This is a challenging time for theological education. Alumni and friends sometimes express concern about what is happening with “their” seminary and theological education in general. Professor David Kelsey of Yale Divinity School was recently interviewed about how theological education is dealing with the changes in society. In response to a question about “the defining goal of theological education today,” he responded:
“[T]heological education ought to be aimed at developing people with a range of special capacities for theological wisdom. [Ed Farley] calls it “theologia” – we should be educating people who have a take on the world that is shaped by an understanding of God. . .. The schools need to focus on helping students to focus on developing a personal core of abilities that enables them to size up the world as they come to know God more truly. . .. [C]lerical skills should also be a by-product of theological education instead of its focal, overarching academic goal.”
For the past several years, I have had the opportunity to be a participant-observer of the internal workings of one seminary--Central Baptist Theological Seminary. I have served as supplemental faculty in ministry praxis, site director, consultant, and (for a season) interim director of Doctor of Ministry Studies. Although we have talked a great deal about and planned for developing skills or competencies for ministry, formation for ministry—acquiring “an understanding of God” -- is still at the core of our work.
What do we mean by “formation”? We can define the term in a number of ways but consider that, from our birth, we are being formed to see the world in a particular way. Through genetics, environment, and free choice, we develop a way or ways to perceive and give meaning to the world in which we live.
Whether we see spiritual conversion as a single event in time or a process, coming into a relationship with God provides the impetus for developing a new way of seeing the world. This ongoing process is the work of Christian formation. Whether one is a lay believer or an ordained minister, as one grows in the faith new ways of seeing the world and God’s interaction with the world emerge within the individual.
From the standpoint of theological education, formation is essential. One may obtain wonderful skills in pastoral care, exegesis of scripture and proclamation, and organizational practice, but if the person does not have a healthy relationship with God and a unique perspective that arises from that relationship, ministry will be at the best shallow and more likely inadequate.
How does this formation take place? In several ways. First, one is immersed in the study of biblical texts, the history of the faith, and the theological systems that have been espoused over the centuries. Although content must be absorbed and understand, the student should take away from this a better understanding of his or her own faith. Second, students are engaged in practice. This may take the form of sermon delivery, hands-on ministry, and spiritual disciplines with the intent to use the knowledge and insight that one has acquired in biblical, historical, and theological studies. Finally, students are involved in relationships with other learners, professors, and often congregants that strengthen, challenge, and enrich their learning.
Formation for Christian ministry does not take place in a vacuum. A student is engaged—mentally, spiritually, and relationally—in the process of becoming. Even so, this is only a way station on the journey of continued growth in understanding and service. For the believer, formation is part of a lifelong relationship with God.