Sounds like the first summer of seminary has brought to light a common problem: You no longer have a church. Yes, you do need a church.
Yes, as I wrote last week this season is a great opportunity to visit churches of other traditions. But you still need one church to be your community, your support, your home base.
Is seminary better than church?
Those who go leave their church to attend a residential seminary often face this challenge.
- You find yourself surrounded by the good fellowship of other students.
- You have people pray with.
- You worship with them in chapel.
Sometimes seminary is like the church on steroids. With so many friends who are passionate and growing, it can seem better than your old church.
So who needs a church? You need a church.
Seminary is not a church
Your seminary is a ministry of the church. So of course it does things that any community of Christians should do.
But it is not itself a church. Or to speak more accurately, it is not a congregation.
- It may or may not have steady pastoral leadership.
- It likely does not have the structure of governance and leadership that that any denomination would say its congregations need.
- It does not start with babies and new believers, and walk with them, building their lives as disciples, all the way to the grave.
- It typically does not even have a Sunday service, a mark of Christian congregations since the Book of Acts.
The seminary, is a temporary Christian community, nurturing the faith of those who are accepted to its programs.
The seminary, at its core, is an academic institution. It is a place to earn the degree required of ministers in your denomination. It just happens to be a Christian academic institution, aiming to form you as a fit leader for the Church. So of course it does many of the things a congregation will do — but it will leave others undone.
You need a church
Many of your needs for learning and nurture will be met by the community in seminary. But many won’t. You may not feel those needs acutely, but they are still there.
- You need the seven-day rhythm of life, with worship and sacrament on the Lord’s Day.
- You need to hear the Word in ways that point you away from the enmeshed life of seminary and into the ordinary wider world.
- You need all the generations of God’s people — crying babies, goofy teens, elders wise and frail.
- You need continuity. Each intense class comes to an end. Come graduation time, one third of your friendship network moves on.
But the congregation? It just hangs on in there.
It takes work of course. You have to make an effort to let some of your roots grow in a congregation when your relationships in seminary are so intense.
Make your life match your message
But there is one more thing: Being part of a congregation now will prevent you from feeling like a hypocrite later.
If you are called to be a pastor of a congregation, you will work day in and day out to get people to worship weekly, and to anchor their Christian lives in the church.
Those people live in a culture that has a thousand alternatives to participating in your congregation. Many of those alternatives are more intense than church life. Many overlap with the church and meet some of the same needs.
If you come to be a pastor after a three year vacation from a congregation, your life will bear witness to your belief that the church is optional.
So find a congregation. Show up for worship. Put down some roots.