Seminary is a journey unlike any other. There are dangers to be avoided and sweet moments to be cherished and celebrated (like actually finishing your reading load for the semester). It is a time filled with excitement, frustration, disappointment, and times of profound spiritual growth. However, seminarians cannot accomplish this task alone. They need the local church to come alongside them in this journey. After all, in Christ we are all one big family. While many Christians may want to come alongside seminarians during their years of study, they may often not know how or what to do. So, how can churches help seminarians mature as disciples and have a healthy experience—emotionally, physically, relationally, and spiritually?
1. Pray Seminarians Would Keep Our Eyes on Jesus
As a seminarian, I can tell you that it can be daunting. It can be overwhelming when “syllabus shock” sets in and you see all the assignments that you are required to complete. In fact, seminary can be dangerous, leaving many not with the white hot flame of godly affections for Christ, but a cold, dry orthodoxy that can’t sustain them during the many trials of life and ministry. This is not to say seminary is bad. Certainly not. Over the past semester, I have thanked God for the rich friendships that I have developed with other guys on campus and for the times in which my heart was stirred for Christ during a class lecture. In fact, there’s a group of guys I eat lunch with on a regular basis during the semester and inevitably, we bring up something said in one of the lectures and wrestle with it together.
These are good things I celebrate daily. However, that isn’t always the norm for students, especially as the semester goes along. Fatigue sets in, and so can discouragement. As seminarians, we need prayer. Just like any other Christian, we are at war daily, fighting for joy in Christ and mortifying indwelling sin that so easily can entangle us (Heb. 12:1). We need stamina and endurance that only God can provide to help us maintain a healthy perspective towards our studies, namely, that their aim is doxological, not merely to achieve some academic profundity. But most importantly, we need prayer that our eyes would remain on Jesus. As David Mathis in How to Stay Christian in Seminary writes,
“An essential mark of a solid seminary experience is continually being stunned by how everything relates to Jesus. When you look long enough, press hard enough, and feel deeply enough, you discover again and again that it all comes back to him. The whole universe is about Jesus. The whole Bible is about Jesus. Our whole lives are designed to be about Jesus. And any seminary experience worth a dime should be all about Jesus as well.”
It can be easy for us to take our eyes off Jesus and put them on our grades or our performance, instead of the glorious reality of what God has done for us in Christ. Additionally, recognize that seminary isn’t the only thing going on in our lives. We are still human beings. We struggle and worry about school and about the ordinary things of life. So as you pray, intercede for us not just in regards to our studies, but also in how we form relationships, how we embody our faith as employees, how we uphold honesty and integrity in all we do, and, for some, how we can best take care of our families who take part in seminary life as well.
2. Encourage Seminarians With Godly Wisdom
Seminary students need more than just, “Hey, keep up the good work.” Show them how their union with Christ changes their lives and how our justification is based on Christ’s merit, not how well they can exegete that pesky Greek participle. Your affirmation needs to have some depth to be an encouragement for the stress they may be under or the discouragement they can’t seem to shake.
For example, you don’t need to understand exactly what seminarians are going through because, unless you have gone through a seminary program yourself, you may not. We all have different experiences in our life, school, and work. But you can still encourage them by pointing them to the God of all comfort who has given them “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3) in Christ. You can remind them of the certainty of God’s fulfilling his promises to them and that, being a good Father, he will never leave them or forsake them (Heb. 13:5; see also Deut. 31:6; Ps. 94:14). Even still, encourage them to not neglect the local church. Seminarians can’t mature apart from the community of faith, which is just as true for the rest of the church body as well.
Help promote rest and a healthy view of their body by not demanding an excessive amount of their time. Help them recognize that rest is in fact a godly thing, that because Jesus is our Sabbath Rest, we can rest (and must rest) from our busy schedules and take a deep breath under “It is finished,” while being confident that God will still accomplishes his purposes for those eight hours we’re asleep. Let them know that their saying “No” to certain things doesn’t diminish your view of them as your sibling in Christ and that it doesn’t make God love them less either. Help them to see that saying “No” is crucial in surviving ministry and preventing burnout.
