Spiritual Formation at Seminary
Stephen A. Macchia
Director of the Pierce Center for Disciple-Building
As a seminary student in the late 70s/early 80s, I had to fend for myself spiritually when I arrived on campus. As a relative novice to the spiritual life, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Yes, I had amazing professors who were role models up in front of the lecture hall, particularly Dr. Fee who worshiped and wept as he taught the Life of Jesus, Dr. Roberts who fed us with the richness of church history, Dr. Wilson who prayerfully opened our eyes to worldwide missions, and Dr. Peace who gently facilitated soul care when it wasn’t yet a popular topic (just to name a few). In addition, I was spellbound by the biblical preaching of our founding president, Dr. Ockenga.
But, as a commuter student, my time on campus was limited to the must-dos of academics rather than taking advantage of any of the might-dos of spiritual formation. I was fortunate to have a handful of seminary friends: Paul, my brainiac buddy who kept me sharp academically; and Dave, my dear friend who encouraged me personally and with his wife, Joyce, befriended Ruth and me as newlyweds. There were a few additional students like Barry and Richard who were from other parts of the country and who stretched my view of the church outside of the context of New England. However, if it weren’t for the local church pastoral team I was serving at the time, there wasn’t much else at seminary keeping me spiritually sharp.
Today, that’s all changed at Gordon-Conwell, as well as many other seminaries. Focusing on my own experiences, there is so much more afforded the students of this generation, particularly our chapel/worship services, multiple special events, student life services, mentoring groups with professors, soul care groups, early morning prayer, and especially The Pierce Center for Disciple-Building (which I direct).
In the services we provide through the Pierce Center, we stress two big ideas: don’t do seminary alone—instead, walk alongside one another in community. AND, don’t assume your soul will be cared for exclusively in and through your academic pursuits—instead, be sure to prioritize time to come close, draw near and follow earnestly after Jesus the shepherd, teacher and lover of your soul.
Holding up the three-legged stool of seminary life are:
- Mentored ministry (internship/apprenticeships)
- Spiritual formation
What we learn about the Scriptures, theology, history, and practical ministry can only survive long-term if the soul is continually nourished. Soul care is nurtured by the community, and the health and vitality of the community is built on the foundation of soul care. As Gordon-Conwell President Hollinger likes to say, a balanced seminary experience includes head, hands AND heart.
It’s vital to be growing in our comprehension and communication of the gospel to the whole world, but without a vibrant heart for Christ, our message is lost, confused or obliterated by other worldly pursuits. If our affections for Christ are shunned in lieu of competing ideals or ideologies, we lose our orientation and eventually our soul. This is where spiritual formation comes to the forefront.
In seminary, it’s essential that we covet our times alone in prayerful and biblical reflection with the lover of our souls. Finding quiet, spacious encounters to meet with the Lord are challenging to prioritize. But, when they are a part of the rhythm of seminary life, they will most likely be maintained in ministry life. Meeting with God for no other reason but to reorder your loves and renew your commitment to trust Him no matter the season or circumstance of life is what makes these times even more meaningful. Solidifying one’s faithfulness to the spiritual disciplines, or means of grace, will forge an ever deepening partnership with God as the source and strength of your life and ministry.
In seminary, it’s also critical that one grows in Christ-likeness in the context of community. When we make space for one another’s friendship and share life in all its fullness together, we develop spiritual community that will last a lifetime. Through soul care groups, soul sabbaths, prayer groups and retreats, our spiritual friendships are developed. When we make lifelong friendships at seminary, we have support for the endurance test of ministry life in the future. Without such friendships, we face the potential of moral or spiritual collapse after a handful of the disappointments and unmet expectations that undoubtedly will occur.
Creating space for God and spiritual community are the two most important ingredients of spiritual formation at seminary. Other opportunities like short term missions trips, chapel and prayer meetings, mentoring relationships, special programs, etc. all come to fuller life and vibrancy when we care for our souls and come alongside others in common pursuit. This is true for seminarians as well as all who serve in ministry: care for your soul and do life in community!
Stephen Macchia, M.Div. ’83, D.Min. ’01 is Founder and President of Leadership Transformations and serves as Director of Pierce Center for Disciple-Building at Gordon-Conwell. He’s the author of several books, including Becoming A Healthy Church (Baker Books) and Crafting A Rule of Life (IVP/Formatio).