Caring for the Soul During Seminary

Heather N. Korpi

When students enter the Boston campus, they are greeted by a new poster each week conveying a thought or question to prompt spiritual reflection as they make their way to class.

At the Jacksonville campus, students enter to a display of oversized comfy couches that invite them to settle in for deep, encouraging conversations with their peers.

Though it looks quite different on each campus, spiritual formation is an integral part of the Gordon-Conwell experience. Various delivery methods are tailored to meet the distinct needs of each campus’s culture, student body and ethos.

“The present generation is embedded in such a complex world, with so many demands, that just waking up in the morning feels daunting,” says Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Richard Lints. “In the face of a hyperactive, hyper-connected culture, it is exceedingly difficult for ministry leaders to carve out time for personal growth, spiritual reflection and connection with Jesus.”

The consequences of such inattention are frightening. “The numbers of clergy burnout in the first five years are really stunning,” notes Lints. “Habits they form in those first five fragile years are going to stay with them, for good or bad. Spiritual formation is really critical for ministry.” And so, alongside its rigorous academics, Gordon-Conwell is intentionally helping students form and implement healthy spiritual habits to enrich their ministries.

At the Boston campus, spiritual formation is woven into the culture and curriculum through two avenues: the Integrative Seminar and the Pierce Center for Disciple-Building. “In 2013, we embarked on a campus-wide initiative to pursue spiritual formation as a community and as an explicit part of the curriculum,” explains Dr. Teri Elliott-Hart, who oversees spiritual formation efforts in addition to teaching in her role as adjunct professor.

This initiative, the Integrative Seminar, is composed of five semester-long modules that each student will complete over the course of two and a half years. The sequence of modules—Practices of the Word-Centered Life, Practices of the Virtuous Life, Practices of the Compassionate Life, Practices of the Spirit-Empowered Life, and Prayer and Practices of the Sacramental Life—is drawn from Gordon-Conwell’s mission statement, and purposes to integrate seminary learning with each student’s personal formation as a disciple and a leader.

Each semester kicks off with an all-campus Opening Day Convocation event where the theme is introduced and students have an opportunity to connect and worship with their professors and peers. For a commuter campus filled with busy students often juggling seminary on top of their full-time jobs and family obligations, this is a rare and precious time.

The theme then carries through the semester by way of 14 weekly topics for class devotions (which inspire the thoughts and questions that greet students as they enter campus), readings and written reflection exercises. At the completion of all five modules, a final integration paper encourages students to look back on patterns of spiritual learning or challenges throughout their experience.

“We are coaching people to develop practices that encourage encountering God in their work, in their studies, in the grind of the city,” says Elliott-Hart. “People think they will come to seminary and won’t have time to pay attention to their heart, but we value and care about their personal spiritual life, not just grades and learning.”

Boston Campus Pierce Center Coordinator Dr. Tom Griffith agrees. “You come to seminary and what happens is that very quickly, studying becomes everything and you don’t talk about how you’re doing in your spiritual life and soul,” he asserts. “The Pierce Center is important because while you’re studying, you cannot give up your soul.”

“Habits they form in those first five fragile years are going to stay with them, for good or bad. Spiritual formation is really critical for ministry.”

The Pierce Center offers a Fellows scholarship program, in which students meet regularly with Griffith and other Fellows, and lead weekly Soul Care groups for their classmates. Through these interactions, Griffith says, “Students share and listen to the state of each other’s soul, practice silence and pray for each other.”

At the Jacksonville campus, a similar emphasis on student connectedness and reciprocal encouragement has become a key ingredient in their spiritual formation efforts. “We are an organic, relational campus,” says Campus Dean Dr. Ryan Reeves. The smallest of all four Gordon-Conwell campuses, Jacksonville leverages its size as a unique opportunity for deep and intentional community-building.

