Sometimes our ideal situation and our reality don’t quite line up. In total honesty, this was me when deciding to pursue an MDiv. I love the idea of the traditional classroom… or maybe actually just the traditional campus. Truthfully, I function well without the classroom, but I desired being on a campus with others in a similar stage of life (or at least with a similar heart for the pursuit of graduate education). I saw myself walking into an office and having a face-to-face conversation with my professor; The library would call out to me and I would find myself at a study table with a fresh cup of specialty coffee; I could walk the sidewalks on campus when I needed to clear my mind and organize my thoughts. At the end of the day, this vision of myself in graduate education did not line up with my newest life stage: Marriage!
Choosing to marry the most wonderful man alive meant changing the vision of my future to include him. In terms of higher education, it meant taking a year and half off of school altogether. It meant forgoing the dream of an on-campus experience so that we could live where he could work a job he dreamed of and loved. It meant changing the dollar amount I could practically consider for my education. Most of all, moving my educational experience online meant pairing down the programs I looked into and choosing one that aligned most with my personal priorities, no matter what anyone else thought of my decision.
In all honesty, reading Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age by Stephen Lowe and Mary Lowe at the start of my online career helped to shape my perspective on online education. While most of us in the education realm have dealt with virtual/online learning experiences since the Spring of 2020, some folks had never spent time with that learning platform and so still looked at it with a negative stigma. Even I thought the education would be less fulfilling and not challenging enough. Reading this book, however, has shown me one thing I arrogantly overlooked: I am largely responsible for the depth of my education. No matter what platform I use for school, I have a personal responsibility to engage with my classwork, classmates, and professors. No matter how strictly my professors grade, I am responsible for producing quality work I would be proud to share. I alone have to use my time in digital education to move toward the academic and professional goals I have. Seminary is not about making good grades or flaunting new vocabulary. Seminary provides me with a chance to challenge myself in the areas I need the most growth in so that upon graduation, I feel confident in my ability to fill in the gaps in ministry I feel so burdened by.
All of this to say, here are two main ways I need to commit personal responsibility to for the sake of my spiritual formation (and that of those around me):
I love to write. The process of encountering new material and discovering the ways it fits practically into my life or challenges my assumptions and behaviors enlivens me. When I fill up with that introverted energy, I end up bursting to let others know what I have learned! However, I have already found myself shrinking back my thoughts, personal experiences, or challenges to the presented material for the sake of pursuing a better grade. I spent too long stuck in the box of professor-pleasing, and I hereby refuse to tape myself back into that box. I will think, I will share, and I will engage with my classmates who do the same!
Even when creating a post like this one, I do experience some personal growth because I have spent time reading and reflecting and writing on something of importance to me. However, I experience the most growth spiritually when those who read these words of mine respond with how they have been impacted by them, how they relate, or what they feel challenged to do/think about in response. Their growth spurs my growth. Their feedback drives my progress. Even in a largely one-way medium like blogging, we can still experience reciprocity and mutual benefit like Lowe and Lowe describe: “For those… who find the online platform to be a sacred space and one in which they find belonging and opportunities to contribute, these are spiritually formative experiences” (115). Even further, I need to see my classmates as equal minds, able to challenge and engage me in the same way. I would like to carry this out specifically by responding to discussion posts with which I do not ultimately agree. Seeking to understand various perspectives will spur each of us toward a deeper understanding of who God is and what His word says. We can work out our minds and hearts and experience growth in the midst of disagreement.
“Spiritual formation is not a magical occurrence resulting from the presence of Christians gathered together in the same place, whether online or on campus. There must also be intentionality, reflection, engagement, and interaction between and among those gathered.” -Lowe and Lowe, 85
Practical Application of Contagiousness:
I have lived, worked, and been educated within Christian circles my entire life. Thus, encountering people with different worldviews than mine seldom happens. I think early on I was wrongly taught to avoid interacting with people who were “negative influences.” While we certainly need boundaries, we also need to embrace the opportunity to be the influential ones. Lowe and Lowe state it this way: “Whereas in the Old Testament God’s holiness needed to be quarantined from potential infections, in the teachings of Jesus, holiness is the real contagion” (193). In order to spread my Jesus, I have to engage the lost around me! I had no issue with this the four months I lived in a Muslim country, but applying it in the United States feels more uncomfortable and uncertain. Here is what I know: My circle is my responsibility. I just moved—literally five days ago—so I am unsure what my circle will be, but here are my thoughts in terms of how to make this action a reality in my life:
Work in a secular workplace — I can choose to work somewhere the Christian population will be slim so that I have more opportunity to live out my faith in front of those who do not believe in Jesus. I recently saw my husband lead one of his coworkers to the Lord because of this practice.
Youth Group Leadership — We moved because my husband got a job as an assistant youth director. Therefore, I am about to find myself in the company of teenagers multiple days a week. I know all of the teens at this church do not follow Christ. I also know that some of those who believe in Christ still don’t know what it means to live for Him. I have the chance to lead them in small group discussions formally on Wednesday nights, but I also have the opportunity to engage with them one on one by having them over for dinner, attending their concerts or school plays, and more. I will invest in them by showing them how important they are to me because of how important they are to God. I will not belittle their doubts, struggles, or questions but will walk with them through each one.
Christian Education — We will also be involved in a young adult gathering and a young married home group. I commit to using my education to engage my peers in conversation. I feel strongly about the need to teach seminary level concepts in plain language, and I can do that practically on a week-by-week basis with my friends who long for growth.
A Final Word and Letter
I could go on about the need for unceasing and intentional prayer, collaboration, or improved communication skills, but I have used far too many words already. Instead, I close with a letter to my young married friends preparing for seminary. These words come as a summation of the ways I was challenged while reading Surviving and Thriving in Seminary by H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forest.
My fellow wife in seminary,
Be proud of the decision you have made for yourself as a young woman after God’s own heart. Give extensive thanks to your husband for choosing to support your calling. He has also committed to giving this portion of your budget, or extended this much debt, to education. He has chosen to share you with your textbook and your computer. Many nights, you may spend more time with them than you do with him! He has committed to being your partner in cooking and cleaning—or in eating microwave dinners and ramen noodles for nights on end—while you do that research and write that paper. He has chosen to be your listening ear as you work through concepts brought up in your assignments.
May I also say, he has chosen to risk disagreeing with you on spiritual concepts or biblical passages about which you once shared opinions. If he is not also in school, then he will not have the same amount of time to devote to researching specific words or passages. You will get to teach him the summation of your material. He will challenge you with his own perspectives and convictions, and you will grow whether you ultimately agree or not. He will find your increasing desire for God attractive, and you’ll admire his growth as well. You will be proud of one another and excited to serve God together, however that looks in your life.
I close with a warning from the authors of this handbook, Zacharias and Forest: “If you forsake your family in pursuit of your degree, then you are not practicing your missional mandate to make disciples in the most important context God has given you” (63). Do not forget about your husband. Hang out with him; Ask about his day and about his personal time with God. He will be learning different things at a different pace, and that is equally as valid as your educational experience. Love him more than you love making good grades. Choose to turn something in a day late when it means being there for an important event or cherishing the minutes together before he leaves town. Being a wife is a gift. Your husband is God’s man, and God has chosen to let you spend your life with him! Thank God for that man and give him the time and love he deserves. Best wishes.