Formation in the Seminary Context

Ruth Anne Reese

Students come to seminary from a broad range of experiences with the Christian faith. Many come with experiences of God but little training in theology, church history, or the careful reading of Scripture. Others have had years of training either in faith-based undergraduate institutions or in churches that have taken seriously the importance of discipleship. Many also arrive with deep hurts, doubts, or traumas that impact their relationships with God and with others. Many students often fail to grasp the need for one’s whole life to be submersed in the shaping love of God and as such have sometimes seen spirituality as a secondary activity to the rest of life. These students will spend two–four years in seminary (many online or in hybrid classes) before heading out as pastors, teachers, youth leaders, counselors, and laity. They head into a context where the church itself is riven with sin in many forms. And, they head into a context where many outside the church see the church as hypocritical, judgmental, homophobic, and sheltered (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters [Baker Academic, 2012]). The work of spiritual formation in the seminary context takes places in the midst of these realities.

In light of this, students need a robust formational experience that draws the whole person into God’s love. (But here, let me add, that such experience is not solely for seminary students; rather, all those who work in theological education are in need of ongoing spiritual formation in all facets of life. And, the formation of educators, staff, and administrators is vital to the formation of seminary students – our formation is intertwined.) As Wesleyans, formation means seeking to experience salvation in all its facets – healing, deliverance, renewal – and coming to realize the depths of the resources on which we may rely in the years ahead.

Focusing on the whole person means that as students are introduced to formational habits, they are encouraged to consider how God might be speaking in a variety of contexts, including such life contexts as intellectual, religious/spiritual, physical, emotional/relational, and vocational. While the emphasis on spiritual and intellectual formation is a longstanding aspect of seminary education, our research at Asbury Seminary shows that students sense the need for development in other aspects of their lives as well. Students often need help understanding their whole life in relationship to their commitment to God. (Asbury Seminary has made use of the Spiritual Transformation Inventory for more than ten years. This tool provides individual reports to students that help them identify areas of spiritual strength and areas for growth while also providing aggregate data to the institution that allows us to see trends over the long time.) Learning to attend to bodily needs in relationship to exercise and diet and learning to attend to emotional and relational needs are as much a part of being formed by the love of God as are more traditional spiritual disciplines and attention to the study of Bible, theology, and practical theology.

In the course of seeking to invite students into a rich experience of spiritual formation, integration is important. There are many aspects of integration, and further study and ongoing commitment to integration is needed. We might think about the integration of three environments within the educational experience. First, there is the curricular environment in which students are being introduced to new concepts, learning new skills, and growing in their intellectual capacity. This happens in traditional face-to-face classrooms, online, and in hybrid formats. One of the reasons that attention to spiritual formation in the classroom is so important is that this is the one location where seminaries know they will encounter students. If seminaries desire to shape students spiritually in all aspects of their lives, this work will need to begin robustly in the classroom and in the degree programs offered by the seminary. Indeed, it is in relation to the curricular that the next two environments find purpose and have meaning in seminary education.

Second, there are cocurricular opportunities that are sponsored by the seminary. In my context, these include such things as chapel, prayer, small groups, service projects, and other formational opportunities. These provide opportunities for students to participate in a variety of activities that can support curricular learning goals and expand the traditional classroom. However, unless there is careful consideration on the part of both students and institutions, many students who primarily take classes in online and hybrid formats or who commute to school will miss these cocurricular opportunities. While these opportunities are important and should be offered to enhance student learning and formation, there is no guarantee that all or even most of an institution’s students will participate in them.

Third, there are extracurricular opportunities that are not sponsored by the seminary. These might include serving in local ministries or participating in local churches among other opportunities. These environments are important for all seminary students for their personal growth and vocational advancement. Students who have moved to a residential campus may need encouragement to find a new worshiping community and opportunities for service beyond the seminary. This can be particularly challenging for some who may come to view the seminary as their church. The extra-curricular environment becomes particularly important for online and hybrid students who are not close enough to a geophysical campus to take advantage of cocurricular learning options. Their learning experience is embedded, not in residential campus formational offerings, but in churches and parachurch ministries where they may be well known or even leaders.

Often, there is little thought on the part of either students or professors about the relationship between these different types of experiences (curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular). One of the tasks of holistic spiritual formation in the seminary environment is to think through the various opportunities that are available and suggest ways that the classroom might touch the activities offered by the seminary environment and beyond. This can be as simple as asking those who were present in chapel to describe any connections they observe between their class material and chapel. Or it can be a complex melding of extracurricular opportunities either by requiring some type of engagement that takes the class material into an environment beyond the seminary or that brings the environment beyond the seminary into the classroom. In this way, these environments come to inform each other and thus provide seamless space for potential growth that exceeds what would happen in any one environment alone. (George Kuh’s classic article laid the groundwork for the concept of “seamless learning” in higher education. He described six practices that can enhance student learning and personal development in and out of the classroom. Curricular and cocurricular, as well as away-from-campus experiences, are all seen as formative and part of the “whole person” development [“Guiding Principles for Creating Seamless Learning Environments for Undergraduates,” Journal of College Student Development 37, no. 2 [1996]: 135–48.)

