Monday, August 10, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary: Post #21 (Thoughts on Life Together: Your Seminary Cohort as Community - Part 1)

It’s time to turn our minds to the friends, colleagues, ministers, and fellow students in your seminary “cohort.” Your cohort is comprised of those folks who join and begin their training at the same time you do, those who will potentially becomes some of your closest friends during your time in seminary and perhaps even beyond your seminary years.

Perhaps you think because you have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. and social media in general that you have quite enough of a community already, thank you very much.

I don't think so.

One of the basic building blocks of your success in seminary is forming relationships with those who are laboring alongside you in the seminary trenches. I am regularly in touch with ministers that I trained with in seminary and we lean on each other today as we work in churches and try to figure what the heck we are doing.

It’s probably true to say that one of the greatest needs of the Church today is to better focus on discipleship and koinonia, the call on us to simply be church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world. Your friends in seminary will help you to do this as you do life together during your training and learn to become ministers.

One of the classic writings on this topic is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. If you have never read it, I recommend it to you as preparatory reading for seminary because I really think it will help counter your tendencies towards individualism and self-reliance while in seminary and will better prepare you to form friendships while there. To whet your appetite for this classic work, I’ll share some of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts with you in a series of “Reflections” and hopefully get you to think about the seminary community and being a part of it. Here we go:

Reflection 1: Community

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p.21)

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Christian community (think of this in terms of your seminary cohort) begins and ends with Christ. The reason you even need others is because of Jesus Christ, because in your salvation you realize you no longer live in and of yourself, rather you find your life in the Word become flesh.

Alone we become discouraged and entrapped by sin, but when we are in a community of brothers and sisters in Christ, such as our friends in seminary, they can speak God’s words to us and remind us of the gospel. This is the great goal of all Christian community: to meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. You will need this during your training. When it seems all your value and worth is rooted in your performance in school, you will need to speak to one another words of truth about where your truest value lies, in Jesus Christ. And because we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Christ, we belong to each other for eternity. Your cohort is composed of your forever friends, not just fellow ministers-in-training.

Hopefully these forever friends and colleagues will become your helpmates over the years ahead in ministry. You will all be starting your ministry careers at the same time and will provide important contacts for support and networking for each other. As Bonhoeffer says, “whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this.” What is this? A community which needs each other because of their relationship to Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer also warns against thinking of the community as an ideal, rather than a divine reality. He writes,
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.  He enters the community of Christians with this demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.  He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.  He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dreams bind men together.  When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.
Aside from the gendered language (which will be a no-no in seminary), his point is that our idealized conceptions of Christian community can destroy Christian community. We can come into seminary with a vision of what our colleagues are going to be like, and we even kid ourselves that we are better people when others around are better. But what happens if your institution is not filled with a bunch of Einsteins? What if people around you struggle? What will you do with that and what will your role be? Will you criticize or be a helper?

You might be tempted to enter the seminary community with your ideals and your demands and insist that God realize them, otherwise you will be very disappointed. But this is not the right way of thinking about God’s community in seminary. As Bonhoeffer contends rather “because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered our common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.”

In other words, we need to think of our seminary community as a gift.

As Bonhoeffer closes his reflection on the community in the first section of his book, he notes that whatever the Christian community says and does will commend Christ. This means that “the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door.” Though I realize stretching Bonhoeffer’s reflection to the seminary cohort risks doing something with his text that he didn’t intend, I want to risk it anyways.

Meaning this: whatever you do in your seminary cohort, it needs to speak and act in ways that will commend Christ. And you need to help one another. You will be stronger in some subjects that your “poorer” brother or sister. You need to help each other and encourage one another. Your goal in seminary is that you not only succeed, but your classmates succeed as well.