Spiritual Formation in Seminary: How Is This to Be Done?

If pastoral scandals publicized in popular media do not convince us, if research informing us that young people avoid church because they think Christian leaders are not behaving like Christ does not convince us, at least we can appreciate the mandate required by the Association of Theological Schools Commission on Accrediting. We must address spiritual formation. The commission declares that “the learning outcomes for the MDiv shall encompass the instructional areas of religious heritage, cultural context, personal and spiritual formation, and capacity for ministerial and public leadership” (Degree Program Standards, A.2.1, italics mine). The Standards are specific. In addition to training students in theological disciplines and pastoral skills, seminary programs are required to “provide opportunities through which the student may grow in personal faith, emotional maturity, moral integrity, and public witness” (A.2.4). We simply must do something about our maturity in the Christian life during our years at seminary – and continuing through the years in our ministries.

But How Is This to Be Done?

Let me be clear right from the start that I support this direction. The modern “theological disciplines and pastoral skills” model of training was insufficient to equip men and women for a lifetime of pastoral ministry. The premoderns knew this. Gregory the Great (AD 540–604) titled the second chapter of his Book of Pastoral Rule “That none should enter on a place of government [the pastoral ministry] who practices not in life what they have learnt by study.” The second full part of this book is devoted to a discussion “Of the Life of the Pastor.” Similarly, Humbert of Romans, Master General of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) from 1254–1263, commits the second part of his Treatise on the Formation of Preachers to “Things a Preacher Needs,” addressing the quality of the preacher’s life, the preacher’s knowledge, “his speech, his merits,” and “his person.” I am with the premoderns on this one. Who we are is perhaps the most valuable gift we have to offer God’s people. Consequently, our full-orbed formation in Christ – encompassing, but not limited to, theological education and development of pastoral skills – ought to be the outcome guiding the process of preparation for ordained ministry. Which brings me back to the question: How is this to be done?

One trend I am beginning to notice is the development of practice-based approaches to theological education. In this approach, theological students are encouraged toward spiritual formation by the assignment of “spiritual practices.” Sometimes seminaries offer entire courses on the “disciplines” or “practices of the faith.” I have taught some of these. Practice-based courses give students exposure to a wide-yet-defined set of means of grace. Having experienced meditative Scripture reading, celebrating liturgical seasons, healing prayer, group spiritual direction, hospitality, or other practices within a classroom environment, a seminarian is more likely to be equipped and motivated both to grow in their faith during their schooling and then to employ some of these practices as vehicles through which the Spirit of God will mature them further in life and ministry after graduation. Sometimes students experience the assigned celebration of discipline as a feast, a smorgasbord of untasted and nutritious delights. All well and good.

And yet often, in the lives of busy students who are trying to manage family, jobs, ministries, and school, a practice assignment is just that – an assignment. The opportunity to engage with the practice of personal, private retreat is experienced as one more required “activity” competing with all the other required activities of life. We may find ourselves approaching practice assignments just like other assignments: “What do I have to do in order to get a certain grade?” We may perform a variety of practices without any sense of how they fit our cultural background, our faith-journey, our personality. We cannot give the practice the investment needed to discover whether it might really work for us. More dangerous still is the atmosphere of “performance” that can accompany a practice-based approach to seminary education. Those of us with lots of curiosity, time, and will-power are able to have positive encounters with a number of practices and regard ourselves as spiritual discipline pharisees (though we would never really admit this). Just what our congregations need from us as ministers after we graduate, right? Others of us hit the wall trying to succeed at fasting or solitude and give the whole strive-for-maturity thing up. As someone with a PhD in Christian spirituality, I am very familiar with these dangers of performance.