The necessity for integration does not end with the integration of curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular opportunities. Curriculum is another significant area in which integration is needed. Without consideration of formation across the curriculum, students may be left to do the work of integrating the Bible with theology or theology with praxis. Without intentional reflection and even guidance, all of these “pieces of the formational puzzle” may come to be seen as separate and unconnected, rather than as part of an integrated “picture” of Christian living. The temptation will be to choose tidbits that resonate from one source or another without attending to the deeper melding that is necessary so that all of the academic disciplines come to inform the future lives of our students. In addition, there is a need not only for intellectual integration between the disciplines but also for spiritual integration so that the intellect becomes fully immersed in and submitted to the love of God. Most students have not been trained to pray through their course offerings, the material that they read, or the work of integrating that material into their lives. Classes that emphasize spiritual formation within particular disciplines will have to move beyond academic assignments and incorporate opportunities for spiritual reflection and commitment in light of the material that is taught (James C. Wilhoit et al., “Soul Projects: Class-Related Spiritual Practices in Higher Education,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 2, no. 2 [2009]: 153-78). In addition, institutions that seek to value the integration of knowledge, spirituality, vocation, relationships, and their embodiment will need to provide the means for that integration.

Finally, there are a variety of obstacles to the spiritual formation of students. Perhaps we can begin with the recognition that when we engage in spiritual formation, we are joining a spiritual battle. This should not be underestimated, especially as we ultimately realize that the formation of all Christians is completely dependent on the work and mercy of the Holy Spirit. The enemy of our souls seeks to weaken and destroy the followers of Christ. While formation can be sought, the outcome is never guaranteed. However, students will find their own formation more readily accessible in an environment where the staff, faculty, and administration are also actively seeking to grow in ways that reflect the submission of their whole lives to the love of God. A culture that demonstrates growth into fullness of life with God sets the tone for students to also seek such growth in their own lives. This culture needs to be demonstrated in such characteristics and actions on the part of the seminary faculty, staff, and administration as humility, repentance, prayer, spiritual conversation, discernment, and service to the poor, imprisoned, and marginalized. In this way members of the seminary community become models of ongoing formation.

Similarly, it is important to recognize that the seminary environment may be its own barrier to spiritual growth and formation. As students enter into the seminary environment, they may find that treasured ideas that they had about God, the world, redemption, the Bible, and other spiritual matters are challenged rather than confirmed. As they encounter new intellectual knowledge, they may find their spiritual life becoming less fervent and may feel that that they are further away from God then when they came. This descent is not unusual, but students are often unprepared for it. Attention by faculty to the reality of seasons of closeness and distance are an important aspect of helping students navigate this experience. Similarly, it is helpful when faculty are aware that classrooms are not purely intellectual spaces but are also places where students intentionally grow in their capacities for spiritual and emotional connection with God and others.

In addition, students experience stress and pressure from the wide variety of responsibilities that they carry. The need to attend to studies alongside family life, work, ministry, and other commitments may be overwhelming. Many students respond to that stress by putting off needed spiritual disciplines or acts of service. They give up on prayer, devotional reading, spiritual conversations, Sabbath, regular attendance at church, and other sustaining formative practices due to the constraints of time. Often, the thinking is “I’ll do that when I’m done with school.” However, this contributes to future responses to stress that can be marked by giving up the very practices that might strengthen and encourage the person in the midst of stress. In other words, it becomes a destructive way of thinking that can destroy leaders in the future. Professors could help with this sense of stress by assigning spiritual practices that attend to the whole person as part of the course work. While this may run the risk of intellectualizing various spiritual practices, it also signals to students the importance of their spiritual life by making it “count” in the classroom. Students can be given options so that they are not all forced into one mode of spiritual response. (For a rationale for intentional connection between the classroom and spiritual formation, along with examples of types of assignments that might be used, see Wilhoit et al., “Soul Projects.”) Professors should be encouraged to think broadly about how their work and disciplines are broadly formative in the lives of future leaders. Sometimes professors have felt that spiritual formation is “not their thing” and left it to others to pursue. But attention to how our classrooms are forming students in multidimensional ways is an important aspect of the seminary experience.

Theological educators must ask what we are hoping for in the future leaders of the church. Such a vision includes future leaders who are filled with the love of God so that they have become holy – people who are able to lead lives of integrity in the midst of the difficult challenges that face our world, our nation, and our churches. It includes leaders who are able through the work of the Holy Spirit, the community of God’s people, and the formation resources they have gained to resist the many temptations that ministry brings. It includes leaders who are able to seek continual growth in their own spiritual lives so that they become examples to the generations beyond.

To this end, seminaries need to continually seek out best practices related to the spiritual formation of the whole person. Research based information is being produced via such organizations as the Spiritual Transformation Inventory. These tools should be utilized alongside historic forms of spiritual formation such as apprenticeship, works of mercy (especially service to the poor and imprisoned), and works of piety (prayer, Scripture reading, and the seeking of Christian counsel and friendship). Additionally, seminaries that want to build a culture of formation will need to attend to the opportunity costs of such a commitment. In other words, a culture of holistic spiritual formation is not easily built on a foundation that prioritizes other measures of success. If a seminary measures success by the number of books published by its faculty or the number of seats filled rather than by the amount of students who experience significant spiritual growth and formation in the whole of their lives, then it should not be a surprise when students graduate with a degree but struggle to find the transformation truly needed to live the life to which Christ calls them.

Posted Mar 20, 2019