Spiritual Disciplines for Graduate School

runner photoAt Emerging Scholars Network, we love to crowdsource ideas for following Christ faithfully and serving others well in the academic life. In the 2018/2019 academic year, we’ve been sharing brief insights on how to grow spiritually in the academic life from many of the writers in our network. Read the series to date here, or check out more of Chandra’s work for ESN at this link.

In my role as a campus minister over the last 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of helping students embrace the value of simple, flexible, and defined spiritual disciplines. Or, to put it more succinctly, the urgency of having healthy boundaries between spiritual disciplines which give life and energy, and spiritual disciplines which require effort and sacrifice. Yes, all our life and efforts are to be a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord; a believer is no longer the CEO of his or her own life. But there must be healthy rhythms of work and rest to be able to honor the Lord well.

I have seen many a graduate student struggle to make the transition from one season of life to another: from undergrad to grad school, from grad school to post graduate education; from living by oneself to living in community (and perhaps back again). Those quiet times, Bible studies and retreats (for example) that are easily available in undergrad are usually numerous, and time is usually more flexible than it is in grad school. The realities of graduate school are often not enough time, money, or energy. So trying to do the exact same spiritual disciplines in a new season of life is often a recipe for disaster.

But that doesn’t mean abandoning spiritual disciplines altogether. In the same way that habits of exercise, staying in touch with loved ones, and sleep must flex in each new season of life, so must spiritual habits. A new season may require a discipline which is more simple—that is, streamlined, shorter, and/or less rigorous. Those who had a morning quiet time of an hour in undergrad may find that they only have 20 minutes to consistently spare once graduate school starts. Accepting this limitation isn’t “settling” so much as settling in, understanding one’s finite nature (as opposed to God’s omnipotence), and adjusting to the realities of a new stage in life.

And although there are distinct markers in graduate school which separate one season from the next (qualifying exams, classes, internships, research and writing efforts, etc.), spiritual disciplines must be flexible enough to handle the constant changes in our lives as our schedules are interrupted and rearranged, and as our energy and stress levels ebb and flow. If we are too rigid in our definition of Sabbath, for example, we may find that a necessary trip or study group on a Sunday completely throws off our church-going habits. Far better to acknowledge the reality of an out of town conference over the weekend and to seek God’s people during a weekly Bible study or community group, than to have no time with fellow believers at all. Contingency plans are a necessary part of life in a broken world.

And before anyone objects to my above statement, let me remind the reader of the final adjective in the beginning list of values: simple, flexible, and defined. Defining ahead of time what is and isn’t healthy or acceptable can make all the difference when hectic situations arise. While simple flexibility is key, keeping boundaries in mind is also of utmost importance. Though the definition of Sabbath may vary from believer to believer based on theological convictions, whatever you decide is going to be your Sabbath, follow it. For some, this does mean turning down research, speaking, or networking opportunities to always be at one’s home church on a Sunday. For others, it is the aforementioned idea of finding weekly times to gather with God’s people, with contingencies as needed. In terms of prayer, some folks will find that prayer can dovetail well with a regularly scheduled walk, and others may find it necessary to pray during the commute or right before bed.

The key to riding out the storms and discrepancies of life is understanding that there are some things we are asked to do by the Lord by way of our service to him: our daily work and studies, taking care of family members, balancing the budget, etc. Those are good, right, and important things, not necessary evils. But we are also asked by the Lord to do some things to be served by him—to have our feet washed by our humble savior Jesus. There is often an overlap in these things in reality—teaching Sunday School or caring for coworkers, for example. I affirm that we find healing in integrating our faith with our practice, in believing that there is no part of our lives over which Jesus does not reign. But as frail, human creatures, we also need to make some distinctions so that we do not find ourselves over-exhausted by too much work and serving, or made callous by too much rest and receiving.

And the best news of all is, when we inevitably mess up—when we forget to read our Bible, or watch too much TV, or find ourselves attending a Bible study as an excuse (not a healthy respite) to avoid our studies, God is there. His grace abounds, and he is able to give—and does give, over and over!—rest, stamina, and joy for each season of life, each grad school milestone, each moment of every day until someday we see him face-to-face, and our strivings are over, our joy complete.

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Chandra Crane

Chandra Crane works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries, is finishing up her Master of Arts at Reformed Theological Seminary, and is a member of the multiethnic Redeemer Presbyterian in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in a multiethnic/multicultural family in the Southwest and now happily transplanted to the Deep South, Chandra is passionate about diversity and family. She is married to Kennan, graduate student turned civil engineer, and they have two spunky daughters. She is the author of a forthcoming book about multiethnic identity in Christ, due from InterVarsity Press in 2020. Chandra enjoys reading, napping, and defying stereotypes. You can follow her random thoughts on Twitter: @ChandraLCrane

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