So I ask again: How is this to be done? On the one hand, we might simply concede that collecting theological background, pastoral skills and exposure to some spiritual practices is the best we can expect in the context of a few years of seminary education. We may complain that the requirements of our program (especially combined with the demands of life) are simply not set up to permit deep personal integration. We may say, “Good enough for now. Perhaps when I graduate I will be able to devote some time to integrating all this into my life.” My response? Think again. If you don’t find a way to make time for integration during seminary you will probably not be able to make time for it in the midst of your ministry after seminary. What we need, then, is another approach to spiritual formation.

It was precisely to address these kinds of needs that I wrote A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation: How Scripture, Spirit, Community, and Mission Shape Our Souls (Baker Academic, 2018). My aim in this book is to help Christians to help Christians mature in their relationship with Christ and the gospel. I did not use this phrase in the book, but the more I write and talk about this topic, the more I realize that what I am trying to do is to promote something of a relational-wisdom model of Christian spiritual formation. I think that when we approach our formation in Christ out of respect for our relationships and regard for the honest wisdom required to follow Scripture and Spirit in our lives, we become better equipped to take appropriate steps of maturity. In what follows I will offer a few words about wisdom, and then about relationships. I will conclude with some reflections on how a relational-wisdom model of spiritual formation might be employed by seminary students and other maturing Christians.

Attending to Context

How does paying attention to wisdom affect our approach to spiritual formation? First, wisdom acknowledges that people are different. Some people have a hard time with solitude. Some settle into their faith by setting up coffee and taking down chairs. Still others mature through reading challenging books. What this means is that we must pay attention to context. We can’t simply hand out a “formula for formation” and expect believers to mature. Our broad exposure to the means of grace must be accompanied by our awareness of the manifestation of grace given to us through the real circumstances of our varied lives.

The Aims of Spiritual Formation

Second, spiritual formation aims somewhere. Both Scripture and experience confirm that growth in maturity can actually be gained in this life and that we would do well to aim there. We may debate about the possibility of “perfection” or “entire sanctification.” There are no debates about the possibility of improvement. Empirically based research and common sense both suggest that if we set good goals we are more likely to make progress. Wisdom is about seeing our small aims in light of the Big Aim. I like to think of the Big Aim as “all things new” (Rev 21:5). However, as we noticed in the previous paragraph, which of the “all things” is currently important for me (perhaps contemplative silence) may be different than that which may be front and center for you (perhaps missional action). It is all about the appropriate next step. Christian wisdom neither imposes models (even subtly) nor abandons movement (intention toward Christ), but rather views our approach to spiritual practice in light of a discerning desire to “make every effort” in a manner that fits the small aims of one’s real growth in Christ (see 2 Pet 1:5-8).

Playing in God’s Presence

This process of appropriating formation in light of our contexts and aims requires experimentation. The word I use is play. We must learn how to play in the presence of God and within the family of Christ. Christian spiritual formation – particularly in a wisdom-based approach – is not a program to be mastered but a loving relationship with God to be lived. A figure skater must repeat a move time and time again, exploring just how it feels, checking with her coach, knowing that a few falls along the way are not “failures” but rather are the path to greatness. In the same way we explore what it might mean for us to love strangers, to follow God’s will, to pray. We do something (or refrain from doing), we explore how it feels, we check with others, we adjust, all the while knowing that a few falls along the way are not “failures” but rather are the path to greater maturity in Christ.

Agents of Spiritual Formation

And with the mention of “coach,” we are now talking about relationships. How do we discern which practices are really ours, for this time? How do we identify our small aims, our personal mission, our own authentic thirst, in light of the vast comprehensiveness of the gospel of Christ? I think we do this best through relationships. More specifically I like to talk about the agents of our spiritual formation.

The Holy Spirit is the primary agent of our formation. Antony of Egypt, considered by many to be the Father of Christian monasticism, writes regarding the Holy Spirit: “He delivers to them works [also translated “rules”] whereby they may constrain their soul and their body, that both may be purified and enter together into their inheritance” (First Letter). How do we know what our “rule of life” should be: the practices that best promote the journey to realize our inheritance? The Spirit of Christ guides us. This is what it means to live according to the Spirit (see Rom 8:4).

