[Review] – How To Stay Christian in Seminary

About a year or so ago a great blog series came out from David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell from Desiring God, about how to stay Christian while in seminary. The posts were great, but at the time I wasn’t in graduate school yet and the words didn’t stick. Recently, Crossway partnered with Mathis and Parnell to expand this mini-series into a concise book, How To Stay Christian in Seminary (HSXS).

The timing couldn’t be better–this book fills a needed void in equipping students–of any discipline and level–on the disciplines (especially spiritual) that effectively puts education in its proper place: secondary to glorifying God and the health of personal faith. Coming in under 100-pages, HSXS is a quick read; I was able to read HSXS in two sittings, totaling about 2 hours.

Aim of the book

As the title suggests, Mathis and Parnell aim to: “help you be aware of the danger and appropriately sobered by [seminary]. We want you to face the challenge in earnest and see your faith strengthened, deepened, enlivened, and enriched by seminary, not shipwrecked.” The book certainly accomplishes this aim and more; I was particularly challenged with my leadership assumptions on top of walking a daily Christian walk.

What I Wish

Two things about the text. First, I wish Mathis and Parnell would have expanded their audience to all students rather than just complimentarian seminarians. Second, much of what HSXS admonishes the reader to do has hints of an air of perfection, as if the authors were able to master the concepts they present during their seminary experiences. Make no mistake, both Mathis and Parnell are solid men of God, active in the Church, love and lead their families well, but I know them well enough (via Bethlehem Baptist Church) to know they write from these struggles and admonish us to learn from their mistakes before we make them ourselves.

What I Walked Away With

Whenever I read, I filter the text through 6 questions based off of the Swedish Method (below). Not only is this helpful in processing the information during consumption, but it’s also a helpful schema to share the information with others.

Any New Ideas?

  • Approach academics devotionally
  • The goal of seminary [and all education] isn’t to be unweak, it’s to learn and steward your gifts.
  • Make Jesus the explicit center of all our learning
  • Tie everything back to glorifying God.
  • Home is the first ministry. There is no “just a season” for school & study to replace our calling in the home.

Any Questions it doesn’t answer?

  • I know it’s written for seminarians, I would love to see this expanded to include all education, not just seminary. Seminary is particularly hard, especially when Scriptures are studied academically and not devotionally, so I understand the urgency of the authors to reach this specific population.

How can this be applied?

  • HSXS is rich with applications. A few things of note:
    • I have the immediate application of a biblical liturgy to daily pray over my wife.
    • To constantly connect the learning to the glory of God.
    • The radical need to not partition my devotional life from my academic pursuits.
    • Parnell suggests in the first chapter to write a life mission statement. Best part of the book I’ve been emphasizing this for a couple years, and Parnell does a great job to equip the readers to start this important, nay vital pursuit of intentional living:

    “That mission is articulated in a memorable line that becomes the point of gravity around which everything operates.”

How does it make much of Jesus?

  • HSXS is laced with glorifying God, making much of Jesus, and treasuring the gospel. The best quote implies the breadth of God’s glory and our inability to completely understand him. “You go to seminary to grow, yes. You go to seminary to learn and steward your gifts, absolutely. But here’s the thing: the goal of seminary is not to become unweak…Therefore, determine to be known less for your strengths in academic rigor and more for how that rigor helps you grasp what it means that the God-man was crucified to save the world. Embrace your weakness. Bring it all back to grace.”
  • And they end, so beautifully, with this:

    Finally, and most of all, we thank Jesus— our matchless Savior, peerless Lord, and priceless Treasure— who took our place on the cross, defeated death for our sake, ever lives to be our Life and Joy, and keeps us Christian by his Spirit.

  • The church needs this book to be read, because at the end of the day our churches are at stake: seminarians plant churches, lead churches, shepherd churches, and this book is a field guide for seminary students to live devotionally before, during, and after seminary.

Who Should Read This?