3. Come Alongside and Support Seminarians
Seminarian do want to use their gifts in the church, but that doesn’t mean they always have the time to fulfill every empty teaching role. For some, they simply do not have the time to faithfully prepare a sermon or small group lesson on top of their class work every week. Keep in mind that some seminarians struggle to faithfully serve the church and also use the little free time they have productively. The church must find other ways to come alongside seminarians and support them.
It can be devastating to sense that our local church has all but abandoned us and seemingly shows no care or concern for us, as if the local church finds our time at seminary irrelevant. While I’m sure no local church desires to come off this way (and while it is also the seminarian’s responsibility to find a local church to belong, serve, and be known in), sometimes a certain posture towards us may communicate that. One way a local church can support seminarians is through meeting tangible needs. For example, sometimes the busyness of a student’s schedule prevents him or her from being able to stop what they are doing and fix a home-cooked meal. Instead of leaving it up to the seminarian to pick up fast food, have a Sunday School class or home group sponsor that student and bring him or her meals every now and then. Even better, have families set aside one night and have the student over for dinner. I would double this recommendation for single seminarians. Since you don’t have a spouse and kids there with you, it is nice to be welcomed in by members of your local church who treat you like family.
At my church, it’s always nice to sit down on Wednesday nights and share a meal with other believers who ask me what’s going on in my life and who are happy to see me. It’s an encouraging reminder of why I am in seminary in the first place and helps spur me on when I’m losing steam along the way and getting discouraged. Truthfully, doing life together is an integral part of discipleship. We need you to come alongside us and encourage us to rest, encourage us to know when to stop studying and spend time alone with God in prayer, or to set aside one night a week to do nothing school-related and just enjoy the company of friends. In fact, before you ask us what we could be doing for the church, consider asking us how the church can best serve us in this unique time of our lives. It can be much easier for a seminary to sense they belong to this family of believers if they know these believers actually care about them.
Additionally, a local church can be supportive by recognizing that many seminary students are struggling financially and could use some help—no matter how small. Whether it is tuition, books, or groceries, it can be encouraging to students to know their local church cares enough to not only meet spiritual needs, but physical needs as well. During one of the most stressful parts of my semester, one of my best friend’s mothers sent me a card in the mail. As I opened it, I saw that her entire Sunday School class signed it and told me they were praying for me and they included with the card a significant amount of money to help me with whatever I needed. I was so encouraged by their generosity and it was a simply gesture, but it meant so much to me.
Seminarians Need the Church
We seminarians need the local church, more than we might even realize. We need the encouragement and prayers of other saints, especially older ones who have much wisdom to share with us. We ask for grace when we get excited about something we learn in class and get frustrated when that same excitement isn’t reciprocated. We want to be encouraging to other believers and not a source of discouragement. More than anything, we need to be reminded that despite our perfectionist tendencies or, for some, academic apathy, that God still accepts us in Christ and the grounds for our hope is not in our exegesis skills, but in whether we have truly turned from sin and trusted Christ alone for salvation. Please, point us to that reality and always mention us in your prayers (Phil. 4; see also Eph. 1:16; 1 Thes. 1:2). Even if your church isn’t near a seminary or don’t have any seminarians in your congregation, don’t abdicate your role to pray for the seminaries and the students who will spend many years there.
Seminary is a time of discipleship. A time where we learn about Jesus, but an important part of that discipleship is the church and families coming alongside seminarians as they intentionally invest in them. They help us not only mature in our knowledge of the gospel while in class, but see how the gospel is lived out. And in the process, we may be able to share what God is teaching us along the way as well.
Chris Crane serves as Middle School Small Group Leader at Lake Highlands Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. He holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Baptist University and is currently pursuing a Th.M. at Dallas Seminary. He has previously written for Gospel-Centered Discipleship, as well as The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He also writes at chriscrane.net. You can follow him on Twitter: @cmcrane87