This brings us to the question of how we know where the wind of the Spirit is blowing. I want to suggest that while there is no fool-proof technique for immediately discerning the Spirit’s leading, we recognize it best in the context of ongoing experimentation (read play) and open relationship with a network of loving partners in Christ. When we give a few others permission to have some responsibility for our maturity, we empower them to watch us in love, to notice the work of the Spirit in our lives, and to help guide us in our own appropriate formation and vocation. Wisdom and relationship (both Spirit-ual and interpersonal) join in what I call the ministry of Christian spiritual formation.

Spiritual Formation in Seminary?

So now we are left with the question of how this might work in seminary or elsewhere. With regard to seminary education, it is interesting to remember that some denominations have tried to address these very issues through their structures of ordination and candidacy. In theory, the ideal of being “under care” of a Presbytery or receiving the nurture and guidance of the Board of Ordained Ministry in a United Methodist Conference means to have this kind of ongoing relational guidance with regard to vocation and Christian maturity though one’s process toward ordination. In this context, students process not only theological viewpoints and pastoral skills, but also spiritual practices: personalizing them in the context of a larger community of faith (and perhaps also within the context of a local congregation). Within a context of being “under care” seminarians need not be daunted by practices that may not seem to work. Within the context of their “care” they can discern where to invest more or less energy. The relationship serves as an environment within which theology, pastoral calling, spiritual growth, and more can all be integrated in a way that educational institutions and classroom teachers cannot possibly reproduce.

Nevertheless, the ideal of being under care is quite often just that – an ideal. The reality experienced by the student is different. Academic institutions, perceiving the need, are themselves beginning to take up this ministry. Some schools are repackaging the “advisee groups” within which students talked with their advisors about class offerings and perhaps a prayer request or two. We are now seeing Vocation or Formation Groups being developed where mentors and students can process academic, vocational, and spiritual issues all together, either within the context of a single class or over the course of a student’s entire seminary career. I think there is hope in these structures.

In the end, for those both in and out of seminary, I urge believers themselves to take a measure of responsibility. When the structures are not in place, we must find our own mentors. Sometimes we must piece together a network of friends, counselors, spiritual directors, spouses, and such that together provide the kind of guidance we need to integrate theology, skill development, and spiritual maturity. We play, we let others watch our play, and we talk about it with others. And over time we grow. If we make these kinds of choices, I have great hope that the Christian ministry and the Body of Christ can once again become an attractive fragrance in the world.

Beneath the Plan, beyond the Call: The Practice of Discernment and the Mission of God

Some Christians follow the Plan. We learn that we can lead. We have a desire to help people. So we become pastors and develop five-year plans based on reasonable options and clear procedures. Congregations follow the Plan as well, applying formulas for developing mission statements and flow charts. Following the Plan gives us a sense of accomplishment, but at times it feels a bit shallow. We ask, is there something deeper?

Others of us follow the Call. The event happens. We have a dream, or a passage of Scripture confronts us. The Call happens with power, with certainty. So we apply to seminary whether we are good at leadership or not. Or a congregation pursues a course of outreach whether it has the resources or not. Is this okay? Some of us have seen people blindly respond to the Call with disastrous results. Following the Call does give us a sense of God’s presence but at times we wonder if there might not be a more reasonable course.

Beneath the Plan and beyond the call there is a third way. The Christian tradition calls this third way discernment. Discernment combines elements of call and planning in the context of a sincere pursuit of relationship with God. Discernment is, as E. Liebert writes in The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Westminster John Knox, 2008), “the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness” (8). As a process of becoming aware of God, discernment involves a necessary theological component. As a process of becoming aware, discernment involves ordinary human knowing. As a process of faithful response, discernment involves choice, plan, and action.

