Bring your Jesus with you: advice for religious leaders working in a secular world

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood,
whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be.
As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks-
we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.
(Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 16)

A plethora of religion nerds

Here’s the thing about seminary: everyone talks about religion — all. the. time.

I studied religion at a Catholic college and then later at an inter-denominational graduate school. And over those years, I met all kinds of religion nerds:

earth-loving Pagans who taught me to spiral dance,
liberal Catholics who were getting arrested protesting the School of the Americas,
Dominican brothers who could quote Aquinas by chapter and verse,
queer ministers who had been kicked out of multiple denominations before even getting to seminary,
mainline Protestants who were excited about the Emergent church movement….

You get the picture.

And we all talked about religion all the time. I don’t just mean in class. I mean at parties, and over dinner, after mid-week chapel services, at bars, on family vacations, with our therapists, all. the. time.

And it was challenging and annoying and enriching and edifying. And it was my whole world for a lot of years — that is, until I graduated.

Entering the “real” (aka secular) world

After I finished my Masters, I wandered around aimless and lost for a while before landing a job working in Oakland’s public schools.

And suddenly, all that God talk was gone, all the religion nerds were really far away, and all the spirituality got sucked right out of my life.

I won’t lie: It was a tough transition.

However, I feel more prepared for religious leadership now, after a year of working in a secular environment, than I did in the months after my graduation. I feel more able to maintain healthy spiritual practices and more in touch with my identity as a Christian. A year away felt like hitting the “reset” button for my seminary-wearied soul.

Advice for seminary graduates

I’m not going to go into the whole debate of a secular/religious dichotomy; I’ll leave that up to you and your dinner table conversation. But I am going to offer some advice to spiritual leaders and post-seminarians who find themselves outside the walls of religious work and struggling with the adjustment.

  • Find new spiritual community

Seminarians are inundated with resources for spiritual growth. Not that they’re necessarily helpful or relevant, but they are available. It can be a bit of a system shock to find yourself devoid of those familiar options when you leave. Instead of trying to maintain the fellowship connections you had in school, find new communities to invest in. Schools are transitory places, everyone is always coming and going: you can’t take that community with you. Find new avenues for connection: a church, a small group, a bible study, a prayer meeting, a worship service. After grad school, I left my church and started going to a weekly service, held on my former campus, that I’d rarely attended while I was a student. I found the change really helpful and healthy.

  • Develop new spiritual practices

The rhythm of life in graduate school can be drastically different from the rhythm of life in the “working” world. Switch it up! Try new forms of self-care, prayer, worship, devotions, and scriptural study that are better suited to your new life patterns and needs. (Personally, I think this advice applies to all religious leaders, everywhere. Don’t think that your spiritual disciplines need to stay consistent over your whole life. God is spicy and new all the time — don’t be afraid to explore that!)

  • Bring your Jesus with you

If you finished seminary and have somehow found yourself working as a barista at the local coffee shop: you are not alone. Many of the seminarians I studied with aren’t working in any kind of traditional “ministry.” That does not mean they are not ministering. If you are feeling like your spiritual life is lonely and dry without the religious community of seminary (as I was), re-frame the way you think about your vocation. You have to integrate your spiritual life into your daily work life; you have to deepen your own connection with God. No one else can do that for you. That’s why you’re trained to be the fabulous, creative religious leader you are!

  • Give yourself time to heal

Graduate school is not easy for anyone. And combining your spiritual life with your academic life with your professional life is a tall order. It can take some time to put the pieces back together. If you aren’t sure what your vocational path should look like, give yourself time to figure it out. (I love the Quaker practice of holding Clearness Committees to bring accountability and support to decision-making and discernment.) If you see people doing the kind of ministry you dream of doing, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them questions. If you don’t see anyone doing the kind of ministry you dream of doing, don’t be afraid to start taking small steps toward making your vision a reality.

– – –

For me, serving an Americorps term of public service gave me the time I needed to create space in my spiritual and professional life to discern my next steps. When I started, it felt like I was moving too slowly, or getting off track, with my career. Looking back, however, I’m grateful for a chance to experience secular work — partly so I could recognize how much I missed spiritual work!

If you’re a seminary grad, what does your ministry look like? How did your spiritual community and practices change after graduation? What was the hardest part about the transition for you?


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Filed under My Faith Journey, Spirituality, Theology and Faith

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