  • Not just seminarians, but everyone. The point isn’t that it’s harder to stay Christian in Seminary; the point is it’s hard to be Christian as a learner. I’m convinced life is a continual exposure to learn, some enjoy it, and some avoid it. Everyone needs to learn how to make glorifying God primary, not learning.

If this didn’t exist, what would be missing?

  • As I said before, there’s been a void in the literature for a practical guide to root oneself in the faith while attending seminary (explicitly), but (implicitly) attending any educational institution. This hits the spot, even the length makes it easy for already overloaded students to read it, apply it, and share it.

In sum, to refresh your mindset with seminary, graduate school, undergraduate studies, high school, and even daily living. Pick the book up, your mind and heart will be refreshed and challenged. Your church will benefit from it; your family will benefit from it; your spiritual walk will benefit from it; and God will be glorified by all these things.

I’m grateful for Crossway who gave me an early copy of How To Stay Christian in Seminary through their program, Beyond the Page. I’ve partnered with Beyond the Page to review and provide feedback on the various books they publish. I encourage you to check out the program and see if it strikes your interest.



The #1 Principle of Team Leadership I Learned from Screen Printed T-Shirts

The more I read and learn about leadership the more I realize we are all leaders and we learn the most complex leadership theories anecdotally and even subconsciously. Then there are those of us, like myself, who pay thousands of dollars to learn how to categorize what we all know from experience in hopes to help in difficult leadership situations.

One of these subconscious, experiential lessons hit me a couple of days ago. I had just finished reading one of the best management and team leadership books on the market, Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis, and many of his conclusions are things I had already known and experienced, only he was able to find a trend among many teams and articulate these lessons more clearly than I could in my head. Bennis points out that “Great Groups” have a distinct culture and need to express this culture in some way.

I attended a small college in Iowa for my undergraduate degree, and this undergrad experience in Iowa taught me the most important team leadership principle that Bennis wrote about: a team creates it’s own culture and the subsequent artifacts. In Iowa (and probably other places, but especially NW Iowa) these artifacts are screen printed Hanes T-shirts.

A team creates it’s own culture and the subsequent artifacts, like screen printed t-shirts.

Every group on campus had a t-shirt; in fact I’m not really sure who didn’t have a group t-shirt. I still have hideously designed t-shirts that I’m so connected to that I can’t give away–and it’s been 5 years since I’ve walked across the graduation platform! The form, the artifact, t-shirts in this case, isn’t important; it’s the function the t-shirts represent that’s important. These t-shirts functioned to show to all nonmembers which “Great Group” I am. The t-shirt declared how I impact campus. Whenever I now don the coveted “Coly” beanie, I am instantly reminded of the Great Group of RA’s in my residence hall Colenbrander in 2008–2009.

We didn’t first have the hats and then create the tight-knit culture. We had to prank the campus together. We had to compet with–and against–each other. We had to pray with each other. We had to cry together. We had to lead other men in our dorm together. We had to create our own nicknames, roles, jokes, and vocabulary. Then could the “Coly” beanie become the symbol that united us outside of our dorm; and now unites us thousands of miles apart.

Artifacts, like Hanes t-shirts, are the mark of a Great Group and those artifacts serve to celebrate the distinct culture that no one else will ever understand, but will never be able to remember not existing. I may be out of touch with society, but I’m alarmed at the lack of team culture that should create these artifacts. From my perspective, we all try to go solo in our groups and miss out on all the benefits of creating a Great Group, like screen printed t-shirts.

What are the artifacts of your Great Groups?

MOL001 – Self-Leadership

(This is a continuation of the MOL writings; a series in which I discuss highlights from my graduate program in Organizational Leadership. For more background information on this series, please click here)

Self-leadership, simply enough, is the practice of leading yourself. Despite the simplicity of this idea, many people do not lead themselves; as if leadership was only measured by followers.

This is the first lesson in leadership: in order to remain an effective leader, one must practice rigorous self-leadership.

In the a follow-up book to their wildly popular The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes & Posner write, “Because leadership is personal, it also means that leadership development is self-development” (Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge, p. 122). The foundational text to self-leadership is Samuel Rima’s Leadership from the Inside Out.