“My door is almost always open,” says Reeves. “Students pop in and out to talk about what they’re doing at seminary or trials in ministry or their future.” In fact, Reeves says, the new Jacksonville campus was intentionally designed to foster this open-door, community environment. The library, which functions as a magnetic common area with its inviting couches, is at the heart of the campus, with faculty and staff offices wrapping around it.

“We know everyone’s name, know where they’re coming from and why they’re here. We have the stories of the individuals readily in front of us at all times, and we’re really able to serve and tailor our support for that individual,” says Reeves.

At Jacksonville, spiritual formation really is a campus- wide effort, with every person playing an integral part. The administrative assistant, Sonja, frequently prays with students in her office. The librarian, Carol, takes note of who is struggling with their coursework, and then takes the time to assist them. The registrar, Jeanne, sees student files not as paperwork, but as a collection of their life experiences during seminary—like that dropped class due to a ministry or home crisis. The staff meetings regularly involve prayer for students. “What we do day in and day out does have a spiritual formation element at every touch point,” says Reeves.

As described by Dr. David Currie, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program and co-mentor in the Spiritual Formation for Ministry Leaders track, “Spiritual formation is the lifelong, faith-filled process of the Holy Spirit transforming the whole person into the likeness of Christ to the glory of the Father as informed by the whole Word of God, in relationship with the whole people of God to fulfill the whole mission of God.”

Gordon-Conwell remains committed to shepherding students as they encounter God in and alongside their studies, and preparing them to continue this process during a lifetime of effective ministry.

Finding Silence in the City

Leaving her home country of Kenya, Vionnah Wanjiku Githira arrived at Gordon-Conwell—Boston to begin her Master of Arts in Counseling in the fall of 2012. It was her first time in the United States.

Breathing in new smells, tasting new foods and interacting with new people was both exciting and overwhelming. “The first week, I really wanted to trade my tuition for a plane ticket back home,” she remembers.

But as the weeks went on, Vionnah began to settle into and appreciate her new venture. The community she formed through the Pierce Fellows Program helped, she says. “At the Boston campus, forming fellowship can be hard because class is in the evenings and students work during the day, so you have to be intentional.”

As students juggle harried schedules and the breakneck pace of the city, the Pierce Center steps in to help them slow down and reflect. During the biweekly spiritual formation meetings with other Fellows and Pierce Center Coordinator Dr. Tom Griffith, Vionnah says, “We would stay silent and he would ask, ‘What’s the state of your soul?’ And then he would ask for an image to describe what’s going on in your soul.”

This reflective posture has begun to infuse Vionnah’s everyday thought process. “I pay attention to what’s going on in my life on the inside,” she says. “Having Tom as a mentor and being in the spiritual formation groups challenges you to be better.”

Vionnah hopes to apply what she’s learning in seminary— academically and spiritually—to minister to children back home in Kenya.

A Ministry of Transparency

Patrick Schlabs may win the award for most distance traveled as a commuter student. Six to seven times each semester, this Master of Divinity candidate and two friends make the four-hour trek from Charleston, South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, for 24 hours of intensive learning, community-building and soul-filling.

Using words like embraced, loved, cared for, humility, honesty, sincerity, fun and warmth to describe the ethos of Gordon-Conwell—Jacksonville, Patrick asserts that his significant commute doesn’t hold him back from engaging fully in life and learning there.

“I go down there in the midst of the craziness of life— balancing kids, family, work and school on top of it all—and I get to disengage for a short time to soak up knowledge, learn, be immersed among people who are along the same journey,” he says. Patrick serves as the worship pastor at Saint Peter’s Church, a Charleston church plant where he and his wife were called in 2011, after serving at a charismatic church in Texas for nearly a decade.

Patrick hopes to curb what he sees as a cultural notion of the Church’s aura of perfection by infusing his own ministry with the same spirit of transparency he has experienced at Gordon-Conwell—Jacksonville. “The way that the Jacksonville campus holds these two things in tension—high academic excellence with a sense of transparency and humility—has been one of the more spiritually formative things for me,” he says. “It has created a really strong precedent for what I hope to do in ministry.”