How to Keep Your Faith in Seminary
August 2, 2012
Trevor McMaken lives with his wife, Bonnie, and two children in Wheaton, IL, where he is a pastor at Church of the Resurrection. He has an M.Div. from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The beginning of my time in seminary was filled with excitement and discovery as I focused my energy on being equipped for ministry in the church. But as I continued, a subtle danger crept in: that spiritual things would cease being devotional and become merely occupational. What was once invigorating and fresh became the required content of a syllabus and the correct answer on an exam. As seminary students engage Christianity intellectually, it becomes vital that they also engage with God on a spiritual, physical and emotional level.
J.I. Packer explains it like this: “Knowing God is more than knowing about Him … the width of our knowledge about Him is no gauge of our knowledge of Him.” So here are three devotional disciplines to help you grow in knowledge of God. These are not just a few more good things to add to your start-of-the-semester to-do list—they are foundational for your life with Christ and future ministry. The most important thing you can learn in seminary is to be someone who hungers and thirsts for the life-changing presence of God.
During seminary, there is always another book to read, Greek passage to translate and paper to write. I faced the temptation to think of my studies as my time with the Lord. But those studies often lacked “knowledge of God” and were simply “knowledge about God.” Similarly, doing in-depth study for devotions might just feel like more homework. The best devotions are ones you’ll actually do, so do something that breathes life into your soul. Something creative or concrete may help balance your more abstract classwork.
I found direction from a 17th century Carmelite monk named Brother Lawrence. He said, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer.” That might sound impossible, but Brother Lawrence says there’s a way in which we can live in conversation with God no matter what else we’re doing; what Paul calls praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Lawrence suggests starting with short, repetitive prayers as often as we can remember throughout the day to practice God’s presence with us. Try using names of God (“Jesus, Emmanuel”), a fragment of a Psalm (“Be still and know that I am God”), a piece of liturgy (“Oh Lord, have mercy”) or part of a hymn (“Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it”). You can also pray longer forms like the Lord’s Prayer, whole Psalms or Scriptural services from a prayer book, helping you not only read the Bible but pray it.
The Church has used the basic rhythms of the day to remind us to practice God’s presence. Let the first and last moments of the day and meal times remind you to open yourself up to the Lord and live your days with Him.
The pastor’s job description is in some ways very simple: love and serve the Church, Jesus’ bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). So why is seminary often disconnected from the local church? How do you stay connected to the bride you’re supposed to be learning to love and serve?
The discipline of church is not always easy—logistically or emotionally. There will be difficult people, needy people, selfish people, disagreeable people, even mean people. But the discipline of church is to keep going back, to let the church family be the thing that defines you. The amazing thing is that God uses this family, with all of its strange aunts and uncles, to transform His people into the image of Jesus and to make the world a better place.
The discipline of church is about belonging to a family, but it’s also about being a body. You don’t just show up to church—you have a job (1 Corinthians 12). The purpose of seminary is to make you a better body part than you are now. So don’t just read about what the shoulder does—start swinging your arms around in the worship and mission of the church and learn by practice.
Part of being the body of Christ is being that body in the world, the hands and feet of Christ to those around you who don’t know Him and who are in need. I struggled with this in seminary and still struggle as a pastor. Who do you come into contact with regularly who is far from God who you can be praying for and serving? What intentional choices can you make so you can be Jesus to the lost and the least?
Even in seminary, it’s critical to stay connected to a local church and to serve a local community.
While I was a full-time seminary student, I was married and working full-time at a church. Then we had a baby. And then another. I was burning out fast, and my family and ministry were suffering.
There is a time when even the good work of God ceases. Those six days of work point toward this reality: We were made for Sabbath. And how does God describe that day? As a feast. The discipline of Sabbath is the weekly practice of joining God at His table (Deuteronomy 12:7; Revelation 19:9).
But to keep the Sabbath, you have to do something wholly un-American: You have to be unproductive. Resting in the Lord is not simply so you perform better at work or school. You cannot feast for any other reason than the enjoyment of the feast and its host.
But how can Christians, in the face of a broken world, do nothing? Sabbath is a reminder the mission Jesus calls His people to in Matthew 28:19-20 is His mission. Pastor and professor William Willimon writes, “Sabbath keeping is a publicly enacted sign of our trust that God keeps the world, therefore we do not have to.”
Can you really be expected to “waste” a whole day when you have so much to do? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says to rest as if your work is done, not because it is. So answer God’s invitation and don’t work. Use your Sabbath to be with the Lord, family and friends. Do things you love that don’t improve your GPA. And do all these things in God’s presence, the Lord of the Sabbath, who wants to feast with you.
You can appear successful in the Christian life and even as a pastor without this sort of devotional practice—at least for a while. Seminary is merely the first test in ordering your priorities to avoid the too-common pitfall of trying to lead people to God when you no longer know the way to Him yourself. On the other side of seminary, you may graduate with more knowledge, but will you also be more like Jesus because you practiced His presence? Will you be more in love with the Church? Will you be ready to enter God’s work because you learned how to enter into His rest?
Use your time at seminary to build these practices into the rhythms of your being. Not to add another skill to your tool kit, but because you so desperately want to be with God that you will not let anything get in the way, even really good things like seminary.