Pettit, Paul and R.Todd Mangum. Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2014. 137 pp. Pb; $14.99. Link to Kregel.
This is a short guide to maintaining a spiritual life in Seminary. There is nothing here on research skills, how to write seminary level papers or tips on memorizing Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. Pettit and Mangum’s focus is entirely on helping a new seminary student not only maintain spiritual fervor while studying at the graduate level, but also grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
First, Pettit and Mangum discuss Christian Maturity as a balance between the head and the heart. Here the authors draw a contrast between higher education and spiritual life. They use Psalm 26:2 as a model, “Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” I think they overplay the meaning of heart (לֵב, lev) as “emotions” in contrast to the head (כִּלְיָה, kilyah) as “motives or understanding, the mind” (31). The nouns appear in in parallel lines of poetry and were not intended to refer to distinct elements of human life. The noun כִּלְיָה refers to the inner parts of a sacrificial animal (Exod 29:13) probably the kidneys (Job 16:13, Lam 3:13). The word refers to deep, inner emotions (Ps 73:21). The noun לֵב refers to virtually the same thing, including emotions and inclinations, even determination and courage. While I agree there is a need for balancing the “heart and the head,” to appeal to these particular Hebrew words seems to go beyond the evidence. I think their point is good, although the way they make the argument is flawed. (Ironically, the fact I make this point might well indicate I am an arrogant seminary graduate who needs to balance my heart and head better!)
The second chapter contrasts learning about God with living for God. The authors make the excellent point that good doctrine and training does not make a good leader. Having an M.Div does not automatically qualify someone for a pastorate. Seminary can breed a kind of arrogance which seriously hinders the effectiveness of a young pastor. I appreciate Pettit and Mangum’s honesty in describing seminaries as “ideological entities.” Most seminaries exist to serve a denomination and it is possible someone can come out of a seminary with the idea they are the ones with all the answers. Most people “in the pew” are not particularly interested in the things Seminary professors get excited about. (How many sermons to you hear on the New Perspective on Paul or the current state of the Documentary Hypothesis?) The training is important, but so too is real world experience serving people where they are at.
Third, Pettit and Mangum develop their “head and the heart” and argue for the practice of spiritual discipline for the Seminarian. They list some 22 spiritual disciplines as well as 14 academic disciplines that are essential if a person is to succeed in Seminary. Most of these are obvious (prayer, devotions, meditation, fasting, worship, etc.), although I was happy to see practices like retreat and secrecy listed as spiritual disciplines. So too the academic disciplines are somewhat obvious (attend class, do good research, respect your teachers), but there were a few items on the list I thought were excellent suggestions most people do not consider. For example, eating right and exercising is a good academic discipline. Most students do not see a connection between classroom performance and their diet, but professors who are cursed with after-lunch lectures know how a fast-food lunch affects the brain of the learner! I was happy to see “citation” as an academic discipline, since plagiarism is a major problem in graduate school, even in seminaries. Citing a source properly is not only honest, it will save the student work later when they develop their work further. (Nothing is more embarrassing than discovering something you thought you “wrote” was actually something you learned and failed to cite properly!)
The fourth chapter warns the potential seminarian of “spiritual frostbite.” Here they have in mind the old joke (usually told by old pastors): “When I was in cemetery, oh, I mean seminary….” It is very easy for one’s spiritual life to wither and die while intensely studying Scripture in seminary! Pettit and Mangum suggest the seminary study clarify their motives (why are they in school in the first place) and work hard at spiritual disciplines. They warn against the sort of critical spirit common among graduate students, looking down on teachers they consider beneath them. While they do not give any real examples of this, think of how Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll is vilified among the “intellectual elite” (including myself). It is very easy for someone who does not like the New Perspective to mock N. T. Wright (he lived in a castle, bah!)
One of the best antidotes for arrogance and pride is humble service. Chapter five therefore focuses on service as a part of graduate studies. Most seminaries have strong service components as part of their programs, so it is possible a seminarian thinks of themselves as “serving the church.” But there is something healthy about serving in ways that humble – an M.Div student teaching the JrHigh AWANA group might be just the thing to keep one’s pride in check. (I did this in seminary, and it was indeed humbling!) While a person might be qualified to preach to thousands on Sunday morning, maybe it is necessary to serve by being a camp counselor, or playing games with the youth group.
Last, Pettit and Mangum discuss the need for the seminarian to work hard at preserving relationships with family and friends. When I first picked up this book, I expected it to have a major section on preserving one’s marriage while pursuing a seminary degree. Many seminaries see this as a major issue and have programs to help the spouse of a potential pastor cope with their support role (usually far more than “how to be a good pastor’s wife” is needed!) There is less in this chapter on marriage than I expected, however. Pettit and Mangum encourage the seminarian to develop quality friendships in order to balance education and social needs, for accountability and personal encouragement.
Conclusion. This is a very positive book that encourages someone entering seminary to consciously dedicate themselves to spiritual growth during their years of preparation for ministry. I think there is room for an additional chapter that is “less positive,” perhaps some warnings away from behaviors which can deaden spiritual life. I expected to see something about managing one’s time and avoiding things like excessive video gaming. I have known far too many students with a great deal of potential who failed courses due to video game addiction. Inappropriate use of the Internet seems to be another obvious problem missing here. Despite it being an obvious problem, it seems young men especially need to be warned about internet porn (although this is mentioned on page 38, the topic is not developed beyond a few lines). Since the book is about personal spiritual development, there is nothing in the book about managing finances during grad school. Most married seminary students know the struggle of working full-time in order to pay for classes, books, and living expenses. Being a married couple studying for ministry puts enormous strain on a marriage and finances is usually one of the major flash-points in a marriage.
This is still useful book, the kind of book a church might give to a person heading off to a Bible College or Seminary to prepare for ministry.
Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.