The 72-acre campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis is a place where faith abounds. Theological study is second nature here. The Word of God is taught and preached far beyond the walls of the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus.
For many students, some of their most profound and faith-buildingencounters have come before they became seminarians. For others, the experiences occur during their Seminary years. These spiritual experiences bring the idea of “living, daring confidence of God’s grace” beyond a mere Luther quote to a reality, where stepping out in faith comes with both risk and reward and leads to an assured reminder that the God they serve reveals Himself in awesome ways.
“Through these kinds of experiences, students receive opportunities to meet people outside the church who do not know Jesus, and they learn how to share their faith with them,” said Dr. Timothy Saleska, dean of Ministerial Formation. “This promises to shape them into pastors and deaconesses who will witness boldly to their Lord and Savior wherever they will be called in the future.”
Seminarian endures spiritual highs and lows on the Appalachian Trail
In July 2016, Jared Townley stood at the summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and marveled at the beauty before him.
“You walk up a mountain and on to the ledge, and you look out and you wonder — how can people say there is no God?” Townley recalled.
It was the culmination of a grueling five-month climb on the Appalachian Trail, the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, spanning 2,190 miles and 14 states. Townley, who never considered himself an “outdoorsy” type person, decided to hike the trail before he began taking Master of Divinity classes at Concordia Seminary in fall 2016.
“Several pastors I know encouraged me to have some kind of real-world experience before coming to the Seminary,” Townley explained. After earning his undergraduate degree, he moved back in with his parents for a year, worked at a Sam’s Club and topped off the time with the hike. He said he was attracted to the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail for the sheer challenge of it. He also wanted to meet people from all walks of life.
That moment atop Mount Katahdin is a favorite of Townley’s, but he admits that day-to-day life on the trail was strenuous and challenging. He walked an average of 15 miles a day, oftentimes alone, carrying 20 to 30 pounds of gear and supplies. He had to purify his water and boil his food. At night, he usually slept in a wooden shelter alongside other hikers. He climbed through snow in March in Georgia, broke his eyeglasses and his cell phone, and nearly lost his backpack rain cover, forcing him to chase it across a field in wind and rain. However, Townley said the biggest test for him was spiritual.
“I didn’t go to church once for five months,” Townley said. “I missed a very important aspect of my life in not taking the Sacraments, and that was a big challenge. On top of that, I ran out of energy to do anything else besides walk. So that meant I didn’t feel like I had time to read the Bible in the morning before heading out on the trail because that extra half an hour meant the difference between doing 15 miles and 20 miles before dark.”
Journaling along the way, Townley referred to his time on the trail as a “spiritual desert.” He wrote wrenching prayers and felt isolated from God. Townley referred to faith in Christ as a “taboo topic” on the trail and deeply missed the support of a Christian community. He even felt anxiety about attending the Seminary, concerned that he didn’t have the spiritual fitness.
Even so, Townley said he found two spiritual outlets during his trek. He most felt God’s presence in creation. He was awed over and over by the scenery along the trail. Comfort also came in the form of a fellow hiker.
“His trail name was ‘Sooner or Later,’ and he was a pastor in New Hampshire,” Townley said. “He talked about faith quite a bit. I was always looking for people to engage with and with whom I could talk about faith. We had some good talks. Those conversations encouraged me.”
Now, over a year after returning home from the trek, Townley calls it a teachable experience and plans to use it in future ministry. He’s already used it as a sermon illustration in his Homiletics I class and says he has plenty more stories to share. Looking ahead to vicarage next year and eventually his first call, Townley says the tough spiritual times he has experienced will be beneficial in providing confident pastoral care.
“When people go through seasons of doubt or despair in their faith, I’ll be able to be there for them,” Townley said. “I’ve been there too.”
Deaconess student boldly steps up for the unborn
When she is not taking classes or studying, deaconess student Rachell Highley works with Coalition for Life in St. Louis, which offers free services to women and families through pro-life organizations in a nonconfrontational and Christ-centered way.
Highley works one-on-one with pregnant women in the Coalition’s Women’s Care Connect program, where she counsels them and tries to help them with their needs during and after pregnancy, such as housing and employment.
“Most of the women want to be able to keep their babies, but they just think they can’t,” Highley said. “So it’s about educating them and empowering them to make the decision they want in the end.”
Pro-life issues are close to Highley’s heart. After arriving at Concordia Seminary in 2016 to pursue a Master of Arts in Spiritual Care with the goal of becoming a deaconess in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, she sought out a position that would allow her to serve women and families. She said showing the love and grace of God when counseling women goes beyond discussions about continuing their pregnancies. She also helps to prepare them for the responsibility of supporting and attending to their babies’ needs and well-being. She said this work has opened her eyes to the struggles some women in the St. Louis area have during their pregnancies.
“So many women are homeless or jobless or don’t have the support they need,” Highley said. “Sometimes the mothers’ parents or the fathers of the babies want them to get an abortion. Some just don’t have anyone to support them.”
While her job is mainly to help connect women to the services they need to carry their babies to term, she said God also has given her the opportunity to help women grow in their own faith. One of those women initially planned to abort her baby.
“She was convinced that was the only option for her, but she was struggling internally about it. She knew it wasn’t right,” Highley said. “We talked every day for a week, texting and calling, and I was just there for her as a sounding board. She would specifically ask for me to pray for her, and I would pray for her then and there.” That woman delivered a healthy baby boy in September.
Highley says her work at Coalition for Life proved something to her — that God has worked through her to step out boldly in faith to minister to women who are hurting and alone, no matter their situation. She says that is something she’ll carry with her through the rest of her Seminary studies and when she receives a call as a deaconess.
Kendra Whittle is a communications specialist at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.