TOP 10 TIPS
… to get the most out of your Graduate School experience while growing in your faith
By Serena Syme Hildenbrand
Welcome to graduate school in Boston! We’re so glad that you’re here, and confident that you’ll find it to be an amazing opportunity.
But it’s worth noting that the graduate school experience can create some particular challenges for those of us who follow Jesus. The biggest one is simply how time-consuming it is – it tends to squeeze out every non-grad school related activity in students’ lives. It can also present a worldview that may not sit easily with your faith.
The purpose of these tips is to provide suggestions on how you can go beyond just surviving graduate school and actually grow in your faith during your time here. This needn’t be a spiritually barren time for you – quite the reverse! We feel confident that these tips will help you experience the good things God has for you during your time in Boston.
Of course, we all know that the Christian faith isn’t about following rules. But, having said that, it’s still true that there are choices each of us can make to further our Christian life, or hinder it. So in these tips, we’ve assembled some of the habits that, over the years, have seemed to nourish the faith of graduate students. You don’t have to do all of them. But we think you’ll benefit from each one you try.
The habits are (in no particular order):
We always strongly encourage Christian graduate students to join a local church. It’s a great way to be part of something outside of your school, and be energized by participating in prayer, worship, fellowship and listening to Scripture. There are many lively churches in the area – check out our list at www.bostongrad.org. If you’re looking for a particular denomination or style, we’d be happy to provide some advice.
One other tip: we find that many of our students spend much of their first year in Boston "church shopping". This tends to get spiritually unsatisfying after a while. Given that you may only be here for 1-2 years, we encourage you to try to select a regular church earlier rather than later.
Life in graduate school is BUSY – there always seems to be lots of demands on every free second of your time. So is it unrealistic for us to suggest that you aim to spend time with God each day? We still think that it’s well worth it. Just as an experiment, try setting aside 15 minutes each day to enjoy God – see how it goes. A lot of people prefer to do this in the morning, before the day gets too busy; you may prefer to do it between classes or in the evenings. It’s up to you. Aim to do this at least 4-5 times a week, and we guarantee you’ll see some good results!
We can provide various resources and suggestions about how to spend this time. As a rule of thumb, it’s worth spending some of the time reading the Bible devotionally, some time praying, and some time worshiping -- relaxing in God’s presence and enjoying Him, perhaps with music on, or perhaps just thanking him, and listening to see if he has anything to say to you.
We’ve come across a lot of recommendations on how to spend daily time with God. Here are some helpful suggestions:
Some other useful daily resources:
InterVarsity Press’ Daily Quiet Time Guide (http://www.ivpress.com/bible/today.php). This changes daily, always including a short Bible text and questions to help explain and apply it.
LifeGuides Bible Studies (available at www.ivpress.com). These short Bible study guides cost about $5 each online and guide you through a book of the Bible (or a theme, like "Old Testament Characters") with a series of helpful questions. You can see some excerpts from the studies online.
In Old Testament times, Jewish people took one whole day each week (from sundown to sundown) to refrain from work, and to feast, worship and enjoy God. God took this very seriously – one of the 10 commandments requires his people to observe this weekly day of rest. While there are various arguments about whether God commands Christians to observe the Sabbath, it seems very likely that if you choose to do so, it will bring blessing (see, e.g., Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly).
Do you have to spend the whole of a Sabbath in church? Actually, there are no rules, but some suggested activities are: enjoying God through music, Scripture or prayer; going to church; feasting; spending time with friends and family; enjoying nature; napping; recreational reading; exercising etc. Some things that might be worth avoiding: study; anything that wears you down (such as shopping, errands, admin, email…); lots of TV; chores. These are all suggestions – it’s worth asking God and seeing how He encourages you to spend Sabbath time.
Can you get the same Sabbath effect by taking an hour off per day? In a word… no. There’s something special about setting aside a more extended time for God – it reminds us that we’re not in charge of the world, He is. An hour a day really doesn’t have that effect, and probably won’t lead to the same spiritual refreshment.
Taking a day off each week can be tough in graduate school, because study groups and major problem sets have a way of happening over the weekend. But, some of us have done it, and God really honored that commitment. Not to mention that it saved our sanity in some of the crunch times – having a day to spend with God, nature, friends and books in a busy time is a total luxury.
Here’s a fun story about Sabbath-keeping:
"The story is told of a wagon train on its way from St. Louis to Oregon. Its members were devout Christians, so the whole group observed the habit of stopping for the Sabbath day. Winter was approaching quickly, however, and some among the group began to panic in fear that they wouldn't reach their destination before the heavy snows. Consequently, several members proposed to the rest of the group that they should quit their practice of stopping for the Sabbath. Finally it was suggested that the wagon train should split into two groups - those who wanted to observe the Sabbath and those who preferred to travel on that day. The proposal was accepted, and both groups set out and traveled together until the next Sabbath day, when one group continued while the other remained at rest. Guess which group got to Oregon first? You're right. The ones who kept the Sabbath reached their destination first. Both the people and the horses were so rested by their Sabbath observance that they could travel much more vigorously and effectively the other six days of the week." (Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 65)
In any case, it’s worth thinking about – we think you’d be blessed by keeping a Sabbath.
