Seminary is no game. Nor is it simply a duty you must trudge through because your bishop/priest/pastor told you that it’s required for you to become an ordained person. Seminary isn’t a flaming hoop you jump through to win the roars of an impressed crowd.
Seminary is basic training. It should be undertaken only by those who are willing to give their lives for the world. The ministry that you are preparing for is not simply a job, a career, a profession, or a salary that you must secure. In fact, it’s not about you at all. Ministry is about others – others that you have been called to defend, support, nourish, encourage, teach, and bless. The word seminary means “seedbed,” and that seedbed is a garden from which warriors are born. Not big, burly, cig-smoking, beer-guzzling, machine gun-wielding tough guy warriors, but warriors who will deny themselves, give their own lives for others, and fearlessly lead others by following the Warrior King who rides a white stallion and will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Something to think about: Seminary is an invitation to exercise a disciplined life. It provides not only an opportunity to work at sharpening your mind – your critical thinking skills, your writing abilities, your knowledge of Scripture and theology — but also the opportunity to Practice the Presence of the God you are called to serve. God. The One who oversees your life, energizes your ministry, works through your leadership for His own glory, and who guards you with His eternal love. Are you drawing close to this God on a daily basis to be refreshed, reoriented, reshaped, reformed, and renewed? A friend of mine admitted that since coming to seminary, to his own chagrin, his prayer life had significantly dwindled. Unfortunate, but it doesn’t surprise me. In seminary, there is never a dull moment. You are busy. I mean, you are swamped. Hundreds of pages of church history every week, exegesis papers, books responses, library research, Hebrew homework, and class presentations. The list goes on. Seminary is a crucible for sacred ministers. For this reason one must be all the more intentional about personal prayer time. Perhaps you can complete the crucible without training in the life of prayer, but remember — on the real battlefield, you will be an easy target for the enemy without that training.
Warning: Allowing yourself to get through the day without set-apart time for Jesus will become easier and easier because you will start to believe the lie that you can carry on without it, that a brief nod to God here and there will be enough, that showing up for the Sunday liturgy will suffice. I can only guess that this is one of the reasons why many missionary ministers turn into maintenance managers. Less time with God = Less dependence on God. You can probably manage a parish on your own, but you can’t be energized for God’s mission in the world without taking the time to listen to his voice, to receive his direction. I’m not even ordained, and I’ve seen how this works in my own life as a layperson involved in ministry. When my prayer life lacks, my ministry struggles.
Here’s how it works: The way you handle your time (as you know) significantly affects your prayer life and your study. If you try to slide through seminary doing all of your work at the last minute because you just had to keep up on Downton Abbey or Walking Dead episodes all semester, chances are your prayer life has been suffering too. Because the manner in which you approach your studies says a lot about how you prioritize things in general. And this, no doubt, pertains to your personal spiritual life. In our Entertainment Extravaganza world, prayer all too often ends up taking a backseat to the latest popular TV series, concert, fantasy book series, you name it. (Ironically, in seminary prayer often takes a backseat to theological studies. What a tragedy!)
A friend of mine was telling me about a spiritual retreat she attended led by Richard Rohr. Fr. Rohr told the group that shortly before Henri Nouwen died, Nouwen pleaded with him to spend his days teaching contemplative prayer. Nouwen was intensely concerned about our culture’s inability to be still with God. I think his concern and his entreaty to Richard Rohr was prophetic.
Notice: What I am not saying is that TV itself is the devil, or that one should never read fantasy series. (In fact, an episode of Seinfeld or a chapter of Harry Potter might do you a lot of good if you are freakishly obsessed with every jot and tittle of homework. Take a breather!) What I am saying is that how you prioritize directly impacts your spiritual life, and if you don’t learn to make Jesus first and foremost at seminary, what on God’s green earth makes you think you will suddenly be able to when you are in “real” ministry? Don’t kid yourself.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, speaking of the necessity of cultivating one’s personal relationship with God, said, “One of the reasons why communal worship or private prayer seem to be so dead or so conventional is that the act of worship, which takes place in the heart communing with God, is too often missing.” (1)
In moral and ascetical theology, we talk about habitus – that is, what you do habitually will ultimately affect your character and your disposition. Your habits dig deep roots in your life, and the fruit you produce will depend on whichever habits you are given over to. All that to say, the things you choose to do, the choices you make about say, studying for a research paper on Augustine’s anthropology, or instead watching the latest episode of American Idol, are, at a deeper level than you realize, forming how you will approach things for the rest of your life. You may shrug off an assignment as “no big deal,” and because you simply “don’t feel like it,” but consider how that habit is shaping you. What’s going to happen when a hospitalized or an emotionally distraught parishioner needs your support, your prayer? Because of the habits you’ve formed, you may become an escapist. You may find it easy to justify just making a quick phone call, because 87 year old Gladys’ pneumonia is “no big deal,” when in reality Gladys is longing for someone like you to come be the presence of Jesus to her. Perhaps you think I am being dramatic, but I have heard with my own ears a minister refer to people as “nuisances” and “psychos” just because they were interrupting some “church work” with their personal needs. I cannot imagine that a person who takes time to be quiet in the loving presence of our Lord each day could ever refer to a needy person as a psycho.
And that’s what I mean about seminary being so important. This time is precious. It is a time when those of us training for ministry in Christ’s Church need to make decisions about how we will handle our responsibilities, to develop healthy habits that will shape us for the future. It is a time when we must learn to make time for the Lord, to hear from him, to be guided by him. We are being trained for battle – not a flesh and blood battle, but a battle against the principalities and powers that energize our fast-paced, consumer-driven, egomaniacal world. How crucial for those entering a counter-cultural role of self-denying servanthood to spend daily time with the One who gave his very life for the world! Ministry is serious stuff, a responsibility no smaller than keeping watch over souls as “those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17).
Of course, we all fall short of the glory of God. None of us will be perfect leaders. We will make mistakes. We will probably make mistakes that hurt people. And we rely on God’s grace to carry us through our own weaknesses and sins. But the question for us right now, as we attend seminary, is, What will we make of this opportunity to be formed as warriors who are called to advance the Kingdom of Heaven?
Please consider that, but in the mean time, turn off Letterman and get back to that exegesis paper that’s due tomorrow morning.
(1) Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer. (Springfield: Templegate), vii.
– C. MacMillan ’16