Ben Wormleighton offers this rationale for a postdoc spiritual formation group. We’re hoping to launch such a group by early November. If you like the idea of connecting in such a group with other postdocs, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Supporting and ministering to faculty is markedly different to undergraduate and graduate ministry. The season of life for undergraduate or graduate students consists of moments where change is expected, where identity is supposed to be in process, and where new and lasting relationships will ideally begin. Most members of these populations, at least at traditional four-year institutions, do not have kids, are unmarried and, while they seek to balance demanding workloads, often have relatively high time flexibility. If you will, in these senses undergraduate and graduate students are lot more like initiates to a monastic order than faculty are.
There’s a group that I’ve excluded, and that is often excluded, from this taxonomy: postdocs. Not graduate students, not quite faculty, with a wide variation of experiences across fields. For instance, a postdoc in chemistry might have a lab experience that feels somewhat like a very senior graduate student, or a postdoc in mathematics — such as myself — might feel like a ‘baby professor’ with minimal supervision, a reduced teaching load, and essentially nonexistent expectations of department service.
Many postdocs are single or in the early stages of a committed relationship — potentially due to location instability, which can impact many areas of postdoc life. For many structural reasons it also seems that postdocs are a growing population worth factoring into how discipleship happens on campus.
Our central question, then, is how can we craft spaces that support and minister to Christian postdocs, leading them to thrive spiritually, relationally, and vocationally?
I want to first make the case that providing spiritually formative and relationally fruitful spaces uniquely for postdocs is an exciting prospect, and then discuss some ideas for how to actually realize such spaces. This is intended to be a conversation-starter, far from a finished product.
Perhaps the first approach, which seems like the current default in many contexts, is to let individual postdocs decide which pre-existing space works best for them; e.g. the imaginary chemistry postdoc above might join a graduate student fellowship, while the math postdoc might join a faculty group (as I have). However, there are some issues with this approach. Postdocs often hold authority positions over graduate students, and might want to be preparing themselves for a future faculty position rather than looking back to their years as a graduate student. But postdocs might not always feel welcome in faculty spaces, nor are those spaces necessarily tailored to their experience. I’ve experienced this personally: at a Christian faculty retreat I was asked over lunch by a senior professor whether I thought postdocs should be welcome at faculty events. And it is understandable for time-strapped faculty to invest less in forming relationships with postdocs who have a very high chance of moving on in 1-3 years.
Asides from not always having an easy home in existing spaces, I claim that there are potent opportunities for spiritual formation as a postdoc. In contrast to students and faculty, the role of postdoc is by nature liminal, a temporary pathway to something else.
One of the main objectives as a postdoc, at least in my context, is to further develop and publicly establish the academic identity started in the latter stages of graduate school. Put a little more poetically, one of the central purposes of being a postdoc is identity formation. And those distinctions from mainstream faculty life I described above — low expectations for teaching, service, supervision — are geared to support this peculiarly transient stage of the academic life cycle.
What if, combined with the relatively reduced constraints of early family life, these freedoms also empowered periods of meaningful spiritual maturation not only for the present, but to prepare Christian postdocs for the privilege of the future influence they will wield and the very real spiritual challenges that accompany it?
I can’t help but think that a narrative where serious spiritual formation for academics is demoted to something that occurs after tenure is ultimately hollow, and faces the danger of our loudest formative voices being those from career without a persistent prophetic voice to put them in their place. One step I believe that we, young academics, can take towards a different narrative is to lead and participate in spaces that communally form us into Christ’s likeness.
So, what might a communally formative experience for postdocs look like?
An idea that Bob Trube and I have been working on is to offer spaces for Christian postdocs grounded by shared spiritual commitments: concrete spiritual practices (or boundaries) that orient relationship towards mutual Christ-likeness. Two practices to which we’ve been especially attracted are sabbath and intercession: ancient ways of opposing the malformation of acquisition and relentless productivity, and of pressing into the greater reality of a kingdom of shalom. We hope that in practicing these commitments and connecting regularly about them along with other aspects of spiritual life, postdocs like me can experience solidarity and intentionality as we seek to resemble Christ in our present season.
Let’s conclude by noting that there is so much precedent for liminal spaces being uniquely formative in scripture. Likely the greatest liminal space, the first Holy Saturday, was observed as a sabbath by the women who go from preparing for burial to being the first to encounter the risen Jesus once the sabbath has passed. Perhaps young academics will resonate more with the liminal forty years of wandering Israel spent in the wilderness…
Holy God, lead us to engage with the liminal in our context and to find Your fruit already growing there.
About the author:
Ben is a postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis working on getting different geometries to talk to each other. When not doing academic work he practices/dreams about the sabbath, crafts cocktails, and wanders around outside (sometimes quickly). One of Ben’s regrets is losing his British accent.