Spiritual Formation During Seminary

By Anne B.Doll

Caroline Dixon graduated from Harvard College, then worked nearly five years in a fast-paced Manhattan consulting firm before enrolling at Gordon-Conwell in 2009.

“It was thrilling and busy,” she says. “I loved living in New York City and loved my job.” But over time, she discovered that what she was doing at her evangelical Episcopal church was “so much more exciting.”

Ultimately, Caroline concluded that she would always be a hard worker, but wanted to expend that energy directly for God’s service. Now an M.Div. student, she is also a Fellow in the seminary’s Pierce Center for Disciple-Building. Through the spiritual formation provided by the Center’s Director, Rev. Dr. Stephen A. Macchia, and Mrs. Susan Currie, Associate for Spiritual Formation, Caroline is learning how to be still and listen for God.

A part of this quiet occurs in a bi-weekly spiritual formation group where, she explains, “Fellows are encouraged “to wait attentively on the Lord. Sue will often slowly read a Bible passage several times lextio divina style. We listen prayerfully...and offer a one-line prayer to God in response...and suddenly we’re praying together...We’re learning to better sense the Holy Spirit, which is a privilege.”

The group also focuses on the experiences and spiritual life of one Fellow, then prays and encourages that person, sometimes sharing a word or phrase God has given them. “It’s amazing to be on the receiving end,” Caroline explains. “But it has also been a blessing for me to experiment with what it means to listen carefully and deeply to someone, then suppress any initial instinct to give advice or judgment and try to wait.”

Like all Pierce Fellows, Caroline leads a small Soul Care Group of students, and meets regularly with Sue Currie for one-on-one spiritual direction. And she is further spiritually formed through full-day Pierce Center retreats.

“What it has done for me is that I’m more still and have more faith that God is in that stillness and wanting to nudge me. Coming from the absolute busy to the absolute still has been an incredible thing,” she marvels. “This is the healthiest I’ve ever lived.”

After Sam Ferguson completes his M.Div. course work in June, he’ll join the staff of The Falls Church in Virginia, where he’ll be trained for church planting.

Also a Pierce Fellow, Sam says the Pierce Center and mentoring by Steve Macchia have been the most intentional contributors to his spiritual growth in seminary. “I have been taught to address my spiritual health. Steve says that "if I don’t learn to be selfish with the care of my own soul, I am being selfish toward everyone I’m caring for in ministry. Meaning, if I’m not filled with the Spirit, if I’m not connected to the Vine, anything I’m giving in ministry is just hot air.”

Part of that, he explains, “is to realize that I was created by God to work, but also to rest. I was created to strive but also to play, and what does it look like to carve out time during my week not simply to rest but to rejuvenate?

“Another question Steve asks is: ‘What’s the state of your soul?’ I think that’s the right question to ask, not ‘How’s your week been?’ That’s like saying ‘Have you been successful in the world’s eyes? Have you managed your time well?’ The state of your soul is a far deeper question.

I could have preached well, counseled well, administered well, but the state of my soul could be very poor, because I had done all that at the expense of spending true time with Jesus and healthy time with my family and friends.”

Sam says he has also been spiritually formed in his classes through “witnessing my professors’ own love, passion and devotion to Jesus Christ and his Word...in seeing how they handle the material not merely as an intellectual task, but a profoundly spiritual enterprise. That has formed me more in the classroom than anything else. It has shaped my own approach to the academic side of pursuing God.”

He cites a recent experience when his professor was teaching from Luke 15 on the concept of adoption. He was looking at Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son when unexpectedly he broke down and couldn’t finish the class. Seeing how my professor understands the depth of what it means to be adopted as sons of God had a bigger impact on me than any of the logical arguments presented before.

“What you realize is that this runs really deep with the professors. They believe it. They would die for it. I thought, ‘My professor has probably read this passage 5000 times and he can’t get through it.’ It shows you that in Scripture you’re dealing with a bottomless well. You can never plumb the depths of it because it’s a revelation of God and He’s inexhaustible.

“That’s an amazing role model for students. That’s what you strive for in the pastorate. I want to be impacted by what I’m studying like my professor is.”

© Copyright 2009 Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. All rights reserved.