The Call to Self-Leadership

The greatest issue facing leaders today is the disconnect between personal belief and public behavior (aka, authentic leadership). Increasingly, we hear of various leaders in our church, community, and government that are under public scrutiny for their personal choices and moral failures: pastors living lavish financial lifestyles, politicians having extra-marital affairs, businessmen swindling money. This dichotomy arises from a lack of self-mastery, or self-leadership.

For Rima restoring the art of self-mastery, or self-leadership will answer the call on our society’s need for authentic leadership: “…all effective, enduring leadership must be built on the foundation of effective self-leadership. It is our ability to successfully lead our own life that provides the firm foundation from which we can lead others” (p. 28).

Self-Leadership Defined

Self-leadership is defined as the ability to define personal mission and values, and to utilize resources to achieve goals and obtain effective, strong leadership others can rally to and hold confidence in. Though self-leadership can be treated as methodical, Rima argues that self-leadership is an art; there is some methodology behind it yes, but the most effective self-leadership style resembles the practices found in art. As with art, practicing self-leadership has its benefits, but often with significant costs.

Defining your Calling and calling

Self-leadership calls for the further discussion of our vocation, avocation, goals, and motivation. Self-leadership as a discipline is useless without defining and understanding one’s direction and motivation in life. First, the difference between vocation and avocation must be considered (or “Calling” and “calling,” respectively). Our Calling not only is our vocation but for those of the faith it is “to be reflectors of the wonderful light of God so that it will illumine the path of others and guide them to hear, understand, and respond to the Calling that God may be issuing to them as well.” (p. 58). Our calling, however, is the avenue through which we achieve our vocation; our “calling” supports our “Calling” often through ordinary employment. The point of intersection of these two—transcendental Calling and menial calling—is the explosive point in which one can find satisfaction in one’s avocation.

Applying Self-Leadership

Okay, you now know the why and what of self-leadership, but what about the “so what?” So what self-leadership should do is focus in holistically four areas of life to be in harmony with your vocation. The four spokes in a balanced practice of self-leadership are spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual.

  1. Spiritual: Leadership is a spiritual activity, and as such, a leader’s success or failure can be contributed to spiritual success or failure. Therefore, it is imperative to establish healthy leadership our spiritual lives, this the first venue is the most important, majority of public leadership failures might have been prevented if adequate leadership in soul care were exhibited. As Christians, and leaders within this context, special—and intensive—energy needs to be devoted to spiritual self-leadership, for out of the grace and love poured into us from God is how we are able to lead. If one cuts off the supply, how then can be appropriately and effectively lead? A Christian will not be able to lead effectively in this case, and in fact his leadership would be dead.
  2. Physical: Just as spiritual stagnation leads to fatal leadership, so also a lack of physical self-leadership leads to fatal leadership, and even literal physical death. What if you are a gifted leader who is passive in regards to physical self-leadership, and a heart attack claims your life and consequently your leadership? Your leadership and legacy are gone. The story alone acts as a great motivator to not allow inactive physical discipline to undermine one’s effective public leadership. I affirm strongly the need for a public leader to exhibit strong leadership in physical health to convey confidence to his followers that he is able to overcome the many obstacles to maintain the perseverance, physically, that leadership demands.
  3. Emotional: Emotional instability and lack of self-leadership can greatly undermine each of the three other venues of self-leadership, even if those areas are mastered. Dark moods can be a great barrier to others in our leadership and must be brought into control so that we can “fulfill our Calling and achieve our life goals,” (p. 192). No one is harder to follow than someone in leadership that cannot approach situations and others with emotions mastered.
  4. Intellectual: Self-leadership in the venue of intellect may be achieved the most naturally throughout the course of life, but too may be the hardest venue to make adequate time for. As Christian leaders we must, “recommit ourselves to the lifelong discipline of ongoing intellectual exploration, growth, development, and inter-disciplinary discourse” (p. 209). We need to become lifelong learners.

