Seminary Community is Hard & Hurts

by on September 7, 2015

Seminaries are weird creatures. In the beginning, most everyone is new and has to do the awkward dance of forming relationships while at the same time trying to find a flow for school to survive. It takes a unique person to really be a part of both the academics and communal side of seminary. And let’s face it: no one is holding your hand there: you mostly have to be self-motivated and spiritually self-sustaining, because the usual church structures that motivate, support and counsel just aren’t there at seminary. Even things like prayer groups and chapels are still only as helpful as the attention you put into them.

But over time, during these early days, your relationships slowly develop. They are usually borne out from the fiery flames of awkwardness and uncertainty, intense learning regiments thrust upon you all, forcing all of you into social situations you would not normally put on yourself. But this difficulty forges these relationships deeply. You get to know one another very deeply very quickly and love each other through it. This creates a very deep bond among seminarians, however unspoken it may be.

Over the course of our education, I’m finding that this is both good and bad. It’s good because it makes our core community really tight, but it can be bad because it makes our core community really tight.

 

For one, it makes “generational” seminary community hard. This super tight-knit community you form your first year is both attractive and yet seemingly inaccessible to the newcomers that come into our midst (read: first years). Precisely when people need the communal support is precisely when those further along “check out”, stuck with their same friends. They don’t reach out much and encourage the new people on campus.

 

Second, this closeness, forged in the fires of first year seminary, eventually start becoming about more than class and theology. And the “fun” recedes, and the real friendship work begins. Inevitably (especially if the Lord is with you in your endeavors), the ways that we are each hurting and isolated and alone come up. The ways that we are not, in fact, the self-motivated and spiritually self-sustaining believers that we used to pretend we were. We have baggage. We have hurts. We have insecurities. And we want and long for and need community. Real community.

 

But humans are complicated and groups of humans even more so, and so the point of this post is not to yell at all the first year seminarians and say “be less needy!” or to yell at the later-year students and say “be more welcoming!” It’s simply to encourage us.

 

Christian community is amazing. And for those in seminary that feel disconnected from it, or hurt by those they thought were their seminary friends, let me encourage you: the Church is a group of people who are broken and struggling; who will hurt you and insult you and will be snarky and sarcastic and you will not get it so you will think they are just being mean; who will not invite you to things when you are free and will seem to only invite you to things when you are busy; who will make you feel isolated and alone and unloved; who will judge you and gossip about you and will assume you are “in sin” even when you’re not; who are graceless and far more interested in you not bothering them anymore rather than being the messy screwed-up person we all are.

 

And though we inflict these pains on one another daily—no less in seminary, wear our shoulders are rubbing co closely, so constantly—we still live life deeply with one another both inside and outside our seminary campus. We gather in our classrooms and library tables and sit next to people who have either hurt us deeply just the day before, or people we hope would talk to us at some point during the service, but never will.

 

We do this because we have tasted of something glorious and beautiful even in the midst of all that is fractured and hard. It’s in our relational need that we have Christ the most, even when we walk our campus struggling to find our place. In this, seminary is not the New Heavens and New Earth, but is just like the “real world”—only more so.

 

I pray that as we wound each other as the broken members of the body of Christ, and are prepared for ministry together, that we might more truly taste, grasp, and take hold of the true Body of Christ, broken and wounded for us.

About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.