This is part two of my letters to a fictional seminarian. Part one can be read here.
Are you being formed? Are you growing in holiness and communion with God? If you are in seminary and you cannot answer with a resounding “yes,” something is wrong. Not are you growing in knowledge about holiness, are you yourself becoming more Christ-like?
This shouldn’t have to be a question to ask a seminary student, but it is. Part of the reason is the shift of most seminaries toward an academic graduate school model. This happened way before I ever entered seminary, so it is well entrenched. What this means for you, the seminary student, is you can’t rely on the institution to grow you spiritually.
Sure, they will probably make you attend chapel and you should be going to church on your own, but you are there to train to be a shepherd of souls, not just a knowledgeable sheep. You are supposed to come out at the other end able to lead people closer to Christ. You can only do that if you are closer than they are.
The other potential source of distraction from this goal is you. Seminary can be a stressful time. You are usually not bringing in much money, having to work and go to school, while juggling a family. It can be difficult finding enough hours in the day.
But your soul depends on it.
Life won’t get much easier once you graduate and move on to your first church where you won’t have much money, may be working part-time on the side, full-time at the church (there are no part time churches!) and yes, your family.
It’s that old story about what is important vs. what is urgent. Papers, bills, and diapers are all urgent. Cultivating your soul is important. Prayer, reading for spiritual formation, worship, these are crucial.
I’ll go even further and say that if you can’t sustain a minimum of 1 hour of daily prayer and study (not linked to any project or sermon) you should alter your schedule. Take 4 years instead of 3. Or you should drop out.
I’m not trying to be harsh; I’m trying to protect you from the harsh reality of going into ministry unformed and with bad spiritual formation habits. Where do you think some of these high-profile “falls from grace” we see in the church come from? I’m willing to wager they’re not from shepherds who took the time to cultivate their own soul every day.
Ideally, I think seminary should have a semi-monastic feel to it. Lots of prayer and worship and reading with some discussion and teaching. I’m not talking the typical chapel service where it’s a roulette of sermons from faculty, staff, and alums. Worship that seeks to steep in the traditions of the church.
When you graduate, no one will care what your GPA was. (Seriously, no one has ever asked me in 20 years.) Very few will care what your take was on the manuscript hypothesis in the Pentateuch or you feelings on “Q” as a Gospel source.
What people will care about is that you show up full of the Spirit. That you have pastoral depth that can offer more than just platitudes. People will care that when you preach, you’re just skimming the cream off the top, not scraping the bottom of the barrel. That comes not so much from the academic, but from time on your knees before God. Seeking spiritual counsel. Reading more than is assigned, not less.
The church needs you to be well-formed. Please take the time and effort necessary!