Why Self-Leadership is More than Self-Discipline

By now you’re wondering if self-leadership is actually just simple, old-fashioned discipline. If self-leadership is to be considered separate from personal discipline, what factor, or factors, would distinguish them apart? Personal discipline could be defined as intentional habits or practices directed towards personal effectiveness or growth. Conversely, self-leadership is the, “mobilization of necessary resources to realize something more beneficial and more effective at achieving their … stated mission” (p. 29).

Self-leadership, then, is intricately tied to accomplishing a stated mission, or pressing on to intersect our life with our vocation. The difference is subtle, personal discipline is directed towards inner growth, but without an explicit goal; self-leadership is missional inner-life discipline, aimed at realizing one’s Calling. Though the differences are covert, the assumption that self-leadership and personal discipline are the same is erroneous.

In Conclusion

There is a dire need to develop leaders who have holistic, integrative self-leadership in order to change the tide of public disdain and mistrust of leaders. This authentic leadership is achieved when someone brings their spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual spheres into alignment with their vocation. As it turns out, these are the best leaders to follow.

Have you heard of the idea of “Self-Leadership”–or one similar to it? Share your thoughts below if so, or even if not!

The next MOL writing will discuss writing a Leadership Development Plan which can be a dashboard for applying self-leadership and ensuring success in it.

A Student in Leadership

Last September I started a new chapter in my lifelong learning journey: graduate school. I selected to enroll in a Master’s of Organizational Leadership (MOL) at the school I work at (as of July 1, 2013 University of Northwestern St. Paul). Some call the MOL degree a “MBA with heart”; and it’s fairly accurate. I would say the distinctive factors of the MOL degree, especially at Northwestern, are threefold: leadership theory, business practice, and faith integration. This degree leads not to a CFO role, but I would content that it certainly can lead into a CEO role.

The MOL program is a great fit for me. I find leadership theory fascinating (especially its psychological roots) and already have spent 8 years reading leadership books and blogs, attending leadership conferences and seminars, and listening to leadership podcasts and lectures. The practical arm of business practice, or the “so-what” I have come to call it, is the silver lining of the program. It takes these theoretical’s batted in the classroom, boardroom, and office and gives it mobility. In the short months since beginning the program I have seen a noticeable increase of my influence in the workplace–awesome! Lastly, the gold mine of this program is the faith integration. As a Christian, how do I approach these topics? How do I lead intentionally? Ethically? Responsibly? How does authentic, servant leadership play into today’s world? The journey to answer to these is the highlight of the program! This is the MOL in 148 words, and the springboard into my future writing.

Nine months into the program now, and I start applying my half-degree to my blog and writing….one of the last areas for me examine. A brief look at my original intentions for a blog revealed that it was to process ideas in dialogical medium; the downside to my original intent was too broadly defined–it could be anything and everything. I found it hard to write, process, and post. Based on the data (I love data), people enjoyed posts which I don’t like writing. But yet I felt bound to write these; I withdrew my voice.

So like Tom Cruise in the film Jerry Maguire I wrote a Vision and Mission statement. This has helped shaped how I think about writing and engaging in discussions about what I am passionate about: leadership, productivity, and faith. Non-coincidentally these mirror the three distinctions of the MOL program and closely resemble what I am passionate about, what I am good at, and what I can do.

At the end of the day I will have spent 18 months of my life and thousands of dollars earning this degree. But my life will be changed. And hopefully, I will be a stronger leader in the kingdom of God as a result. For the final half of this graduate school journey I am on, I will write what I have learned. The big takeaways. The rough spots. The hard stances. Hopefully, and my intent, is to engage with you on these things and in the end, be mutually edified.

Road Map of things to come:

  • Self-Leadership
  • Leadership Development Plan
  • Leadership Styles and Theories
  • The Idea of Followership
  • My Working Definition of Leadership
  • Top Leadership Book Choices
  • Strategy and Leadership
  • Communication
  • …More to be identified!