The Spiritual Discipline of Seminary

Grace Johnson

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I used to think seminaries were places where self-righteous people went to add fuel to their already blazing fire of intellectual pride and know-it-allness. But be careful what you don’t wish for! A few years after college, I found myself applying to a very strange little seminary called The Master’s Institute (MI). Now I was okay with this, mostly because I felt I had no choice. God was clearly calling me to MI. But I was also okay with it because MI was different. It was weird, small, and met in a church basement. It was (and is) led by some of the most humble, likeable people I could’ve ever met. And it had (and still has) one of the most respectable and legitimate spiritual formation tracks I had ever heard of a seminary having. They didn’t just teach a class on Spiritual Formation, they gave you the experience of it. Sure MI has some reputable professors and a rigorous academic schedule, but I was there for the spiritual formation. I wanted to end up like Mike Bradley. Or Kendra Diehl. Or Sharon Franta. Or Paul Anderson.

You get the idea. I was going to MI because I felt “called,” but I was okay with it because it was to me like a glorified discipleship program that I desperately wanted for my personal growth. I could take or leave the academics. As a bonus, the instructors seemed to genuinely love Jesus and want to be more like him. But I wasn’t one of those self-righteous, Christian academic-types who was gonna theologize all day about Jesus vs. Paul. Oddly enough, I have always been an academic-type who would someday pursue an advanced degree. But not in theology. Somewhere along the way I felt it was wrong to focus too much on information-gathering and not on forming your heart. I felt the two were in opposition, with academics being the antagonist in the screenplay for How to be More Like Jesus. Of course, the protagonist was Spiritual Formation through life-on-life mentorship, small groups, inner-healing prayer, therapy, and the like. The Master’s Institute fit the bill for me because sure, it threw in the academic side of things, but everyone knows MI thrives in its development of the heart.

What I discovered was, in short, that I was terribly wrong. The academic side of my seminary training became the magnifying glass to the self-centeredness, fear, anxiety, lust, laziness, embarrassment, and shame I had felt about myself, God, others, the church, the Bible, American culture, and my entire belief system. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then, but my time spent reading and writing assignments, discussing and hearing lectures on Missional Ecclesiology, Biblical interpretation, Church History, Church Management, Theology of the Cross, the Sacraments, Evangelical Theology, and other would-be boring topics for me, became the place where Jesus softened and molded my heart in ways inner-healing prayer never could. The theological mind-training I received at MI truly developed my heart as much or more than the Spiritual Formation and Leadership Training did. I now know that some of the most heart-forming moments of life are wrought out of the hard moments when our minds, our ways of thinking, are challenged. Seminary just proliferates that fact.

The call to renew your mind is a biblical one, and the apostle who wrote that Spirit-inspired suggestion (Romans 12:1-2) was no academic slouch. Paul was not suggesting we read Scripture and practice interpretation for the sake of patting ourselves on the back. As Jesus berated the Pharisees, it is certainly true that we can search the Scriptures diligently and miss out on Christ himself (John 5:39). But my time in seminary taught me that every avenue of life will be used by the Spirit to form you more into the person of Jesus, if you will only participate. I am a pastor’s kid, and I had the advantage of talking to an M.Div and humble pastor about any and every theological question that my young mind came across. My dad was always full of joy, peace, and humility as he made room for any question and listened, validated, and challenged me. But even with that advantage, I was shocked to find that I had to go to seminary to learn about the centuries of conversations that were still happening surrounding how to read the Bible, authorship, church traditions, missiology, and perspectives on how to define the Gospel and even God. I was thoroughly surprised to find out that I did not have a clue that these conversations were being had all over the world, and that there is a vast spectrum of theological views within the Christian world that I knew very little, if anything, about. But mostly the mind-blowing moments came when I realized that these conversations were okay and even fruitful for soul-development.

I often thought to myself in class, “I really don’t care about this.” But then out there in my internship, I saw how useful it was to deepen my understanding of another person’s worldview, and to have a Christ-like conversation about it. I had a complete misunderstanding of what it meant to be a Calvinist, but after Dr. Paul Eddy’s class on Evangelical Issues, I feel an empathy for the blood, sweat, and tears that go into lifetimes of wrestling with God on what His sovereignty means. Because of an academic class (God forbid!), I actually deepend my ability to be compassionate, loving, and empathetic to those I disagree with. Course by course, the Holy Spirit chipped away at my heart to show that my own theological worldview had been limiting the way I interacted and thought. And my heart was hurting as a result.

I am now on staff at MI, and I recently came across an old evaluation from a professor from a class I had taken as a student. His comment next to my grade was, “I sense the Lord may be working on humility in this gifted young leader.” Insert blushing emoji here. I did smile as I read that, and though it was a little embarrassing, I truly feel God let me find that comment to smile with me. He knew what my heart needed back then. It needed my mind to be taken down a notch or two and at the same time, expanded and broadened to a point of marvel at humanity and its ability to think and experience. He knew that what would make me even more like Jesus was not only spiritual formation through mentorship, small groups, inner healing, therapy, and the like, but through books, challenging assignments, humble instructors I completely disagreed with but still wanted to emulate, and the prodding of my brain until it was raw and exposed for what it was. I was a slow learner, but eventually I began to embrace those under-acknowledged forms of spiritual formation-the painstaking means by which Jesus takes us and makes us more like him through mind, body, and spirit.

In retrospect, I realize I have always been a know-it-all, intellectual, seminary-type. And it took opening myself up to the great conversations for God to humble my heart. Seminary for me had nothing to do with a job it could get me, or academic prowess, or the like. In fact, I feared that I would become what I already was-a know-it-all! Now I see that God used my own brain against me, and I will never, ever, trade my experience. Will my seminary training get me a job? Maybe. Will it help me write a sermon? Sure. Will it make me look smarter amongst other smarty-pants? Occasionally. But did it make me more like Jesus? In my case, yes, at least a little. And that my friends, is why we Christ-followers do anything: so we can be more like our friend Jesus.

I’m afraid we’ve lost the urge to do something just because it’s good for us, not because it gets us something else. Listen to the Spirit. He may be leading you into something like seminary, and if He does, it may have nothing to do with a job or more schooling or the prowess it can attain you. It may even have nothing to do with spiritual formation the way you see it. It may be that seminary, for you, is not a means to an end. It is a means to grace right now. And if you can open your mind to it, your heart will never be the same.