You’ve heard the stories before. A spiritually earnest young man leaves the friendly confines of his home church and moves off to attend seminary. In that context, he is confronted by all kinds of theological issues he’d not previously considered. Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist? Complementarian or egalitarian? Covenant theology, dispensationalism, or new covenant theology? Congregational polity, presbyterian government, or bishops? These discussions sometimes leave him doctrinally discombobulated, though gradually he starts putting the pieces together according to his understanding of the Bible.
Ah, the Bible. Our seminarian studies the Bible in nearly every class, which at first he finds invigorating. Over time, however, he struggles to read the Bible devotionally. He thinks about exegesis and theological synthesis more than he does personal application for life and ministry. His prayer life is sometimes stagnant, though he is perhaps more careful now to make sure his prayers are theologically sound. He has developed some pretty strong opinions about how to “do” church based upon his newfound theological knowledge. Unfortunately, he skips his own local church’s small group more often than he cares to admit; after all, those term papers aren’t going to write themselves.
Is this seminarian spiritually prepared to serve as a pastor in a local church?
Enter the Professor
Some of us may hear a bit of our own testimony in this young man’s seminary experience. Even those of us who were blessed to come out of seminary with a stronger spiritual walk than when we entered likely know many fellow students with different stories. Fortunately, some excellent books are intended specifically to help students mature spiritually as they navigate seminary (see here and here). But what about those of us who are professors? What responsibility do we have for the spiritual formation of our students?
In many seminarians, including my own, the school wants to be as closely tethered to local churches as possible. This is a good priority. However, this noble goal sometimes provides cover for professors to “punt” when it comes to forming students spiritually. “That’s the church’s job,” we frequently say. “The church is the primary community in which our spiritual walk is nurtured.” Agreed—but there is a difference between primary and only.
I believe seminary professors should play an important role in helping our students to thrive spiritually while they are in seminary and beyond. Of course, we try to do so by teaching sound doctrine, wise methods, and being godly role models. Yet too many of our students are floundering spiritually, especially in larger seminaries where it’s easier to fall between the cracks. I would suggest that seminary professors should see themselves as not just teachers, scholars, and (in many cases) pastors, but also as spiritual directors to their students.
What Is a Spiritual Director?
You may have never heard of a spiritual director—the language is more common among Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants than among evangelicals. However, since the 1970s, as evangelicals have become more interested in spiritual formation, many have also become interested in spiritual direction. According to the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association,
A Christian spiritual director is a trained listener who will accompany you as you share about your spiritual journey, helping you to notice God’s presence and activity along the way, as well as your personal reactions and responses. Hospitable, confidential, and grounded in biblical truth, spiritual direction is a ministry that helps you grow in prayer and live into your calling as a follower of Christ.
Spiritual directors are part counselor, part mentor, part teacher, part role model, and part spiritual sounding board. Doesn’t this sound similar to the job description of the seminary professor?
Some of you are probably thinking, Maybe. But it also sounds like the job description of a good pastor or biblical counselor. I couldn’t agree more. But I contend that seminary professors, who are often also current or former pastors, can and should provide this sort of ministry to their students. In fact, by thinking of ourselves as a certain type of spiritual director to our students, we can complement whatever spiritual formation they hopefully receive within their local churches.
Seminary Professors and Spiritual Direction
I’m not calling for seminary professors to receive formal training as spiritual directors, though some may choose this route. I also understand that some professors may object to the formal spiritual direction profession for any number of reasons. I respect that decision. But hopefully we can agree that more professors ought to embrace practices that look similar to what is sometimes called “spiritual direction” as we labor to form our students into mature Christ-followers who are capable of providing spiritual leadership to God’s people.
In the classroom, we need to be intentional in applying our respective disciplines, not only to vocational ministry, but also to personal godliness. We must regularly and explicitly encourage our students to follow Christ, mortify sin, cultivate godly virtues, and practice disciplines that aid them in their spiritual journeys. We need to recognize that we are not just professors to them, but we are also spiritual role models who should be encouraging students to follow us as we follow Christ (1 Cor. 1:11). I have no doubt I am describing the present classroom practices of many professors.
When it comes to spiritual direction, however, the rubber meets the road in personal relationships. If we are to be spiritual directors, we need to be available to our students. Office hours can’t just be about academic advisement or answering questions about the term paper—these also must be times when we invite our students to meet with us for spiritual counsel, encouragement, and prayer. We need to listen to their stories, challenge them in their sins, rejoice with them in their victories, and always point them back to the gospel that fuels their spiritual journeys from beginning to end. We ought to invite students to accompany us when we travel to preach or teach in local churches or similar venues. Though it will be a significant investment of our time, we need to intentionally disciple as many of our students as we are able.
My fellow professors, we need to embrace the ministry of spiritual direction as it applies to our context. We need to creatively and, at times, sacrificially share ourselves with our students so that we can help them to thrive spiritually throughout seminary and beyond. In doing so, by God’s grace our ministries of spiritual direction will likely shape many of our students far more than what we teach them in our classrooms.