Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my recent letter about making friends with John Calvin. I think you drew some conclusions that I wasn’t intending. Let me take a step back.
As a person in ministry, you need a lot of different kinds of friends — and seminary is a great place to meet them.
By starting this degree program you stepped into a zone of transition. Education is all about growth and change. That happens through relationships — with your peers, your teachers, and in the wider Church and world.
Some you’ll engage with face to face. Others at a distance. But you need to engage. You are investing too much in something too important to waste your time hunkering in the bunker.
Growth, after all, is always change. You need to enter that zone of transition with openness and wisdom so that the whole process is about becoming all God created you to be.
Making Friends in Seminary
So here’s what I think you should do: Actively seek five kinds of friends while you are there.
1. You need some friends who have some key similarities to you.
Everybody needs some people that sort of feel familiar — like when you are traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language well and bump into someone from your home town. Nurture friendships with a few people with whom you can share your excitement, puzzlement, and struggles; people with whom you can pray.
2. You need some friends who have some obvious differences from you.
Scripture portrays the Church as Christ’s body, with parts as different as toes and noses. We all are needed, and every single one shines with the glory of God — if only we have eyes to see. So nurture friendships with people who are clearly different in some key ways. Different cultures, ethnicities, genders, theological traditions, opinions. Grow close enough to pray together.
3. You need some friends who traveled with Christ a bit longer.
Real mentors who can offer personal guidance are extremely helpful. They are also a bit hard to find sometimes, so I’m suggesting something a little different: The Celtic Christians called them “soul friends.” These are people on the same journey with Christ as you are, but who have travelled a few more steps down the road. And they care about your journey.
You might find one in your field education supervisor or among your fellow students, but you should definitely look to the faculty.
You can’t expect to connect with every professor. But I hope you’ll end up with at least one professor who knows you well enough to be genuinely supportive and an encouraging — a real conversation partner as you grow in faith and ministry.
4. You need some friends who can be mentors-at-a-distance on specific topics.
Every class you take is going to introduce you to potential “distance” mentors in specific subjects — and every subject is going to connect with your emerging vocation in one way or another.
I don’t mean your professors here. I mean the authors of the books they introduce you to. Those books bring the voices of the authors into your world. They will all be there on your shelf, ready to provide wise counsel on preaching, or biblical studies, or pastoral care, or whatever.
Say you end up having to prepare a sermon every week. You can be glad if your professor introduced you to a modern preacher like Barbara Brown Taylor, or an ancient preacher like St. John Chrysostom. For the rest of your life you can learn from them. Read how they preached your text. Read one of their sermons each day as part of your devotions. It is going to help.
So don’t think of your assigned readings as something to check off on your way to an exam or paper. Think of each author as a potential friend. (And if they are alive, they probably have a website. They would love to hear from you.)
5. You need at least one life-long friend who has wrestled with more and bigger and better questions.
What I wrote to you about Calvin brings us to the fifth kind of friend you need from seminary: At least one Christian who wrestled with very big questions for a very long time, and left you a shelf of books to explore.
You need to follow your own inclination in this, finding someone who is a friend of the heart — if you are passionate about the spiritual life, for instance, you might choose St. Teresa of Avila. She did not leave too many books, but enough for her to be recognized by the Catholic Church as one of their official “Doctors” or teachers of the faith.
But there are three figures who are especially worth considering, both because they wrote on a vast range of topics and because they had an enormous influence. And I recommend them because I know you.
Think of them as your Theological ABCs:
You won’t like everything that any one of them says. But you will always find them asking good questions about things that go to the heart of faith and discipleship. Even if you are in a very different place from the friend you choose (and you are — ours is a different age) their questions and their answers have shaped the Church around you.
Life is better with friends. Invest in making good ones.
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