Going back to school in midlife brings many surprises – and it’s worth it
I was 50 when I applied to the master of theological studies program at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ont. Call me a slow starter. I’d long had a dream to study theology – so long that I’d concluded it had passed me by.
The dream had sprung back to life again when my pastor suggested a summer intensive course at a local seminary. I hadn’t even known there were such things or that an ordinary person could access them.
Fear and self-doubt
An Austrian scholar taught my first summer course Christianity in a Pluralistic Society. I walked into class the first day filled with fear and self-doubt. Who was I to study with an international expert? I worried about wasting our family’s money, being too old, stupid, theologically immature and academically inexperienced to succeed.
In other words I feared failure. On that first day I asked what a research paper was.
But I was too excited to give up.
By the time I finished that course, my eyes had been opened to so many new thoughts and ideas that I wanted more. I had experienced the spiritual benefits of wrestling through – and letting go of – some long-held, but weakly supported convictions as I considered the evidence for some new ones. I had learned the disciplines involved in academic research and writing.
And – joy! – I’d earned an A minus. I felt affirmed and validated. I’d worked so hard.
I felt as if a fire burned within me. I couldn’t wait for my next course. I had so many big questions. I wanted answers.
It wasn’t long before I realized that at the end of all my questions were, mostly, more questions, enough to engage scholars wiser than me for their lifetimes.
Questioning a calling
Along the way my courses allowed me to do some deep thinking about my writing and communications work. Was it really a calling? Could what I did for a living be considered a form of ministry?
I became convinced communications work is ministry, which further fired my passion. My conviction strengthened my confidence to accept bigger and bolder opportunities that came my way.
A course on Ministry Formation allowed me to work with a mentor for a year and proved to be another period of challenge, blessing and growth. Maxine Hancock was a scholar and writer I’d admired from afar. The chance to engage in monthly phone calls and coaching sessions with her felt like a gift and a dream come true. She helped give me a new perspective on my role – not just as a journalist doing a job – but as a teller of stories of and for the Kingdom.
During my years of part-time graduate study, I was surprised to realize such work can provide the safe space to ask hard questions – and that doing so can bring healing and transformation. Theological study can be a place where we question everything – the goodness of God, His love for us, His promises, how things are supposed to work in the world, feelings of self-confidence or failure.
We can even use such study to process anger at life, people around us and God. Perhaps it’s obvious to many Christians that the psalms show us being honest with God is okay. But studying these ancient hymns in an academic way helped me understand that more deeply.
Rather than striving to please God, I feel a reorientation toward pursuing greater intimacy with Him.
Studies often have a solitary side to them and mine were no exception. But they also taught me that the Christian life – with all its joys and sorrows – is meant to be lived in community, that it is about so much more than just my personal relationship with Jesus. Ultimately my studies gave me new courage to risk vulnerability by being honest with trusted friends.
Although my entire adult life I had tried to be obedient to God, study and reflection also helped me begin to envision a deeper spiritual life. I realized I wanted deeper trust and contentment, but that I would need to approach spiritual living with more discipline to get there. I learned about proven Christian devotional practices and spiritual disciplines, and I began to pursue and prioritize solitude and silence, regular listening to God, reflection and meditation, prayer, worship and rest.
A firmer foundation
Over the course of several years of theological study, God’s grace and love became more real to me. There was not one definitive moment, course, professor, paper, assignment, conversation or book that led to that realization. It was more a cumulative, growing awareness that happened over time, the result of countless engagements and incremental learning.
When I look back now I know there was a time when I didn’t really get it, and now I do, and that I am convinced of God’s love for me in a way I never was before. I’ve also learned God uses imperfect people, like all of us, to accomplish His great and perfect will.
It was the entirety of my eight-year course of part-time studies that formed these convictions in me. And I am thankful. Rather than striving to please God, I feel a reorientation toward pursuing greater intimacy with Him.
It’s ironic. I am less certain today of many of the things I know about God, the Bible and the Christian faith than when I began my studies. But I am far more certain of these things – God really and truly loves me, and He really and truly loves you too. And those are convictions no personal or global tragedy can shake.
Patricia Paddey is a senior writer for Faith Today and part-time communications director at Wycliffe College, an evangelical seminary at the University of Toronto. She received her master of theological studies in May 2020.