For the last several years, I have found myself interacting with both the theological students and theological educators. Although I am a seminary graduate and have been involved in higher education ministry for a major part of my life, this is not something for which I was been intentionally trained. Even so, I have found myself deeply immersed in theological education and dealing with some of the challenges it must address today.
Much has been written about what is needed to train a new cadre of ministers—both young adults and mid-career people--but I might as well add my own two cents worth. I do this not as an expert in the field but as a minister who loves the church and has been encouraging and equipping its potential leaders for most of my life. It seems that there are four major components that are necessary to form men and women to serve the church today.
First, seminary students need to be guided in spiritual formation. They need to know how to “feed themselves” and relate to their Creator. We once assumed that students came to seminary knowing how to pray, spend time in fellowship with God, and meditate on scripture. We were wrong then, and we certainly cannot expect these skills from students—especially young adults—coming from a postmodern, post-Christendom society. Students need to learn and practice spiritual disciplines that will help them to grow as disciples.
Second, theological formation must still be a primary focus in a seminary student’s education. He or she must be exposed to the best of biblical and theological scholarship in order to mine the riches of the Christian faith. Although we must become more involved in interfaith work if we are to do effective ministry in the 21st century, the Christian student must first understand his or her own tradition before entering into dialogue with proponents of other faiths.
Third, students must understand the contextual nature of ministry. Students need to know the history of the Christian tradition and the shifting paradigms out of which the church has witnessed and served. “We have always done it this way” is neither a correct nor an informed perspective when it comes to the work of the church. Ministry is always contextual, so the well-equipped minister must acquire historical and anthropological skills.
Fourth, contemporary ministers need to have excellent skills in communication. In our 24/7 media world, the only way that the Gospel will get a hearing is by being communicated effectively through spoken word, written word, and the visual arts--both in person and virtually. Effective ministers need to be excellent story-tellers using all of the media at their disposal.
Finally, ministers in training must be involved in formation through praxis—involvement in the work of the local church, judicatories, and service organizations. They need to be doing the work of ministry in partnership with trained mentors and coaches who can help them understand what they are experiencing and build their ministry identities on those experiences.
Seminaries, divinity schools, and other theological institutions are creating, implementing and learning from new models and strategies to prepare students to serve Christ and the church, but these five areas—spiritual formation, theological formation, contextual formation, communication formation and ministry praxis formation—are essential to that process.