought had a lock-tight argument may actually be just mediocre when judged by the standards of a theological master’s degree. This will teach you humility. You will have to say, “I got that wrong. Let me correct that. Let me perfect my thinking.” You will have to say, “My writing wasn’t up to the standards expected of students in this degree program.” You will have to admit wrong and deficit, and you will have to grow. You will have to do all these things in ministry as well. You’ll have to repent to people because you’ll sin against them. You’ll make bad calls and wrong decisions and will have to learn from them. You will have to display a humility that marks those who know they are forgiven sinners who still sin, who know they have deficits and limitations even while their congregations have high expectations for them.
These things and others you will learn if you commit yourself to the hard work of writing theological papers. Sledge put that comment about boot camp in the first chapter of his book. I think he did that for those of us who might read what he went through and not immediately recognize why it was so important. So I put this brief essay at the beginning of your semester for the same reason. Your theological work matters, not just because it will earn a grade that will translate to a degree, but because it prepares you for the spiritual combat you’ll endure in pastoral ministry.
- I should also say that I’ve never served in the military. But I appreciate those who have served. And part of how I appreciate the soldiers that have fought for my freedom is to read about their lives in their own words. ↩
- E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, World War II Memoirs: The Pacific Theater (New York: Library of America, 2021), 24. ↩