Discerning God

Christian discernment means cooperating with a God who is actively present in this world. Discernment is following the Trinity into a mission of restoration: an invitation by the Father into care for the earth and a holy peoplehood, an invitation by the Son into wholehearted love for God and neighbor, an invitation by the Spirit into transformative agency of the reign of God. Discernment lives at the intersection of these theological realities with the concrete circumstances of our own lives. Thus we ask: Where has our relationship with God led us with regard to each of these Trinitarian invitations?

God is especially present to Christians through the Spirit of the living Christ. Consequently, discernment involves learning to listen to the Spirit. The Holy Spirit enlightens our minds, opens our hearts, and shapes our relationships. As we pay attention to our experience, we can recognize conviction, outpouring, leading, prompting, and other movements of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit does call us, but this Call is not always perceived with certainty and is sometimes confirmed only through community and maturity. As we develop a life of attention to the mission and Spirit of God, we grow into a life of harmonious participation in the will of God.

Discerning Awareness

Discernment is a coming to awareness. More specifically, it is an act of knowing the condition of our relationship with God. And as I am sure you know, the nuances of a relationship are not learned so much by accurate procedures as by sensitive people. How do you know the “will” of a loved one? Often through the ordinary give and take of being together. Developing virtues like trust, obedience, listening, humility, and wisdom is actually more important in the long run than trying to reproduce highly recommended “steps” of discernment. This is true not only for individuals, but for congregations as well. If we can foster a communal culture of prayerful trust, obedience, and listening, then when we face the tough questions of discernment with relationships to staff, buildings, and mission, we will be in a better position to find and follow the will of God.

At the same time, coming to know also requires the simple acts of clarifying questions and gathering information. What do we mean when we say we are interested in helping the homeless? Referrals to shelters? Building a small tent city in the vacant lot owned by the congregation? Advocating the repeal of anti-homeless laws in our local city? How much will my seminary cost? What new opportunities will likely flow from a seminary education as opposed to a certification in spiritual direction? These kinds of questions are naturally a part of ordinary knowing and they have a rightful place in Christian discernment.

What we usually find along the discerning way are impressions. Some of them feel more “supernatural”: a dream, an angelic visitation, a powerful sense of leading. Others are perceived as more “natural”: a conversation with a friend, a review of the history of our relationship with God. We examine these impressions to see if they reflect the character and mission of Jesus. Does the tone of this impression remind me of the character of Jesus? Do these impressions move me/us in an authentic way toward restoration?

Discerning Response

Ultimately, as we collect and evaluate these impressions, we make a decision. Following the lead of Ignatius of Loyola’s “Times Suitable for the Making of an Election” in his Spiritual Exercises, I identify in my Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality ([Brazos, 2008], 394-95) three suitable times for decision making:

  1. Blasted: Sometimes the impressions are overwhelmingly clear. Although it is still wise to explore a wide range of wisdom to confirm our impression(s), when we are blasted, we simply recognize the obvious leading of God (though not the guarantee of “success”) and we press on.
  2. Led: Sometimes our impressions do not give absolutely clear guidance but rather simply sufficient reason to take the next step forward. Our community has prayed to the point that we are willing to explore developing temporary shelter for homeless, though we still must identify what that means. I decide that seminary is an appropriate response to the work of God in my life, but now I must explore the specifics.
  3. Ignored: Sometimes we wait and examine but find no clear step forward. It may feel like the Spirit of God is ignoring us. And yet, for one reason or another, we must decide. In times like these, I find it helpful to remember that God trusts us and gives us freedom to use our heart and mind. We plan for God’s glory to the best of our ability. Then we act, confident that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives.

The practice of discernment enables us to transcend the pitfalls of a mere Plan or Call. Discernment engages the whole person or community in an evaluation of our sincere relationship with God. Thus, by paying attention to God, to our knowing, and to our response, we learn to follow the path (or the range) of both God’s mission and our own authentic vocation.

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