One of the most common questions I get about seminary from church members is, “Did you find that seminary made it more difficult to maintain your Christian walk?”
Let me be honest–this is a fair question.
Seminary is a graduate program that requires the utmost discipline and focus on the area of our spiritual lives that is supposed to be organic and spirit-led. After all, how can one approach the Bible as divine revelation on Saturday when one has approached the Bible in a critical manner Monday through Sunday?
Let me put it another way. How can you read the Gospels as revelation once you come to see some of the compelling arguments of Biblical criticism?
This concern is, perhaps, one of the more persuasive arguments AGAINST theological education and there are scores of seminaries that do more harm than good in this area. In fact, anecdotal sources will reveal scores of personal UN-testimonies of men and women who entered seminary with the goal of becoming the best ministry staff on the planet and then walked away from their faith after a semester or two of seminary classes.
Other UN-testimonies include future pastors who turned into second-rate professors, not because of the level of scholarship, but because of the spiritual damage inflicted on them in seminary. These professors teach out of a jaded desire to curb students away from believing in Jesus and to “save” them from the false lies of Christianity.
And other UN-testimonies include future pastors who entered the fields of social work or counseling, not out of a holy desire and Godward vision to provide social balm for the poor, under-resourced, and spiritually knotted folks in society, but because they lost all hope in the idea of vertical salvation and decided to put all their eggs in the basket of merely horizontal salvation.
And yet, I think there is a way to grow in one’s knowledge of Biblical criticism and historical theology–all whilst maintaining a full and rich personal relationship with Christ. What follows is my 5-point approach to maintaining a full and rich personal relationship with Christ whilst in seminary.
DOUG’S 5-POINT APPROACH TO MAINTAINING A FULL AND RICH PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST WHILST IN SEMINARY
1) Plug into a local church (and serve). The mistake that many seminarians make is that they wrongly assume that seminary participation is enough. Seminary professors admit that seminary is not supposed to supplant the local church experience. They are not even in the same category.
To be honest, I think seminaries do a disservice to seminary students by having a weekly or bi-weekly chapel service and (now) the addition of mandatory small groups. From a perception standpoint, seminarians can be confused by the logic of (1) Go find a local church where you can have a worship experience and small groups, and (2) You are required to attend a chapel worship service and small groups.
Not only should seminarians plug into a local church, they should also serve. And don’t wait. Find a church in the first month, jump in quickly. Serve as much as you can. You never know, you just might serve your way onto staff.
Serving in the local church whilst in seminary helps you to get a practical referent for all the theory that you discuss in the classroom. And, it might just help you to better wade through what is bunk in the classroom and what really works (And that is a priceless lesson in ministry preparation).
2) Keep up your devotional times. Having spiritual disciplines is fine. But the standard for the Christian life, in my opinion, is to put those spiritual disciplines into a regular practice that has some accountability attached to it. Some have called this practice “having a quiet time.” Others call it “having a devotional life.” These terms are irrelevant. What is important is the discipline itself. Bottom line questions: Are you having a regular time of Bible reading, prayer, meditation for the purpose of growing in your relationship with God? And, is someone close to you asking you about this time on a regular basis for the purpose of accountability?
Keep in mind that the purpose of this discipline is to hear from the Lord on a consistent basis. If you can hear from God (in whatever form that takes) on a regular basis, it follows that you will be better positioned to follow God in the directions in which He is moving.
3) Consume the Bible however you can. Many seminarians stop reading the Bible during a regular devotional time, not because they suddenly hate the Bible, but because they are tired of reading. You read 1000 pages a week. Your eyes get tired. You are on the internet doing research. Your eyes get tired. You are highlighting and writing constantly. Your eyes are tired.
But that does not stop you from consuming the word. There are other ways of interacting with God’s word.
I often tell seminary and grad students to make a regular habit of listening to the Bible during their devotional times. For example, I recommend purchasing a spoken Bible CD or MP3. I personally recommend Johnny Cash reading the New Testament. Here is a video snippet from Johnny:
Listening to the Bible lets me consume the word without placing more strain on my tired eyes. And furthermore, it allows me to stay God-centered in my personal devotional life.
4) Get some mentoring from a mature believer. Wait a minute, I am in seminary. I have a whole staff of professors who are teaching me. Isn’t that enough?
Seminary professors have a particular focus. Professors teach content and facilitate educational experiences. They are not required (most of them) to pour into the spiritual life of a younger Christian. Now, some are able to do so. But, the numbers are stacked against the seminarians. The best schools have a 12:1 student/faculty ratio. But very few seminaries in the USA have that kind of ratio. AND 12:1 is not as good as 1:1, the ideal ratio for a true mentoring relationship.
So, I recommend that seminarians plug into a local church, begin to serve, and then find a pastor or deacon or elder and ask them to consider mentoring them over the course of seminary. For my preferences, I think a format of monthly lunches is a great way to foster a mentoring relationship. Over lunches, it would be great to have an open and ongoing discussion about issues in the Christian life. I have several older men in my life who I regularly meet with. Mostly, I just ask them about questions I have regarding the Christian life and I get their take on the subject. Occasionally, they will ask me for my take on these same issues–just to see how I am processing.
The bottom line of mentoring is that you want to have a “go-to” mature believer who you can ask questions of and who can give you their take.
5) Press your professors on the practical take aways. Part of the detachment between Biblical criticism and the Christian life is the lack of commentary that teachers provide on how the subject aids your Christian walk. My recommended solution to this problem is to simply ask the professors to answer the question. I would go so far as framing the conversation in these terms:
“Professor, I would like to know the spiritual benefit of learning this material. If you cannot explain to me, from your personal life, the benefit of said material then I will only commit to learning it for the exam. If, however, you can tell me how this particular method helps you in following Jesus, then I will not only learn it for the test, but I will apply it to the way in which I follow Jesus and lead others to do so.”
Some professors may balk at such a notion. In my opinion–those professors are lame and should not be professing in such a setting as seminary. Across the board–all of my favorite professors were not only able to articulate the “why” of the particular material, but they were able to spur me on to go deeper with the material and want to be a better theologian as a result. And as a result of the interaction, I loved Jesus so much more than I did prior to learning that material.
To be fair, some professors will need more time to process than others (Particularly new professors). So don’t be a demanding jerk. But if you sense that your professor is giving you the “Bless your heart” treatment, then I think it fair to only learn the material for the purpose of making an “A” on the test. If, however, you find the whole of the faculty to be unable to answer this simple question, then it may be time to find a new seminary. You can email me here and I would love to steer you towards some God-centered options.