Making God a Priority In Grad School: How to Avoid the Spiritual Comb Over

calendar photoAs we enter the truly frenetic part of the semester, ESN writer Scott Santibanez shares a humorous and wise reflection on making time for God in grad school. Browse Scott’s other work for ESN here.

Biographical Note: Tito Scott Santibañez is a slightly balding adjunct professor at Emory University. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.


Two decades ago, I moved to a new city that I’d never visited before to start a post-doc fellowship. The work was interesting and the hours fairly regular, at least at first. When I arrived in the city, I wanted to make my walk with God a priority. This meant being part of a community. My first few months, I visited different congregations to find a good fit. I began to make friends with whom I could explore spiritual questions. I found places where I could serve. About a year into my post-doc, we had an emergency at work that required late hours in the office, seven-days a week for several weeks. It was a stressful, exhausting time. I was thankful that when I did have a night off, I could go somewhere where I could be with God and people who cared about me.

Those of us who have ever moved to a new city or begun a new school or work situation realize that it can be a difficult adjustment. An important consideration is where our walk with God will fit amidst all of life’s competing interests. The alternative to prioritizing our walk with God is to try to fake it and see if no one notices. I think that someone trying to fake his or her spiritual life is kind of like being a bald guy with a really bad comb over. His hair starts on one side of his head and is flapped expertly to the other. How did he get to this point? He probably didn’t wake up one day and decide, “I think I’ll go with the comb over look.” In reality, the road to the comb over is a treacherous, slippery slope. It starts with barely noticeable hair loss. Maybe using conditioner will make it look like I have more hair. Perhaps parting on the left side is better than parting on the right. Then it could be waiting an extra month between haircuts to disguise the thinning. It might work for a while, but eventually the only person you’re fooling is yourself.

Your faith during grad school can end up kind of like a spiritual comb over. A lot of people don’t necessarily one day decide, “I think I’ll walk away from God.” You start a busy program. You don’t have time to find a church or connect with a campus ministry. Six months go by, then a year. Parents and old friends ask how you are doing spiritually. Maybe you can fake it and no one will notice. “Once in a while I go to such-and-such Bible study,” you tell them, but actually you went once and haven’t been back.

Like its illusory male grooming counterpart, the spiritual comb over works for a while, but eventually, the only person you’re fooling is yourself. A campus ministry friend once told me, “Some students say that they are putting their spirituality on hold to concentrate on academics. But in reality they are not putting their spiritual growth on hold, they are losing it. They need to see their whole life transformed in the Spirit. Its not like the pressures of life are going to go away later in their career. So they have got to learn these habits now. They need to realize that their whole life they will be busy. If they continue to put spiritual growth on hold until they are less busy, then one day they will wake up and be 50 years old and still be a spiritual infant.”

Beware the allure of the spiritual comb over. During your first semester, plan ahead to find a church or Bible study that works for you. Establish regular spiritual disciplines like praying and studying the Bible. If you recognize that you have somehow started to fade away from God and aren’t where you once were spiritually, it’s okay. It’s never too late. God does not condemn us. He loves us and will welcome us back.

Committing to grow spiritually as well as academically in grad school will enable you to one day look back and see how, over time—through daily struggles, friendships, and consistent awareness of who you are in Christ—your faith in God has grown strong.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you ever moved to a new city where you did not know anyone? Describe the circumstances.
  2. Describe your program or field of study. Does your career field have any stressful situations when you will need to work late over an extended period of time? Explain.
  3. What kinds of things usually occupy your time? For example, it could be exercise, movies, music, relationships, outdoor activities or social media.
  4. What activities do you think are essential to cultivating a walk with God?
  5. If you were to go through a difficult period in which you only had a very limited amount of free time, how would you fill that space?
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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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