The Prayer Life of a Seminary Student
Your time in seminary will affect your practice of prayer.
Your time in seminary will affect your practice of prayer. For many students, seminary enriches strong practices of prayer established before they ever began taking classes. For other students, those who have come to faith very recently, prayer is still a new practice, and they are eager to learn its ways. Other students have a different experience: their time in college was incredibly formative and marked by growth, but the rhythms of life, family, and work are changing, and they are finding it hard to devote the time to prayer that once seemed so plentiful. For them, seminary sometimes seems like a strain or distraction from a life of devotion. No matter how strong (or weak) your practice of prayer may seem to you now, seminary will affect your prayer life. There are plenty of good (and short) works on maintaining a devotional life while in seminary, and I hope you will make time to read them.[i] In this short article, I suggest several ways to maintain, revive, or even start a strong prayer life while you are in seminary.
We might start by remembering that prayer is simply talking to God. This talking might be planned and structured or spontaneous and free, and both spontaneous and planned prayers have a place in our lives. Our talking might be about ourselves (supplication or confession), others (intercession), or about God himself (adoration or thanksgiving). Learning to talk to God in different ways and about different things is one of the ways seminary can affect your practice of prayer. Prayer also involves listening to God as he quietly leads us by his Spirit (Rom. 8:14) and his Word (Ps. 19:7–11). Making this space to listen and talk is often a place where students struggle, so the following suggestions are ways that students and their teachers can make more space for prayer.
Frame your day, every day, with prayer. As I type, I am looking at a rustic wood frame that surrounds a vintage map, a gift from my wife, in my study, and I am reminded that frames cover the edges of pictures, posters, paintings (or even maps) because the edges are the most fragile parts of artwork. Similarly, the “edges” of our day, our mornings and evenings, and our active time between these ends form those parts of our day that are most vulnerable to spiritual, fleshly, or secular influence and when we most need to experience communion with God. The Psalms are filled with encouragement for the faithful to seek God by prayer as they begin their days (Pss. 5:3, 88:13, 92:2), as they end their days (Pss. 88:1, 119:55, 118:148), and as they face the troubles of the day (Pss. 38:12, 56:1, 2, and 5). Paul encouraged the Christians in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), a call to maintain an open dialogue with God as we go throughout our days. This sort of prayer does not happen accidentally; it happens by choice and practice.
Another way to make space for prayer is to spend a lot of time wandering in the Psalms and let them teach you how to pray. While all of Scripture is profitable for teaching us about prayer, the Psalms are especially important because they cover so much ground of our human experience, from joy to sorrow, from hope to despair, from fear to courage, and from dejection to assurance. It is no wonder that so many Christian traditions have made the intentional reading of the Psalms part of their monthly, weekly, or sometimes daily practices. Reading five Psalms a day, most days of the month, and dividing that reading between two or three Psalms in the morning and two or three in the evening, and sometimes reading at other times of the day or night, is a very reliable way of learning how to pray. In the Psalms, we encounter the people of God in private prayer, in gathered worship, at their most vulnerable, and at the highest pitch of praise. As you make it a practice to read through the Psalms, stop and listen to the prayers of the faithful who have come before you and learn to follow their example.
Sometimes, an overlooked way to make space for prayers in seminary is learning to thank God for specific things that you have learned in your studies. One of the great ironies of seminary life is that students are probably never more saturated and surrounded with the things of God than they are during their studies but can so easily overlook the response of praise and thanksgiving. Yes, seminary will surely affect your prayer life as you ask God to help you listen, learn, remember, and respond via papers, quizzes, and tests, and these prayers—sometimes very desperate prayers—are necessary and formative, but they can be balanced by intentionally pausing to express awe and thanks for the deep things of God which you encounter so deeply in your reading. God calls all people to love him with their entire being (Matt. 22:37–38), which includes their mind, and seminary is such an important place to develop the life of the Christian mind, but knowledge, without a return of love, is empty (1 Cor. 13:2). Develop a habit of letting your studies kindle a fire of love to God in your prayers.
Another way seminary can affect your prayer life is through the friendships you will form here. This morning, I texted a friend who I met in one of my first seminary classes twenty years ago. Back then, we learned to pray for each other and with each other, and those prayers have not subsided with the passing of years. As you start seminary, find someone who will pray with you and for whom you can pray. It is especially important for you to find someone who will ask you about your prayer life (and for whom you can do the same). Even as I type, I realize that my experience of “coming to” seminary is different from many students who are “joining in” seminary, often from great distances and often with feelings of great isolation. Still, other students are preparing at the highest levels of training, pursuing doctoral degrees, and may come to campus mostly for classes or research and usually for short periods of time. Irrespective of your mode of study, your need to be part of a community that prays together does not subside. Every class ought to make a space for this sort of prayer fellowship to happen, and if it is not clear to you where or how to make these friendships, then ask your professors; I am confident they want you to foster this practice.
One last way that seminary can affect your prayer life is by showing you that you need an occasional break from your seminary studies just for the purpose of prayer. No, you don’t have to stop out of enrollment (please do not do that!), but you might find it helpful to set aside two, four, or even eight hours once a semester to spend the day (or night) in prayer. These brief prayer retreats break the normal rhythms of our hectic lives, which can be so hypnotic and are often simple ways of seeking and setting our minds on “things that are above” (Col. 3:1–2). If you are in Louisville, there are prayer rooms scattered around Southern’s campus for just this purpose, and the 80+ acres of land give you a wide space for this exercise. If you are elsewhere, I am sure there are open church worship centers, empty Sunday school classrooms, or lots of public parks that can give you a similar space for this pursuit. Sometimes just reading through a short book of the Bible, pausing to turn its words into the content of your prayers, can be a helpful way of getting started in a retreat like this (1 John, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Ephesians have all proven helpful for me in this regard).
As I bring this article to a close, I want to encourage you that seminary can provide a unique place and chance to grow deeper in prayer and establish patterns that can help you persevere in prayer throughout your ministry. Many years ago, when I began my theological studies, a friend warned me that her time in seminary had ruined her devotional life. She was being very serious, and the trajectory of her life and Christian service has proven her assessment true. Now, her experience may say more about the spiritual state of the seminary she attended or, more likely, about her responses to the spiritual experiences of seminary, but her warning has haunted me. Thankfully, having spent the better part of my adult life around seminary as a student, an administrator, and a faculty member, her experience was not typical, but it was possible. My prayer, and the prayer of my fellow faculty members, is that seminary would be a time of deepening your prayer life. Your time in seminary will affect your practice of prayer; what will you do with the opportunity?
[i] David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell, How to Stay Christian in Seminary; B.B. Warfield, “Spiritual Culture in a Theological Seminary,” in The Princeton Theological Review, vol. 2.1 (1904), ; B.B. Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students,” in Themelios (January 1, 1999); or Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016) are some short books on this topic.