Walking into the woodsThere’s a common expression in the church that seminary can cause you to “lose your Jesus.” Students are busy with papers, exams, and internships, and the process of critically engaging questions of theology may lead to doubts about long-held beliefs or a shift in one’s relationship with God. Students who enter seminary with the firmest of spiritual beliefs and practices might feel that come midterms, they’re lucky if they find time to brush their teeth, let alone pray.  

At this year's New Student Orientation on Aug. 22-24, Candler addressed this problem head-on, dedicating the entire afternoon of the first day to spiritual formation.

“When I talk about spiritual disciplines with other seminarians, they say, ‘That sounds nice, but I don’t have time for that,’ which is as porous an argument as ‘I don’t have time to pull over for gas because I’m driving too much,” second-year MDiv student Tyler Sit told Candler's incoming students at the event.

For the first time, the orientation schedule “pulled over for gas,” devoting four hours to educating new students about carving out time for spiritual formation and the different types of practices and resources available to them. While the rest of the orientation schedule, such as workshops about navigating the academic world of Candler, remained the same, the placement of the spiritual formation program on the first day was intentional, according to Assistant Dean of Student Life and Spiritual Formation Ellen Echols Purdum.  

When Kimberly Broerman 00T was at Candler, she felt that finding out about spiritual formation opportunities was more of a solitary journey, apart from Candler. Broerman, a spiritual director and creator of Deep Waters Center for Prayer and Exploration in Atlanta, led part of the program on spiritual practices. “It is wonderful to have a more intentional approach to these practices for new students,” she said.

“I remember what it was like to be here, and the struggles of balancing life and prayer,” she said. “I wanted to speak directly to that and let people know that finding the time for spiritual formation can be hard, but it’s important. And more than just talking about it, I wanted to allow people to try spiritual formation on for size, provide the opportunity for students to practice and engage.”

To that end, Broerman introduced all of the new students to Lectio Divina, an ancient method of reading, praying and meditating on Scripture. Though the group as a whole didn’t go through the traditional steps of Lectio, individuals were given a half-hour to contemplate a Bible passage alongside a list of guided reflection questions.

Students also had the chance to explore one other spiritual discipline during a break-out session. Choices included centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, and centering art, among others. Emory’s Quad was dotted with new students journaling, while other students ventured to Baker Woodland for a contemplative walk. Some students chose to learn more about the prayers of the Daily Office and the reflective Examen.

The day also included a panel of four second- and third-year students reflecting on spiritual formation and offering tips for incorporating it into a seminarian’s life. The current students recommended activities both simple—coloring, seeking out beautiful spaces on Emory’s campus, deep breathing—and more involved, such as visiting a spiritual director or going on a silent retreat with the Office of Student Programming.

Each of the panel members mentioned the importance of worship at Cannon Chapel in their spiritual lives, and Associate Dean of Worship and Music Barbara Day Miller was on hand to introduce students to the chapel’s architecture and significance. 

“Cannon Chapel is a very movable space, which I think makes a wonderful metaphor for the growing that will happen in you while you are here,” she said. “When we move the seats, the place is still recognizable, but it gives us a new perspective. It has an unfinished feel, which is also a metaphor for who we are to God. We’re being worked on in many ways. Don’t always sit where you sat today.”

Timothy Hankins, an incoming MDiv student from Knoxville, appreciated orientation’s emphasis on spiritual formation. “I think it shows a great deal of insight on the part of the administration to devote a full afternoon to something so important in the life of a student pursuing this type of degree,” he said. “In an academic setting, it’s easy to get caught up in school, so it was good to have a reminder to carve out the time to sustain myself spiritually.”

Boston native and incoming MDiv Danielle Simpson agreed: “Building up a person’s spirit is part of a pastor’s job, but to help the people of God spiritually, you have to be strong spiritually as well,” she said. “It was a good reminder to not just build up your head, but also to build up your heart.”

As Day Miller told the group, “This place will not steal your Jesus. It will help you discover more deeply who Jesus is for you.”