Lessons I Learned While Studying Abroad

Posted On October 26, 2022

Written by Dr. John Tweeddale, vice president of academics and professor of theology

Fireworks filled the skies. Our first night on Scottish soil happened to coincide with the finale of the famed Edinburgh International Festival. The Princes Street Gardens were teeming with people who had gathered from what seemed to be all parts of the globe to enjoy a live performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which exquisitely accompanied the cascade of pyrotechnics shot from the ramparts of Edinburgh’s eleventh-century castle. My wife and I were filled with a mixture of wonder and gratitude, anxiety and anticipation. This ancient city was now our home.

Scotland was good for our souls and our marriage. Angela and I met in seminary. We had been married for nearly two years when we arrived in Edinburgh. We lived in a charming wee flat in the heart of Old Town while I attended the University of Edinburgh and Angela worked in the Royal Infirmary. We were in Edinburgh to study, learn, serve, dream, and prepare for life and ministry. Along the way, we realized that what we gained was far more than an education. Our experiences while studying and working abroad have continued to shape our lives. Here are a few lessons learned:

  1. Guard your heart and your home. A friend who had previously studied under my doctoral supervisor gave me this advice. It remains some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. Don’t sacrifice your relationship with Christ and your family on the altar of academic or ministerial success. They are far more important than your vocational aspirations.

  2. Prioritize the local church. One of the benefits of studying in Edinburgh is that it is also the denominational home of the Free Church of Scotland, a gospel-preaching, psalm-singing kirk with a rich and complex heritage that claims Reformed luminaries such as Chalmers, Cunningham, Bonar, and Fairbairn. In particular, we discovered a warm home in a city-center Free Church congregation known affectionately as Buccleuch. Here we found a people to call family and a place where we could worship and grow. Our time in the Free Church left an indelible mark on us. If you are thinking about studying or working abroad, make sure there is a Bible-believing and preaching church wherever you plan to live.

  3. Build on your education. I studied theology in college and seminary. Without this foundation, I would not have been prepared for doctoral studies. Ph.D. work is designed to develop research skills within a specialized field. Get as much biblical and theological training as possible before commencing post-graduate studies in a theological discipline. Take every opportunity in your undergraduate and seminary education to develop your writing skills. You will also need to identify a potential research topic. Solicit feedback and counsel from mentors. Then, if you want to study abroad, apply to the college, seminary, or university with the best supervisor and resources for your project. But even with all this training, develop habits of learning beyond your formal education. During my doctoral work, I often took evenings and Sunday afternoons to read outside my field of study. I continue this practice today.

  4. Finish what you start. If possible, don’t return home until you finish writing your doctoral thesis. For several reasons, I did return home first. As a result, it took me much longer to finish than I anticipated. Large portions of my thesis were hammered out on the anvil of full-time ministry. These experiences undoubtedly improved the final product. But a mixture of missed deadlines, hard providences, and ineffective planning taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of following through with my commitments.

  5. Don’t go into debt for theological education. By God’s grace, I got through all my education with no debt. It can be done. Both my wife and I worked multiple jobs, and our families made sacrifices. Several churches gave financial and prayer support. Academic institutions provided scholarships. We saved. We budgeted. We planned. We prayed and prayed and prayed. And we learned that our security doesn’t rest in our bank account. At every juncture, God provided in ways that reminded us that He is sufficient to satisfy our needs.

Studying theology is a humbling endeavor. I learned far more about myself than I did about my Ph.D. topic. I hope these lessons will encourage you, whether you settle in one place or venture further afield.

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