Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Seminary or Cemetery?

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology and
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling at the Charlotte campus

“Seminary or Cemetery? Cultivating Spiritual Vitality in Theological Education.” This was the title of the Integrative Seminar at GCTS-Charlotte this past Saturday. The title reflects the common joke about seminary experience: that it kills the soul. We spent this past Saturday talking about this topic. Dr. Hollinger challenged us in the opening chapel to ask ourselves “have we lost our first love?” speaking from the letter to the church at Ephesus from Revelation 2:1-7. He pointed out that Ephesus was once a thriving city with a vibrant growing Christian community. Now it is an empty ruin. The challenge for us is to journey through seminary and our theological education without becoming an empty ruin. How can we do this?
Dr. Steve Klipowitz started the day with a presentation on the survey he took of GCTS-Charlotte students. He asked our students to rate their spiritual vitality and indicated whether it had increased or decreased during their seminary training. About 50% of the student body responded to the survey. Respondents were 37% MDivs, 28% MACCs and the rest the other MAs. I will not repeat all the results here, but I would like to highlight some of the outcomes that could be worth noticing and taking into consideration.
The average score on spiritual vitality was 6.65 out of 10. However, the responses really were bimodal: there were a group of students who reported their spiritual vitality was “fair” and a group that were “good” or better. There were some key factors that discriminated between these two groups. The three most important were: active involvement in a vital church, maintaining regular devotional life, and participating in a small group. Students reported factors contributing to the decline in their spiritual life such as tyranny of the urgent (over-committed, too busy, stressed), lack of devotional time, and just the vagaries of life. Those who reported the poorest spiritual vitality tended to be those working more than 40 hours a week as well is going to school, being in seminary more than four years, and being in full-time ministry.
I would just make a couple of comments: while the seminary is very concerned about the spiritual life of students and tries to be actively engaged in encouraging spiritual vitality, the three biggest factors were factors that are for the most part outside the control of seminary: Church, devotional time, and small groups. Again, some of the biggest threats to spiritual vitality are in the students’ control; e.g., working more than 40 hours a week while going to seminary.
At student orientation this year, I encouraged the new students to consider their priorities and make adjustments in their time commitments to accommodate the demands of seminary. When I came to GCTS for the D.Min. program, I sat down and counted the cost. I realized that I needed to add about 20 hours to my weekly schedule for work related to the program. I then chose to drop teaching Sunday school, leading a small group, serving on the board of a nonprofit, and serving as faculty adviser for a Christian sorority at UNC Chapel Hill. All of these things were good things, but they were not the things to which God was calling to me at this season of my life. I encouraged the students to think about this, and decide whether good things might be interfering with God things.
I will leave you with a couple of other gems from the day. Dr. Alan Myatt talked to the students about spiritual friendships, and the important role they can play in maintaining spiritual vitality. He recommended the book Sacred Companions: the Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction by David G. Benner. I encourage you to check it out. Finally, I will leave you with some of the questions that were addressed to the students at our integrative seminar:
  • In what ways are you encouraged by your spiritual condition?
  • In what ways are you challenged or discouraged?
  • What steps can you take to support and encourage future spiritual growth in your life?
  • In what ways do you think the seminary could better support spiritual formation in the lives of students?
  • How could students better help each other maintain a fervent life with God?

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