A Methodist’s Head and Heart Together in a Baptist Seminary

When I was asked to share some of my experience in this seminary, I was honored but also thought I was an odd invitee to do so for a couple of reasons. First, as Dr. Greg Tomlin put it after helping me with a paper I wrote on Thomas Merton in his seminar, I am a Methodist student in a Baptist seminary who really likes to write about a Catholic.

 

A second oddity about me is that I have never been on a typical PhD trajectory. My responses are consistently unclear whenever someone asks me, “What will you do with the degree when you are finished?” I have never yet expressed anything resembling a career plan related to all the work that goes into a PhD program. Nevertheless, I love this school and this program, and here is a bit of my story.

 

I first heard of B. H. Carroll years ago when I saw the name on a brochure while standing in line at another church in my community to register my son for a children’s basketball league. I did not look at the brochure long enough for anything significant about the school to register in my memory––certainly not that Carroll had a PhD opportunity. That brochure did help me, however, to recognize the school’s name years later when my study itch that never seems to go away flared up. I was scrolling through doctoral programs listed on the Association of Theological Schools website and saw Carroll’s name again. I was intrigued to see that there was an accredited PhD program that would not require me to quit my job and move my family. It looked like the program might even have the rare room in its model for me to study spiritual formation at this level since PhD programs in spiritual formation almost don’t exist.

 

It felt like a long shot, but sometimes the long shots are worth taking, so I sent an email inquiry. I was very unsure about how the initial conversation would go. In my previous years of studying spiritual formation in various settings, I have observed that some Baptists speak spiritual formation language with as much depth and fluency as anyone else, some others aren’t very familiar with the term, and there are still other Baptists who might immediately write me off as a heretic for having any interest in the subject. I had no idea which of these categories of Baptists I was contacting. Thankfully, it only took a few minutes into my first conversation with Dr. Karen Bullock to realize that she was speaking spiritual formation with knowledge and fluency, and yes––this group of Baptists had room for an abnormal Methodist to study spiritual formation.

 

Within less than a week after that conversation, I was studying German and working on application materials. Every day of the years since has been evidence that not only has this program had room for me, but this program (which, after years of looking, is still the only one I have ever seen that even met the minimum requirements of being a possibility for me as someone who wanted to study spiritual formation and whose life in west Texas is hours away from any theological school) has exceeded my expectations––even exceeded my hopes––for what studying in a PhD program could be like. 

 

On the one hand, my impostor syndrome is still active and frequently tells me that it is just around the next corner that the school is going to contact me and say, “We are sorry to say so, Daniel, but we have just looked back through your file. We don’t know how we missed it when you applied, but it turns out that you are underqualified and incompetent to be here.” On the other hand, when I can tell that imaginary voice to be quiet, it settles down, and I become more aware of my level of gratitude for this community––in which I experience the engagement of my mind that I need to feel alive, the involvement of my heart that I need to feel whole, and the relationships with others whose minds and hearts are on similar journeys. These dynamics are so invaluable that if I had the option of not having to do all of this work and rewinding my life to its pre-B. H. Carroll days, I would decline that option a thousand times.

 

One of my seminary professors often used the phrase, “the kingdom of God lurches forward,” and that also aptly describes the pace of my dissertation writing. However, the pace is okay with me because I got into this program due to my study itch and love of the subject rather than a specific career goal. I do not know what shape my calling will take after the dissertation eventually lurches across the finish line. Still, I am certain that my being part of B. H. Carroll will be a part of me doing what the Lord puts in front of me with meaning and depth. I have more clarity that it will involve the research skills I have gained and the relationships developed, I do hope that it will involve some continued teaching along the way.

 

Rather than specifying a form of work I am hoping for, I can address the question of what I’ll do with this program by taking the chance to toss in my favorite quote from the central person in my dissertation. Robert Mulholland taught New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and was one of the major early contributors to the spiritual formation movement. He comments on the passage from near the end of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus makes it clear that even some who prophesy in his name, drive out demons in his name, perform many miracles, and have remarkably successful ministries will have missed the point because he did not know them. When I read Dr. Mulholland’s comments, it was one of those times when someone says something in a few sentences that suddenly explains decades of your life. I started in full-time ministry with grand hopes. I didn’t know it then, but I really wanted to be in the category of those who could come to Jesus and say, “Lord, look at all of these things that happened in your name! We’ve spoken your word with power, demons are gone from people, and miracles are happening.”

 

I never reached those ministry successes, and a significant part of my story is the depletion I experienced from the pursuit of them. Actually, depletion is too light of a word. After about eleven years in full-time ministry, there was a time when my father was dying, and my ministry role felt like an immense burden–I was beyond depleted and had days when it felt like I could not get out of bed.

 

Dr. Mulholland characterizes the group in the parable with the ministry successes to report as being “in the world for God.” He says this, “they were so busy being in the world for God that they failed to be in God for the world. There is a great difference between these two ways. [He says often we “will expend amazing amounts of energy and resources to be in the world for God. But, you see, we are called to be in God for the world.” [1]

 

I have experienced that path of attempting to be in the world for God. But this seminary has been an invaluable experience in cultivating my capacity for being in God for the world. I hope that the current and future ministers and scholars who study here can get a taste of the second of those two ways––the one Jesus indicates when he says his Father’s will is not the list of ministry successes, but that he would know us. I continue to work on this PhD so that I can taste more of what this means in the life given to me, and the more I add the study of spiritual formation to the experience of it, the more convinced I am that life in God for the world is the only way that such a life of genuine relationship with God is cultivated in those whom God brings into our paths. 

 

– – – – – – –

 

[1] M. Robert Mulholland, Jr, The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 47-48.

Published: May 21, 2024

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