"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:19-20)
There’s something very powerful about praying with other people. Each of our Graduate Christian Fellowships tries to organize regular open prayer meetings, and we encourage you to make one of those meetings part of your weekly schedule. Not only will your prayers have a powerful impact, but praying together builds a strong bond between people. Feel free to ask friends for prayer requests to bring to the meetings too – it’s amazing how responsive people are to offers of prayer.
If you can’t make it to one of the scheduled prayer meetings, you may like to organize your own with some friends… which brings us to the next tip.
Very often, we’ve found that the people who really grow in their faith in graduate school are part of a small group of Christian students who meet regularly to share about their lives and pray together. There are a number of benefits to this – it’s helpful to have people who will speak encouragement and advice into our lives, our prayers for one another are powerful, and regularly getting together with a small group of other Christians reinforces what we believe and why we believe it. It’s a very Biblical model too – you’ll notice that Jesus spent much of his time with small groups of disciples.
There’s often a great side effect too. Many people have commented that the active environment at most graduate schools tends to facilitate making lots of friends, but it can also hinder the formation of deep and lasting friendships. For the folks who have been in a small group, their relationships with others in the group are often the deepest friendships they form at the school.
If you’re interested in being part of a small group during your time in graduate school, you can find fellowship details at your school or one near you at http://www.bostongrad.org/ – go ahead and get involved!
We’ve already talked about reading the Bible devotionally, but studying it is a little different – it involves digging deeper, working hard with our hearts and minds to figure out what God is saying and how He wants us to apply it today. For those of us who believe that the Bible is God’s word and extremely relevant to our lives today, studying it becomes pretty important! Christians at many Boston graduate schools hold a weekly meeting to study a book of the Bible. Please join us at these meetings!
If you can’t make it to these Bible studies, we encourage you to make time in your schedule to study the Bible. You can do this at church, or at home (possibly with the aid of one of the resources mentioned above in section 2). However you do it, spending time immersed in God’s word will fuel your faith.
Jesus delights in seeing us love others in his name. Sharing our faith with others, whether through outreach or caring for people, can be hugely encouraging. It seems that as we give out in these ways, God feeds and resources us. Also, when we undertake these activities together, they seem to help build a sense of community very speedily.
We’re planning a number of opportunities for service and outreach this year:
If you have any ideas about service or outreach activities, please let us know.
Graduate students are generally not rich to start with, and most of us don’t earn much money during our time at school. So it seems like a bad time to be thinking about giving something away.
But… Jesus talks a lot about money, and emphasizes that where your money is going, that’s where your heart will be going (Matthew 6:21). Because of the power of money, we feel that it’s worth staying in the habit of giving during your time in graduate school – after all, you’re still quite wealthy compared to most of the world’s population. Maybe it’s just a few dollars a week that you give to a charity, or a homeless person, or your church. Maybe you decide to fast from lunch once a week and contribute that money to some good cause. However you do it, the act of giving communicates that you’re not placing your trust in student loan repayment schemes or savings plans, but in God. We’re very confident that God will bless that sacrifice, and give you a new sense of His abundance.
What does it mean to be a Christian policy professional? Business professional? Healthcare professional? Lawyer? Educator? Physicist? Musician? Do your vocational ideas square with your faith? How might God be wanting you to use the training you receive in graduate school?
One of our goals is to help students think Christianly about their studies, because we don’t think anyone is served by keeping their faith and their work in separate, airtight compartments. Our graduate fellowships seek to invite speakers, initiate discussions, design missions and service opportunities that use vocational and academic training and provide other opportunities to integrate their faith with their studies.
Maybe this should have been the first section! We’ve found from experience that by October or so, most graduate students are fully scheduled. Trying to introduce new elements into their schedules after that time is near impossible. So, if you think that the suggestions in these tips are important, our strong encouragement to you is to prioritize them, put them in your planner, and make them a habit right from the start. Yes, graduate school offers a lot of marvelous opportunities that you don’t want to miss. But we guarantee that each one of these suggestions could be an equally wonderful use of your time, and provide blessings that you will enjoy for the rest of your life.
Anyway, pray about it. If you feel like God is prompting you to step out in any of these areas, our strong encouragement is to make that a priority early in the year, and don’t be swayed from it.
Enjoy your time in graduate school! Your school is an amazing place, filled with wonderful opportunities. You can experience it fully and still give your faith plenty of room to grow – we’re praying that you will.
The LORD bless
you and keep you;